Starlight, star bright: Astronomy simple, inexpensive hobby to share with kids

Rex Powell, bottom left, and Michael Heschmeyer, 11, center, both of Lawrence, try to get a bearing on Saturn with a telescope June 25 during an Astronomy Associates of Lawrence public viewing at South Park, 1200 Mass.

Astronomy Associates of Lawrence members search for planets during a gathering at South Park, 1200 Mass.

Six-year-old Sammi Dunham takes a closer look at Saturn during an Astronomy Associates of Lawrence public viewing June 25 at South Park.

A hot night, a breeze, a clear, starry sky and a telescope – ingredients for a fun summer memory for the folks at the Astronomy Associates of Lawrence.

On Wednesday, weather permitting, the group will host its third and final Astronomy in the Park event this summer. The free event takes place after the Lawrence City Band concert on the west side of South Park. Between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m., kids and adults alike can get a good look at the stars through various telescopes.

For families whose children have a thirst for the stars, there are a number of ways to introduce or enhance learning about the solar system and the universe any day of the year, says Barbara J. Anthony-Twarog, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Kansas University and a member of the group.

Anthony-Twarog also says it doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive to cultivate a child’s interest in the starry night. It certainly wasn’t expensive for her parents to get her hobby going, and now she’s made a career out of it.

“I don’t remember not being interested in astronomy, and I did have a small telescope when I was in my teens,” she says. “I don’t think my parents knew much about the hobby but they encouraged any science interests – just let me do my own thing.”

First things first: Anthony-Twarog doesn’t recommend buying a telescope right away. A good one can costs hundreds of dollars and might just become an expensive clothes hanger if a child becomes uninterested later on. But there are some cheap and easy tools that are much better for introducing children to astronomy, Anthony-Twarog says – starting with multi-use binoculars.

“I recommend binoculars (because they are) cheaper and usable for other things. Plus they are intuitive to use – point at what you want to see and magnify,” Anthony-Twarog says. “Depending on the mount, a telescope may be anything but intuitive to use, might require some setup and assembly and some training or practice to use. It’s true, though, that good binoculars are made even better by a good tripod mount for them, to make them more stable.”

Rachel Ybarra, sales associate at The Toy Store, 936 Mass., also recommends binoculars for their cool price.

“We have several sets of binoculars that start around $6 and they work fine for kids learning to use them,” Ybarra says. “We have one telescope. That one actually is relatively complicated, probably at 10 years old they would kind of learn how to use it with parent supervision.”

Outside of gazing at the sky, Anthony-Twarog says parents can find two good tools for under $20 each: A good book and a planisphere – a circular map to the stars that can be adjusted by the hour and time of year.

“A book with charts for different times/seasons or a reasonably good planisphere is quite helpful,” Anthony-Twarog says. “Then, if the parent is willing to explore with the child, the value is increased many times.”

Ybarra says those items would be great for the kids she normally sees in the store asking specifically for astronomy gear.

“Seems like the kids who really start to get interested in that are a little bit older, 7- to 8-year-old range. It seems like we have a pretty good split of boys and girls,” Ybarra says, recommending a night light that displays constellations on the ceiling for younger children. “I think at 6, 7, 8, is when they really start to understand it, younger than that and the night light is really cool, but I don’t think they really put it all together.”

But when they do put it together, and begin to understand, there can be a lot of fun and learning to be had, says Anthony-Twarog.

“It’s … fun to have a planisphere and a flashlight on a nice night,” she says. “What a great summer vacation memory.”