We like the moon! Cause it is close to us….
Elle asked me on twitter this afternoon how to encourage a four year old’s interest in the moon. Well, some friends and I have a proposal in to NASA to help teach just that. The product’s not ready yet, but here are some thoughts off the top of my head:
1. Go outside. That’s right. Just go outside after dinner with your child, find a quiet spot, and look up. Talk about what you see. You don’t need to know the names of the constellations yet, or how to find the north star. You don’t need to wait for a meteor shower or anything special. Just go outside and enjoy the night sky with your child.
2. Talk to your child about what you see. As you both get comfortable with the night sky, teach her the phases of the moon (new, crescent, quarter, half, three quarters, waxing, full — and then back down, although waxing “getting larger” becomes waning “getting smaller” on the way back to the new moon, which you can’t see at all). Ask her, “How big is the moon tonight?”
3. When your child is comfortable with the phases of the moon, and about 4 or 5 years old, graph the phases of the moon and chart the changes. For little kids, when you come back inside each night, ask him to draw the moon on that day’s space on a calendar. After a couple weeks, you (and he!) will be able to see how the moon changes over time.
4. A moon will change through all the phases and return to the phase you saw the first night in about a month. Figure out why that is so, and then talk about whether you think it’s a coincidence that each month is about one lunar cycle. (Extra credit: Read stories about what ancient peoples thought about the moon to your child. Ask your children’s librarian or visit SkyTellers, at the Lunar and Planetary Institute for books and additional activities.)
For a hands-on activity, set up a demonstration of why we see different phases of the moon. Start with a flashlight, an apple or an orange, and a grape. The orange is the Earth. Set it on the table, or let your child hold it. The flashlight represents the light of the Sun, shining on the Earth. Set it on the table, shining on the orange. Now take a grape and move it around in a nearly flat circle around the orange, just as the Moon orbits the Earth. (Hang tight, we’re almost there.) Have your child stand next to the orange, and look at the light shining on the grape, from the perspective of the orange. What does she see?
Notes for the parent:
- When the grape is between the flashlight and the orange, no light shines on the surface of the grape that the orange can see. This is called a “new moon.”
- As the grape starts in its circle around the orange, the orange can gradually see light shining on the edge of the grape closest to the flashlight. This is called a “crescent moon.”
- At 1/4 of the way around the circle, half of the grape is illuminated, from the orange’s perspective. This is a “half moon.”
- As the grape moves toward the halfway point, it is more and more lit up. We call this process “waxing.”
- Halfway around the circle, the side of the grape facing the orange is fully illuminated by the flashlight (if you don’t see the light shining on the grape, you may have to hold the grape off the table a little more, to avoid an eclipse!). This is a “whole moon.”
- As the grape moves onward from the halfway point, the side facing the orange is less and less lit up. We call this “waning.”
- At 3/4 of the way around the circle, half of the grape is illuminated, from the orange’s perspective. This is a “half moon.”
- As the grape continues in its circle around the orange, the orange can gradually see light shining on the edge of the grape closest to the flashlight. This is called a “crescent moon.”
- As the grape concludes its orbit around the orange, the orange can see no light shining on the grape, as the grape is between the orange and the flashlight. See if your child can figure out/remember that this is once again called a “new moon.”
Does that make sense? If your child is of an age/temperament where holding still is an option, try the demo again with your child as the center of the system (in the Earth’s place) and see if he can see the phases of the moon on the grape (or a small ball) even better — and maybe name the phases himself!
Enjoy the night sky with your child. The moon is just one of the many wonders of our solar system, but it’s one that is accessible to all, and as close as the end of your driveway.