Theoretical Astronomy for Young Children

A galactic thank you to Corey for this guest post on astronomy for children. Corey is an avid outdoorsman who enjoys teaching his sons the joys of nature in Minnesota, including what lies above them in the night sky. Read on and then get out there and enjoy the summer evenings stargazing with your little ones!

Stellar dynamics, galaxy formation, large-scale structure of matter in the Universe, origin of cosmic rays, and general relativity…

There are intro- and basic-level astronomy classes taught in high school and college about this stuff, so why would anyone write a blog post about it for young children? Because it’s amazing!

When he was five years old, my son and I spent 60 minutes bonding one night while watching the peak of the Perseids meteor shower. We counted and pointed out each one that zipped above us across the sky. You don’t need to have much knowledge in astronomy to show your children something cool. In fact, a recent scientific study found a direct correlation linking the exposure of children to astronomy and the likelihood of that child growing up and NOT posting a meme on Facebook showing that Mars will appear as big as the Moon in the night sky.


You certainly don’t need a telescope to enjoy the night sky. I’ll assume you don’t have one and mention some cool things you and your children can see with just the naked eye.

The Sun

All children know this one already. Don’t look at it. Did you know it takes just over 8 minutes for light to travel from the Sun to Earth?

The Moon

Staring at the moon and looking for the “face” or “the dragon” is fun. The dark spots of that face are caused by the “seas” or lowlands on the moon. Look for a few of the craters visible with the naked eye. The easiest to see is probably the Tycho crater.

The moon phase is constantly changing so the moon you see tonight will not be the same as tomorrow. As the moon is “getting bigger” from new moon to full moon it’s in a waxing phase. As it is “getting smaller” from full back to new it is in a waning phase. These phases are caused by the sun light reflecting off the moon as the moon goes around the earth, which takes about one month. Imagine your child bringing up the current moon phase at their next play date!


The Planets

The word “planet” comes from Greek words meaning “wandering stars” as they seemed to be doing their own thing compared to the actual stars. Planets are the race cars in the night sky, all appearing to travel on the same “race track” as the moon and sun. This track is known as the ecliptic and once you know where it is, you’ll always know where to look for planets. In Minnesota (Summer 2016), Jupiter is most likely the first thing you’ll see after the sun sets, around 9:45-10:00pm. Jupiter will be located in the southwest sky. The next easiest planet currently would be Mars, and yes it will appear red (but never larger than just a bright dot). Mars will be in the southeast. Next in the race track but a little less easy to find will be Saturn. Saturn will look more like “just a star” and it will be a bit to the left of Mars. It won’t be as bold and obvious as Jupiter and Mars. Venus, not currently visible in the night sky, is super bright and hard to mistake as just a star.

If you do end up with a telescope, then the planets get much cooler! My children love to look at the rings of Saturn, find the Cassini Division, see the “stripes” of Jupiter as well as its four Galilean moons.

planets stellarium

The Constellations

What’s your favorite constellation? The big dipper? The little dipper? Trick question! Neither of these are constellations, but instead are subsets of the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (the big bear and little bear). There are so many constellations, if your child has a favorite animal that is also a constellation, try and show it to them in the night sky. There’s a swan (Cygnus), eagle (Aquila), dragon (Draco), ram (Aries), fish (Pisces), lizard (Lacerta), bears (Ura Major and Minor), lion (Leo), and many more. And don’t forget the warriors (Hercules and Orion), king (Cepheus) and queen (Cassiopeia).

The easiest to see currently (Summer 2016) overhead would be:

  • Ursa Major – just look for the big dipper
  • Ursa Minor – use the big dipper to find the north star Polaris, which is a part of the handle in the little dipper in Usra Minor
  • Cygnus – it will look like a cross, that cross is a flying swan
  • Hercules – look for a distinct four star box

The Pleiades

This is an open star cluster also known as the “seven sisters” (it’s the Subaru car logo). The Pleiades are only 400 light years away, which is relatively close to Earth. The light from the Pleiades that you see left those stars when the Pilgrims were coming across the Atlantic on the Mayflower. This will start to be visible this Fall and it looks like a big bright fuzzy group of stars gathered together. Look for Orion – his stretched out left arm points right to the Pleiades. Actually, Orion is a really cool constellation to check out too once winter is here. Don’t get me started on the Orion Nebula with a telescope.

The Milky Way

When you’re out in the country camping, away from the light pollution of the city, this is the “milky” stripe across the night sky. It appears as a band because we are inside this disk shaped spiral galaxy looking out. The Milky Way is far far away from the Galaxy where the Millennium Falcon made the infamous Kessel Run.

Meteor showers

The most famous is probably the Perseids which will peak around the nights of Aug 12 and 13, 2016. For this all you really need to do is lie on your back and watch the night sky.

Want some tips?

Smart phone apps have literally made looking at the night sky child’s play. I use Star Chart, which is free, and all you have to do is point your phone to the sky and it will basically tell you what you’re looking at. Want to know what the first bright stars are that you see each night this summer? Point your phone at them and then tell your friends, “Ah cool, Vega and Archturus are already out.”

Get out of the city! Even the rural suburbs have really bad light pollution and limit the amount of things you can see. If you are planning on leaving the city, say for a camping trip, use the free software Stellarium to plan out what to look for that exact night. It’s great. You can plug your future location and the time you’ll be there and – boom – you’ll know exactly what will be visible.

boys telescope

Think you might want to invest in a telescope?

Shopping for telescopes and telescope accessories can be as complicated as buying a new car, except that telescopes can cost much more. The Hubble Space Telescope cost around $2.5 billion. Its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is currently estimated to cost around $9 billion. So, if you’d like to own a “beginner level” one, I’m just going to recommend the 4.5 inch Orion Starblaster for $200.

If you do end up getting a telescope, look up the list of Messier objects to find. Some are much easier than others. Charles Messier was a comet hunter in the late 1700s and he cataloged every “fuzzy” or “burry” object in the night sky that was obviously not “just a star” so that he wouldn’t mistake it as a new comet the next time he was out hunting.

So get outside at night with your children while you still can before the strict school year bedtimes need to be enforced, and hope for clear skies in mid-August when the Perseids arrive. While out there, don’t forget to listen for the owls, bats, and frogs that will be awake watching the stars with you.

Thank you to our guest poster, Corey!

corey marthalerCorey resides in the south metro and is dad to two young boys. He enjoys participating in just about any outside activity having to do with nature, and when that’s not an option, watching Wild Kratts.

What does he love most about being a dad? “The fact that my young children are already questioning most of the nonsense stories I tell them and that they’re learning a great lesson about how not everything you’re taught is necessarily true.”

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  • Melissa
    10/13/2016 at 1:01 am

    Thank you for this informative article. It’s great to read about the learning experiences of other families.
    Thanks for sharing!

  • Nathan
    10/17/2016 at 8:20 am

    Thanks for the useful post. Nice for beginner kids who are new to astronomy and space science.