Planetary telescopes for preschoolers: how to

March 29, 2011

Construction paper, tape, hole punch, pin, stickers or crayonsThis is a fun craft/activity to help little kids learn about planets and the stars.  There are many ways to make a planetary telescope; this is one simple way that’s easy for busy parents to help their kids make their very own telescope and learn about the solar system.

What you’ll make: (nonworking) telescopes that your kids can use to view the planets, stars, and, well, just about anything else.

What you’ll need: Construction paper or cardstock, tape, hole punch, straight or safety pin, and pictures of the solar system or constellations. 

Prep time: 5 minutes, for downloading pictures of the solar system from this NASA web site, or for finding your own pictures in a book, magazine, or newspaper.  Set aside a piece of dark construction paper (blue and green work best) and cut a 4″ square of black construction paper for each child. pinholes in black paper make stars Take the pin and poke holes in the black square.  Punch a single hole in the paper if you have a hole punch handy.  If you’re feeling really brave, punch the pinholes in the design of one of the constellations… but this totally isn’t necessary (I didn’t think of it — thanks to Kim in NY for the idea!).

The words you use and the way you implement the activity is up to you, of course.  The idea is to use the rolled up construction paper to look at the planets, and then tape the black paper with pinholes to the end and look out the window or near a bright light to see the “stars.”  In the rest of this post,  I’ll share with you a bit of how it went when Widget (age 6) and I did this project with Little Bear (age 4)’s preschool class, just because it was such fun and I want to remember.  I’ll spare you the pauses, interruptions, and little kid stories, but just know that there were dozens and it was awesome.

Me: Have you ever been outside late at night and seen the stars? (Most of them had, and they wanted to tell me all about it!  After a bit, I continued.)  They’re beautiful, aren’t they?  Did you know that for a very long time, that’s the best that anyone could see the stars?  But people have always wondered about the night sky, and they wanted to be able to see the stars and planets better.  Once upon a time, a very long time ago, a man named Galileo made a new tool so he could see the stars better.  He called it a telescope. (At this, I rolled a piece of paper into a cylinder, lengthwise, and sealed it with a piece of tape.  A staple at each end works better but may be sharp.) 

This is a tool that scientists use to see the stars and planets better.  Would you like one to use today? (Widget handed a cylinder to each child as I talked.)  A real telescope has mirrors and lenses (touch eyeglasses to show what a lens is), but this one will work fine for today.  Is everybody ready to use their telescopes to see the stars? (chorus of yes)

Does anyone know what our closest star is?

The sun!  That’s right, the sun that you see in the sky every day is actually a star, and while it looks warm and friendly to us, when the mommies and daddies who work at NASA made a big enough telescope, they found out that it really looks like this: (show them the real picture of the sun; for very young kids, fold the picture back so that only the largest image shows).  What does that look like to you?  Do you think it’s cold there, or hot?  That’s right, it’s very hot!  It’s so hot that it warms the planets in our solar system.  Would you like to see some planets now?

Mercury is the planet closest to the sun (show them the picture of Mercury).  It is very, very hot on the side closest to the sun, but it has a secret — it turns around (rotates) very, very slowly, so one side is almost always hot — and the other is very, very cold!  On Mercury, it takes almost a year for the planet to turn enough so that it goes from day to night and night to day again, so one side is really hot, and the other side is really cold.  Does that sound like a fun place to live?  (Kids say no.)  Let’s get a better look, through our telescopes!  (Widget shows the picture to the kids, moving it slowly so that each can get a really good look in turn.)

Venus is the next planet.  (Show picture, kids look at it through telescopes while we talk.)  It’s still pretty close to the sun.  Do you think Venus is hot or cold?  (hot)  Venus is hot, and it is not a great place to live. 

Let’s see.  What colors are on this next planet?  (Show the picture of Earth; it is blue, green, and white).  That’s right.  Does anyone know what this planet is?  That’s right, Earth!  What do you think the blue is? (water) What do you think the green is? (grass, trees, or land) And what do you think these white swirly things are that are way up above the water and the land?  That’s right, clouds!  Isn’t this planet beautiful?  Let’s pretend we’re out in space and we can see it with our telescopes.  Ready, set, go! (Show picture as kids look at it through the telescopes.)

And so on and so forth.  After Mars (red, hot, dusty, with occasional dust devils; feel free to compare the red color to the look of a rusty nail if your kids have ever seen one – it’s actually very much the same kind of thing), stop at the asteroid belt and ask them what an asteroid looks like.  They might be disappointed – and that’s ok – it does really just look like a rock.  That’s because it IS a rock. 

Then the gas giants – Jupiter, with its swirly storms; Saturn, with its beautiful rings; Uranus and Neptune, which I admit I did together because we don’t know a lot about them yet and the kids were getting fidgety; and icy Pluto, which used to be a planet but now has its own special name: dwarf planet, and it hangs out at the edge of the solar system with lots of other dwarf planets that mommies and daddies have found with great big telescopes … and some that haven’t even yet been discovered. 

Encouraging the kids to look at each picture through their very own telescope helped keep even the 3 year olds engaged for this 30 minute activity, and I was very happy with the way this activity came out.  It was a fun way to introduce these little ones to the solar system where we live, and I left the black squares with pinholes with the teacher for a craft later in the morning — just tape the squares to the end of the planetary telescope and hold it up to a window or in a well-lit room so that they can see the stars, even if they’re not allowed to stay up late very often to see the real ones.  I loved doing this activity with my kids and the kids at preschool, and I hope this helps you do this activity or another one with your kids too!

More kids solar system activities can be found at NASA Kids.


