The Night Sky and Your Child’s Imagination

Five Things You Need to Know about Stargazing

A dear friend taught me years ago that when you travel with young children it is aptly called a work trip, not a vacation. That wordsmithing alleviated a lot of the pressure I felt to come back relaxed and revitalized any time we left town. But looking back on this summer – perhaps it was the combination of my kids getting older, or us parents setting more reasonable expectations – I’m thrilled to report we had an incredible family vacation and created memories of a lifetime! We spent almost three weeks in Hawaii, splitting our time between the Big Island and Maui.  One of the most remarkable (and unusual) highlights of our trip didn’t take place on a white sandy beach or a snorkeling boat tour. Instead, it was on top of Mt. Mauna Kea (13,803 ft), a dormant volcano on the Big Island, stargazing with our family!

Mauna Kea is one of the few places on Earth where you can drive from sea level to almost 14,000 feet in about 2 hours. We packed up our dinners (bought earlier in Hilo) and all of the warm clothes we could find, and hiked up to almost 10,000 feet to get a clear viewing spot for the setting sun. As the sun slowly melted away over the edge of the Hawaiian Islands, the stars and planets in the night sky started to come to life, one…by…one.

Is that a planet or a star?

Is there gravity in outer space?

Why does that star look red?

How long does it take to get to space?

What planets have people traveled to?

Why are our footprints still on the moon?

Look! A shooting star! Look! ANOTHER shooting star!!”

The questions from our kids, age 4 and 7, started coming at us faster than we could answer. Fact is, you don’t have to travel to Hawaii to have inspirational night sky moments with your family. With August’s Perseid meteor showers in full swing, a quick way to stargaze and unlock a portal into your child’s imagination is to simply step outside. By literally walking out your front door, you can provide your kids instant access to an expansive and endless imagination land. And with summer coming to its end, get ready for clear fall skies, more meteor showers and heightened visibility of constellations and planets that offer many opportunities for discovery and quality family time. So, here are five fun facts about stargazing brought to you by The Hopper’s community of inquisitive children and parents:

  1. First, stargazing doesn’t require a reservation, a ticket, any sort of plan or money. There are no lines and you’ll never get turned away at the door. Sound dreamy?! It is!!
  2. The number of stars you’ll see is directly related to the amount of light pollution in your area. If you can drive away from light pollution (away from town) you will likely see more stars (cloud dependent), but leaving town is not required.
  3. If staying home is best for your family, simply wait for a clear night when the moon is at or near new phase (next new moon is September 9th). And of course, there is most certainly “an app for that”. Here is a list of 15 recommended stargazing apps, including some free apps that have augmented reality!
  4. Want to get out in Boulder? Explore the free, weekly stargazing events at CU Boulder’s Sommers-Bausch Observatory.
  5. And finally, here is a list of best places to stargaze in Colorado.

Discovering the night sky with your family is an easily overlooked activity for parents and their kid(s). But it will certainly spark conversations beyond the typical dinner table chatter. My only advice before you go through that door, is to prepare yourself to launch into a land with more questions than answers, and embrace the beauty of experiencing your child’s wandering mind.   


 Jennifer Whitaker

Jennifer Whitaker

Jen is The Hopper's Volunteer Coordinator & loves to explore the world with her family.

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