Children are naturally interested in astronomy, especially the celestial bodies that appear with unfailing regularity. Printable star charts, which are pictorial representations of the night sky, can come in handy while introducing stars and constellations to children. In essence, star charts for kids are like a map, so it helps children identify the stars.
What Do You See on a Printable Star Chart?
A star chart lets you see the whole starry sky at a glance. It allows you to relate positions of constellations with each other and can help you identify common stars and constellations. Depending on the detail, it may also help you see other celestial bodies in the night sky.
Brightness of the Stars
The stars are depicted in the star chart as different-sized dots, their size depending on how bright they appear in the sky, (not how large they are). The size of the dot on a star chart corresponds to the brightness of the star only. A star that is smaller than the others around it may appear brighter in comparison if it is closer to earth. A giant star may be just a tiny dot in the chart if it looks small in the sky due to its greater distance from our planet. Children should be made aware of this fact.
Constellations and Position of Stars
Star charts may show groups of stars as constellations too, marking their outlines with dots representing the stars, and with lines connecting them. However, children should be taught that the constellations are not natural groupings occurring in nature, but rather were identified as groups by ancient astronomers. They gave names to these groups according to the shapes of objects they seemed to resemble. It may take quite a bit of imagination to relate the outlines of the constellations to the shapes they are supposed to represent. When learning about constellations for kids, printables like a star wheel or chart can be helpful.
Tips on Using a Star Chart
While star charts are not difficult to use, there are a few tricks to the trade that will help you and your child identify the most constellations. Using a constellations map for kids such as a star wheel can be a helpful visual tool.
- Use the chart on a clear night where there are no clouds and not a lot of light.
- It is easier to identify constellations if you hold the chart above your head.
- It's best if you can find a constellation in the sky that you are familiar with and then use the map to find nearby constellations. For example, if you see the Big Dipper in the sky, find the Big Dipper on your map, and then find a nearby constellation in your map. Follow the map in your hands in the sky to find your next constellation.
- Make sure you know what direction you are facing.
- Have your kids observe the sky over several months and note how the positions of constellations change. You can do this either by watching the constellations from the same spot every time you go stargazing or looking at a single constellation over several months.
- Star charts are designed to be used with the naked eye. A telescope may come in handy but is not necessary to learn the positions of the constellations.
Printable Star Wheel
To use the printable star wheel, or planisphere, below, you will need Adobe Reader. Click on the chart to view the star wheel, download it and print it. If you run into any problems printing the chart, the Adobe Guide can help. There is both a wheel for the northern and southern hemisphere. Note that the sky is going to be distorted the further away you are from the latitude noted on the chart, however, it should be close enough to follow throughout most of the northern and southern hemispheres, respectively.
Educational Star Chart Activities for Kids
Kids can enjoy countless nights of fun simply staring at the night sky or looking for constellations with their star chart. However, you can also use it as an educational tool at home, for school family nights, at summer camps, and space camps. Kids under age nine will need more help using the chart and with these constellation activities. Kids ages ten and up can use their skills in following directions to figure it out on their own.
Spot the Star Differences
If you look at the different star wheels, you'll see that the same constellation is closer to a different month or date on each one. Kids can spot these differences in an individual activity or as a competition with others.
- Choose one of the North America star wheels and the South America star wheel for each child and set them in front of the child so both are oriented the same way. For example, November is at the top of both circles.
- Kids can write down the differences they see between the two wheels. Perhaps a constellation is closest to March on one and September on another. Do they all have the same names on all star charts?
- Once they spot the differences, kids can then suggest why they might be different.
The star wheel chart tracks the night sky from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. on any given day and kids can track it too.
- Cut a piece of clear plastic, like what you use as a document sleeve, to fit over the wheel that's closest to your location.
- Allow three to four hours for kids to see how the sky changes over time as the Earth is tilting.
- To start, children should look for an easy constellation like the Big Dipper or Little Dipper and plot it on their plastic-coated star wheel. It may be in the exact position noted on the wheel or it may be slightly off.
- Over the next 10 to 15 minutes they should plot as many of the other constellations as they can find.
- After about an hour, kids can re-plot the same constellations they noted before.
- For each hour of observation, kids can write down where these same constellations are positioned.
- Start a discussion about why some positions changed and why one or more stars may have stayed in the exact same spot.
What I See Star Wheel
Kids create their own star wheel using their imagination and the sky above in this creative activity.
- Cut out a blank star wheel on a piece of white paper.
- After the blank star wheel is inserted into the cover, kids should write the date on the wheel and line it up with the time.
- As they stare at the night sky, kids can plot constellations they see with their imagination on the wheel.
- Kids can then trade wheels with a friend and see if they can spot their creative constellations.
Follow the Constellation Path
Most constellations on a star chart contain straight lines. Follow the end line of a constellation then go past it with your eyes to see if you can bump into the next one that extends from that line.
- Set up your star chart then choose one constellation to start with.
- Find the constellation's start and end.
- Choose one end of the constellation and visualize past where it ends, continuing in a straight line, until you run into another constellation with your eyes.
- Use a pencil to connect the constellations on your star chart.
- Continue until you don't run into another constellation.
- Take a look back at the path you traveled across the sky.
Starry Sky Relay
Most kids love a little competition and it's easy to turn star gazing into an educational relay. You can play this game with your family or any size group of kids.
- Separate players into equal teams. Select a few constellations for kids to find and share them.
- The first task for each team is to assemble the star chart.
- When that is complete the player tags the next person on her team. This person has to set the chart correctly.
- The next player then searches for one of the named constellations. When they find it, they hand off the chart to the next player.
- The rest of the players take turns looking for the remaining constellations.
- The first team to complete the entire challenge wins.
What Time Is It Mr. Sky?
Challenge older kids to deduce what time you're thinking of based on clues given about what you see in the night sky.
- Give each child their own star chart.
- Call out a direction, a date, and the location of a specific constellation.
- Kids then use their star chart to tell you what time it is.
Benefits of Star Gazing for Children
It is exciting for children to learn the names of the prominent stars in the sky and to be able to identify them. Once they learn to locate the different constellations, they can compare their relative sizes by measuring the angular distance from earth and learn to identify the cardinal directions as ancient mariners did before the invention of the compass. They can also see how different months get Zodiac signs assigned to them. A couple of great lessons on stargazing can be a lifelong memory that demystifies the night sky and brings kids closer to nature. Stargazing is a wonderful family activity that everyone can enjoy.