A dose of nature is good for people and great for kids. David Davis shares how he brings nature to his kids every night, and tips on how you can do the same.
She’s looking out the window, watching thick woods fly by at 60 miles per hour. I can see a pensive look on her face in the rearview mirror. There’s a question that my four-year-old daughter hasn’t quite formulated yet, something about the fireflies, or why the sky turns orange when the Sun’s setting, or why the stars seem to turn on one by one. But, we have somewhere to be, and we’re probably running late, so it seems that there’s no time for a walk in the woods.
Engaging kids in nature is important for their development and can be a lot of fun for families. A number of scientists and educators, like Stanford’s Greg Bratman and David Suzuki have written about the science of how and why nature is good for people. Richard Louv, in his iconic book, Last Child in the Woods, emphasized the benefits of outdoor time for kids’ psychological, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. Time spent outdoors also cultivates curiosity, and prompts a lot of thinking and questions about science, math, and geography.
Alas, for those of us living in cities and suburbs the apparent distance between home and “nature” can make it challenging to find outside time. Throw-in homework, swimming, and kiddie-parkour, and the free time seems already spent. It’s hard to make time for a green hour.
But as the Sun goes down each evening, an astounding wilderness is revealed overhead. From the meteors skimming the nearby edge of our own atmosphere to the Andromeda Galaxy, some 2.5 million light years away, space is nature you can readily access with your kids without having to travel more than a few steps from home.
Fall is a great time to get started with sky-watching. Increasingly long nights and the eventual end of Daylight Savings Time cooperate to deliver dark skies earlier and earlier each evening. Stargazing and bedtime are less likely to conflict. Fall also coincides with the Earth passing through debris trails left by various comets, resulting in some beloved annual meteor showers: the Southern Taurids (peaking around October 10), Orionids (October 21), Northern Taurids (November 12), Leonids (November 17), and Geminids (December 13).
You don’t need a telescope to get started. In fact, I’d advise against getting one for a while. Young kids have a hard time focusing on objects using a telescope, and the time spent setting up and breaking down the scope may significantly exceed the amount of time that young kids can comfortably (and enjoyably) attend to sky-watching.
Some simple equipment can be useful, though, when you’re getting started. Locating objects in the night sky may be a bit easier with a basic magnetic compass. Also, a pair of binoculars can resolve lunar craters or reveal that Venus has phases, much like our Moon. If you already own these, then by all means use them, but there’s no need to dash out to spend on them.
It’s OK if the kids get distracted. Especially the first few times, there may be a lot of general excitement about playing outside after dark. Kids also get very fixated on gear. The invisible force that keeps the compass needle pointing in the same direction may warrant repeated investigation. And why point your binoculars at the Moon, when your brother, the car, my shoes, and this pebble are much better targets? And, there may be a fair amount of talk about Jedi that leads to light-saber battles.
Relax, keep at it, and don’t turn it into a chore. The goal is to minimize all of the barriers that get in the way of young kids engaging with nature. If the kids are having fun, they’ll want to do it again, and eventually, they’ll want to watch the stars. Your ally is preparation; your enemies are time and weather. Here are a few tips to help prepare and to thwart the enemy:
Look at a sky chart beforehand and have a plan for what you’re going to look at: Talk about what you’re going to observe. It’s perfectly appropriate, especially for little ones, for the whole observing experience to consist of a game of finding Venus or a constellation or two, and spending a moment looking at them.
Start with an easy target: If you’re not sure what observe first, try the Moon. It’s easy to spot, and the phase changes are very conspicuous. Consult a chart to make sure you choose an observing time during which the moon will be up.
Choose a sky-watching spot where you can sit or lie down, preferably away from bright lights: Standing and craning your neck will wear you and the kids out quickly, and you’d be surprised by how often kids staring at the Moon will bump into each other and fall down. That might be funny the first time.
Check the weather and bundle up: Make sure you’ll have clear skies. Also, since you’ll be mostly inactive, you’ll want to dress warmer than you would for hiking or playing at the park in similar temperatures. If you plan to observe for more than a few minutes (for instance, if you’re watching an eclipse or meteor shower), consider bringing a tarp or picnic blanket to go on the ground, plus a blanket to cover you.
Minimize flashlight use and let eyes adjust to the dark for 15 minutes: Light sources (other than pure red light) work against your body’s natural ability to see in the dark. If you can safely navigate to your viewing spot without lights, this reduces adjustment time when you arrive. The few minutes dedicated to adjusting can also be good time for kids to get out some energy so that they’re ready to look at stars when it’s time.
Have hot drinks when you get back inside: This not only helps you to warm up after a chilly outing, but creates a natural time for kids to talk about what they saw or ask questions. If your kids are like mine, this should be a surprise. Otherwise, the subtlety of stargazing will have to compete with the promise of hot chocolate.
Have fun: Remember, sky watching is not a chore, but a family activity to be enjoyed together.
As my daughter and I cruise down the highway, she wants to know if the moon is getting bigger or smaller. It’s a question about phases. I remind her that it’s getting bigger when it’s round on the right side, with the cutout part on the left side. I tell her that it’s a quarter of a million miles away, across a vast wilderness of space.
She takes in the view and dreams.