(Some helpful resources are listed at the end and feel free to leave links to your own in comments!)
Fall has made its presence known through crisp mornings, our first frost warning, a house-wide bout of the sniffles and warm comforters coming out of the closet. And for a household that has been newly organized around the rhythm of the sun, it has brought along a more leisurely pace to the bedtime routine.
As the clock says quarter to bedtime, I no longer find myself out with the children herding the ducks and geese back into the hen house for the evening headcount and lock up. Instead, I’m sitting on the porch with children in their pajamas, teeth brushed and looking attentively over my shoulder.
I trace out the three triangles of Sagittarius on the planisphere we printed off the Internet and note how it looks like a tea kettle. With a pen laser, I lead their eyes along the Milky Way, starting overhead and moving down to the southern horizon where it looks like steam rising from the mouth of the kettle. As I mark the three triangles they suddenly see the constellation and make a small leap.
“There it is! I see it! I see it!”
I note that the actual constellation is supposed to represent a centaur with a bow and arrow. This is also where the center of our galaxy lies. Just to the west, the last of Scorpius for the season could be seen just above our barn. These two, for me the most recognizable of the summer constellations, will soon disappear from the sky and give way to the winter constellations.
We find Jupiter, so bright in the eastern sky that it can currently be viewed before the sun even sets. With binoculars, it is supposed to even be possible to see four of its moons this month.
The Big Dipper is out, and the children need no more direction than mom telling them which way to look. I show them the “C” of Leo the Lion’s great head and for a moment my five year old is afraid. She snuggles close to her father as he reassures her that I am talking about star pictures, not real lions.
“This is so much fun!”
I hear my son exclaim as I look at our planisphere for where to look for the “W” of Cassiopeia. Tracing it out with the laser, I think to myself that I really need to look up the mythology behind these constellations. It has been such a long time since I’ve read much about them. So I stand on the porch, telling the children what I still remember from a childhood fascination with the stars and thinking how well this all would tie in with our ancient Greek studies if only I could remember the details.
For a moment, I wonder what we are missing in this scientific age of ours when we see stars as distant balls of fiery gases and use the 88 recognized constellations merely as a road map to find planets, comets, nebulae and other distant objects in the night sky.
Once upon a time, the night sky was a grand canvas upon which story tellers illustrated their oral traditions. Whether Navajo, Australian Aboriginal or the classical Greek we are generally more familiar with today, family groups came together around their evening fires and used the stars to entertain, educate and preserve the lore of their people through the generations such that we may still delight in their stories hundreds and even thousands of years later.
As I watch the glow in my children’s eyes, I understand why. Now I just need to learn some stories to go along with the beautiful illustrations they are already enthralled with.
Remember to print out a plansiphere and take a few minutes to learn how to use it before going outside and you can find many of the most recognizable constellations together. It can then be used as a sort of road map to find other interesting objects.
The Draconids, for example, are expected to peak October 7 or 8. They aren’t expected to be particularly showy, but they peak just after sunset, making it an excellent opportunity to hopefully see at least a couple meteorites with your children without staying up too late.
Amazing Space has a nice, brief video on highlights for each month geared at a younger audience.
Older children (or those already fascinated by astronomy) may enjoy StarDate with it’s daily information about the night sky, including scripts of the radio show and free podcasts.
Stellarium turns your desktop into a planetarium. A very cool tool for homeschoolers!