In my experience as a homeschool dad (and as a parent), most kids don’t relish going back to school in the fall. This is why we try to kick off the school year with special learning opportunities every year—as a friendly reminder to our kids that learning is actually fun.
Astronomy is one of those subjects that carries a natural appeal for kids, so before the colder months approach, take advantage of what the sky above is doing. The end of August and beginning of September offers some great opportunities to excite kids about astronomy.
End-of-Summer Star Party!
End the summer right with a campout in the backyard or a nearby campground. Better yet, make it educational and call it a “Star Party”—learning about different constellations in the sky.
Now, if you’re like a lot of people, when you stare up into the sky on a dark night, all you see are random dots of light. But we can fix that with a little sky tutorial.
Even though fall months are swiftly approaching, you can still see the so-called “summer constellations” in the early and late evening.
So, make a night of it and end the summer with a bang: get out the reclining lawn chairs, roast some smores (just make sure the fire doesn’t kill your night vision), and enjoy an evening under the stars.
Learn About the Equinox
The Earth’s axis is tilted generally the same direction space all the time (in respect to its path around the sun). This means as the Earth zooms around the sun, sometimes your hemisphere is tilted toward the sun (summertime) and sometimes tilted away from the sun (wintertime).
But in the Northern Hemisphere, around September 22 is the time of the fall equinox: the day of the year when neither the northern or southern hemisphere is tilted towards the sun. It’s the day in between, when the sun crosses the celestial equator, the imaginary line in the sky directly above the Earth’s equator.
It’s also the day many believe we get an equal amount of daylight and nighttime—this isn’t entirely accurate, but it’s pretty close.
Take some time to learn about the equinox by reading some great books with your kids or assigning some extra independent reading. Books like The Reasons for the Seasons (by Gail Gibbons), We Gather Together (by Wendy Pfeffer), and The Autumn Equinox (by Ellen Jackson) offer very clear explanations.
Celebrate the Harvest Moon
All the full moons throughout the year have nicknames, but perhaps the best-known nickname is “Harvest Moon.” This is the full moon that rises closest to the Fall Equinox. This means the Harvest Moon can rise any time between September 7 and October 8.
What makes the Harvest Moon special? On average throughout the year, the moon rises about 50 minutes later each night as it goes through its phases, but because the angle of the moon’s path (compared to the horizon) is narrower in September, this means the moon rises only 30-35 minutes later, and in Canada and much of Europe, only 10 or 20 minutes later than the previous night.
Why does that matter? Well, before the days of headlamps on tractors, the Harvest Moon was a welcome gift to farmers bringing in the fall harvest (hence the nickname). It means for several days during and after the Harvest Moon, the twilight of evening and the light of the moon ran into each other, allowing for several evenings of much-needed light to bring in the crops.
Teach your kids about moon phases, the Harvest Moon, and why the moon sometimes has that weird orange glow in the evening using this free STEM activity from Teachers Pay Teachers.
Build a Backyard Compass
With all the weather becoming milder, this is a great time to get outside and teach your kids the cardinal directions: north, south, east, and west. You can even build your very own backyard compass on the ground.
Find the Swift Messenger, Mercury
Since ancient times, people have known about the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn because they are clearly visible in the night sky—but Mercury is by far the hardest to find. This is because Mercury is so much closer to the sun than the other planets, so it is often lost in the sun’s glare.
The best time to see Mercury is when it is at greatest “elongation”—the greatest apparent distance from the sun in our sky. On average, this happens every 45 days or so. When Mercury is at greatest western elongation, it rises in the east before the sun rises. When the sun is at greatest eastern elongation, it sets in the west after the sun sets.
Visit the Mercury Chaser’s Calculator to see when the next elongation is, then plan an evening or morning to go outside and see if you can find Mercury. If you need help, download a sky-viewing app to your smartphone to help you locate it. (Some free ones include SkyView Free, Night Sky, SkySafari, Sky Map, Star Walk, SkEye, and Planets).
Learn more about Mercury in Elaine Landau’s excellent book Mercury in the True Books series.