Learning to recognise the constellations in the night sky is a wonderful skill that lasts a lifetime. The good news is, that with February is the perfect month to start with Dark Skies events happening up and down the country, so why not make the most of the remaining dark evenings and try stargazing with your children.
Here’s four reasons why you should teach your kids to stargaze, some helpful tips on how to get going and a round up of events around the UK…
Why stargazing is a great outdoor activity with kids
(1) The stars are always there, even when you can’t be
One of the most wonderful thing about the stars is that they are always there and anchor you through time and place. I was about eight-years-old when I learned to recognise Ursa Major (also known as The Plough) and I marveled at the fact it was always overhead whether I was at home, or many miles away on holiday in Europe. If you teach your children the names of the stars they will always have something of home (and of you) with them wherever they are in the world, even when they are far too grown up to admit to missing you!
(2) The night sky connects us with history and storytelling
Most constellations get their names from Greek mythology, so behind each name is usually a fascinating story with a good moral to it. These are the stories that have been passed down through generations and are constantly retold and referenced in our culture today. Hercules is right up there above us as the fifth largest of the modern constellation, but as most of us know it’s a Disney film too! Many of the characters in Harry Potter are also stars, Bellatrix, Sirius and Draco to name three.
(3) The stars could help you one day when you are lost
Celestial navigation is an ancient skill that is still being taught today and used by sailors and explorers. In our age of reliance on GPS it’s an unusual and potentially life-saving skill. You can find out more about navigating by the stars from The Natural Navigator.
(2) Stargazing can inspire children to look to the future
One of the most fascinating things to spot in the night sky is not actually millions of years old, it’s rather more modern. The International Space station is the third brightest object in the sky and a visible reminder of mankind’s scientific achievements. Over the last two decades, technology used on the space station has given us laser eye surgery, robotic arms for surgery and mold prevention advances.
(3) Look to the skies for lifelong mindfulness and relaxation
Being outdoors in the dark offers a form of calming sensory deprivation. You’ll find you’ll naturally speak quieter in the dark and as you sit, your heart rate will slow. Stargazing can also provide a wonderful opportunity to connect with your children away from the distractions of the home and to have meaningful conversations between spotting the stars. These moments of calm and mindfulness teach skills that last a lifetime.
How to get started stargazing with kids
You don’t need any complicated equipment to try stargazing, but a little bit of preparation can start you off in the right direction
- Pick a clear night not to close to the full moon for maximum chance of seeing stars (the February full moon was last Sunday.) Weather experts Accuweather say “The light from the moon washes out all other lights in the sky, so try stargazing when it is in a crescent or gibbous phase or a new moon.”
- Dress warm and take snacks, cold hungry children can get very grumpy. A thermos of hot chocolate is always an easy win!
- Download an app. There are loads of great free apps that use your phone’s GPS to automatically position you so you can put names to the stars you see in front of you. Starwalk and Google Sky Map are both highly rated.
- If you want to ditch the phones and avoid distractions take a torch and a planisphere instead. A planisphere is a cardboard dial which you rotate to the time and date to give you a picture of what’s in the sky
- Don’t forget to sign up for email alerts to tell you when the international space station is passing overhead via Spot The Station
- Not all outdoor locations are created equal for star spotting. Find the best place to see the stars local to you via Dark Skies Discovery or join in with the Dark Sky festivals happening across the UK (see below)
Where to find a stargazing event local to you
Spring and autumn are traditionally the best time to spot the stars. Many National Parks and open air locations are holding events this month, with a few in the autumn.
- The North York Moors Dark Skies Festival (February 14th to March 1st 2020)
- The South Downs Dark Sky Festival (till 23rd February)
- Exmoor Dark Skies (16-31 October 2020)
- Dark Skies Week at National Trust: Birling Gap And The Seven Sisters, Eastbourne (15th/16th February 2020)
- Norfolk Coast Dark Skies Festival (18th September – 4th October)
Lots more nationwide stargazing events here