Death of a star

December 2, 2009

mysteryimageWhat do you see in this image?  Last weekend, readers of this blog theorized about the image to the left, and came up with some beautiful ideas.  An intergalactic butterfly, a space angel, two black holes meeting, looking through the tail of a comet, cosmic mitosis, a speeding galaxy, two stars kissing, star fish kissing, space fish kissing, and a space hourglass were just some of the ideas that also included nebulae, explosions, and (more than once) a mammogram (oh, context is everything, isn’t it, my friends?).

I was overcome by the beauty in your ideas, and the freshness with which you saw this image, which is at once so powerful and yet now almost commonplace in the wealth of detail-rich images that we now routinely get from the Hubble Space Telescope.  Such intricate images are now released regularly … so regularly that they rarely even make the paper.

But really … isn’t it beautiful?

It looks so fragile, so sweet, so … lovely.  You could hang it on your wall. I wonder if it would shock you to hear that this lovely filagree is actually a tremendous explosion of gases from a dying star 3,800 light-years away.  The star, once about five times as big as our Sun, has grown and expanded to many times its size, just as all stars its size and temperature do, until it is as wide as a thousand Suns, all lined up as if they were waiting in line for a once-in-a-lifetime event.  And in fact it is.  The picture you see above is a snapshot of a moment in time during the very death of the star at the center.

The cosmic hourglass you see there is not sheer, but in fact “roiling cauldrons of gas heated to more than 36,000 degrees Fahrenheit….tearing across space at more than 600,000 miles an hour—fast enough to travel from Earth to the Moon in 24 minutes!”  The gases are cast off in layers, taking shapes that tell us about the conditions under which they were shed, and these cast-off gases have begun to glow, basking in the stream of ultraviolet radiation in which the dying star bathes its surroundings, giving them the ultimate in sunburn, next to which our reddened skin would pale.

We can learn a lot from this picture.  The Hubble scientists tell us:

The WFC3 image reveals a complex history of ejections from the star. The star first evolved into a huge red-giant star, with a diameter of about 1,000 times that of our Sun. It then lost its extended outer layers. Some of this gas was cast off from its equator at a relatively slow speed, perhaps as low as 20,000 miles an hour, creating the doughnut-shaped ring. Other gas was ejected perpendicular to the ring at higher speeds, producing the elongated “wings” of the butterfly-shaped structure. Later, as the central star heated up, a much faster stellar wind, a stream of charged particles traveling at more than 2 million miles an hour, plowed through the existing wing-shaped structure, further modifying its shape.

All that, my friends, and much more, from a picture.  An image.  A snapshot that three guys — let’s call them Keith, Howard, and Bruce — took one day with our planet’s most amazing camera, a camera that can see into the far depths of outer space.

Quick poll

November 27, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!  I have a quick question for you guys, lurkers and commenters alike.  Could you please leave me a comment and tell me what this is?  I’d really appreciate y’all even clicking through from Facebook or your reader to do this — I need a cross-section of folks telling me what they think this might be.

mysteryimageIt should only take a second — I just want a word or two, not a dissertation.

I’ll tell you why on Monday.  And thanks.  To all of you, for all that you’ve given to me over the years.  It’s been wonderful, and I give thanks for you every day.

I will always remember these moments

June 9, 2009

Last week, while the thunderstorms raged and the lightning flashed, my oldest boy couldn’t sleep.   He was petrified, his little hands over his ears and body totally still, wishing the thunder away from our house.  Both boys whimpered a little, tossing and turning, but when Bear went back to sleep, Widget remained vigilent and worried, terrified of the mayhem that was going on outside.

I stayed to comfort them, of course, and began to talk our way through it.

I started by explaining what we saw.  I told him a story, in bedtime fashion, about what causes thunder (lightning), what causes lightning (charged particles bumping too close together), and what charges up the particles (hang in for one more minute here).  We talked about how everything in the world is made up of these little bits (particles) and how the particles could have a charge, like a shock, and when so many of them got together and were moving around really really fast they build up energy just like when brothers run around really really fast down the hall like fire trucks (or a city bus, apparently, if you ask Bear these days).  And then one of them runs a little too hard, and they bump together, and bam! the energy has to go somewhere, so it falls down to earth like lightning.

The talking calmed him down, but the light and noise were still raging outside his window, showing no signs of abating.  A visit from Daddy brought more stories of how lightning happens (static electricity on a slide, anyone? he is awesome, I know), but it wasn’t quite enough either.  So the three of us turned it into a game.  After a particularly bright flash, I marveled at its brightness.  Then, Daddy did.  To be silly, after another, I clapped my hands and said a very quiet, “Bravo!”  Soon, a little voice was joining me, and little hands clapped above the covers after each flash.  We watched the next stage of the lightning storm as if it were a beautiful light show, oohing and aahing and celebrating the beauty instead of fearing the consequences.

And then, just before he fell asleep, Widget turned to Mama and said, in his sleepy little four year old voice, “I will always remember these moments.”

Hmmmm.  I may have said that around the house, once or twice.  You see, since my diagnosis on June 16, 2007, I’ve taken extra note of each magical moment, written it down when I could, or just shared it with my loved ones with a smile.  I know that no matter what comes my way, I am sure that I have lived.

So if I whisper to the boys late at night that I love them, and that I will always love them, or if I hug them a little too tight, or if I am a tad too willing to choose fun over laundry, there’s a reason behind it all.  I want these boys to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, two things: 1. Mama loves her boys more than anything in the world, and 2. Mama lived each day, with kindness and with no regrets.

There’s more that I want to do, sure, but that’s enough.

I will always remember these moments.