Classic Stories and Celestial Objects: Curious About Constellations
Children can go through phases where they are obsessed with something. Those were some of my favorite times parenting when that passion pulled us all in and along for the ride. During one of those periods, a daughter was infatuated with Greek myths. We read and reread the compilations of the myths, she drew and painted pictures, and for Halloween, we made costumes representing various goddesses or demi-gods.
Despite playing a role in these activities, I am embarrassed that I have trouble today keeping track of the various gods, goddesses and mortal descendants of those gods in the Greek and Roman myths.
I am reminded of this gap in my knowledge base when talking about constellations. But perhaps you can do a better job of introducing your child to these literary and cultural symbols, and the patterns in the stars they are associated with. I encourage you and your child to spend some time looking up into the night sky as a means of combining great lessons in literature with learning about celestial objects.
Perhaps you want to establish what your child knows about stars and planets. When looking into the night sky, ask “What are you seeing?”
Hopefully, the following questions will follow:
Can you see patterns of stars? What do they look like to you?
What are constellations?
Who named those constellations?
What are stars?
What is the difference between a star and a planet?
If you live in a city or an area with considerable light pollution, you may have to make special arrangements to observe the night sky or wait for a vacation to somewhere with clear skies. See below for suggestions for books and other materials you can investigate in the meantime.
When you have an opportunity, take a blanket outside, lie on your backs and look at the night sky. If you can start at dusk, it can be exciting to see the first stars begin to show themselves in the fading light. At first, just look and enjoy. What are the brightest objects in the sky? Are their clusters of stars? Can your child see patterns or shapes? What does your child see in those shapes, or the shapes represent what to him?
A telescope is not necessary, but if you have one or a pair of binoculars, these can bring those stars a little closer.
A constellation is a group of stars in a recognizable pattern.
If you gaze at the night sky regularly, invite your child to consider keeping a diary record of what he has seen. He is not recording every star, pattern or recognizable constellation, just the favorites or new discoveries. This can all be accomplished in 5 minutes or less….Bite-sized astronomy lessons.
Once patterns of stars are identified, the next step is to see if they are part of existing or traditional constellations. Perhaps you know these and can share the names.
Begin with constellations that are easy to recognize, such as the Big Dipper.
If you are like me you may need additional help in identifying those patterns. Despite seeing them over the years and learning and then forgetting the names, I am grateful for some guidance.
One route is to purchase, find in a book or on-line a good star map identifying the various constellations. Have your child study the map looking for familiar patterns or alternatively, identifying those constellations she would like to look for. To imprint a single or a couple of those constellations in memory, consider inviting her to draw a version to take when you go star gazing.
If she is having trouble deciding which constellation to look for, ask what her Zodiac sign is and look for something familiar.
Here is Saggitarius.
But there is a better way! There is an app I have on my phone that I don’t know how I lived without before discovering it. It is called Star Map 3D and its free!! It is not just a star map, but interactive. That is, as you move your phone, the map moves. If I see a star or constellation I wish to identify, I simply hold my phone in front of my face as I look out at those objects in the night sky I am curious about. The app labels the individual stars and the constellation. It is a very handy way to resolve the recurring question – “Is that bright object I see a star or a planet?” You can also choose to select to view classic or Chinese constellations or have the labels come up in Latin.
I have been using this app, holding my phone aloft, and had many people approach to ask what it is called and how to access it. It is one of my favorite things.
I think this app (or others such as Starview Free or Starview for $1.99) and its information can provide hours of entertainment for a child, but first, let the child do his own observations and develop his own ideas of what shapes are in the sky.
If using this app, you may end up having an interesting conversation about things that are there, but that you cannot see, at least with your eyes alone. The app will show many more stars than will be visible to the eye. You may need to convince someone that those stars are really out there, even if you cannot see them.
Alternatively, you can find on-line animated sites that are helpful in connecting patterns in the stars to what they are intended to represent. Here is at least one example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hm2MKez7atI
Compare and Contrast
Not all of the constellations are named after a human character in a myth or a god or goddess. There are several constellations named after animals, 42 in fact. The list includes a lynx and chameleon (these two constellations have names identical to our English labels). Taurus, Scorpio, and Pegasus are animals, or a bull, scorpion and flying horse. Columbo, Dorado, and Draco refer to a dove, goldfish, and a dragon. Draco is a constellation that revolves around the North Pole. You may have to remind your child that the constellation may not look exactly like the thing it was named after and some flexibility in thinking or using one’s imagination may be helpful.
The constellations are named after characters in Greek myths, but we use the Latin names. The Romans borrowed many Greek myths as their own. The planets, with the exception of Earth, are named after Roman Gods, or Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto (which is no longer considered a planet). These are the names of the Roman gods, but they are the same gods with different names in Greek myths. The Romans changed some of the characteristics or traits of the gods, so they are not identical. More to come on the planets in another post.
What is the difference between the Northern and Southern hemispheres? If you have a globe or map of the world, invite your child to determine where the Northern and Southern Hemispheres are. A guess is fine, and perhaps she can intuit the answer to this question. If not, establish where north is, where south is, and where the middle of the earth is (the equator). Now ask the question again.
If you have a globe, either you or your child can hold it up. Recruit other members of your family or friends to hold tennis or golf balls. Try and manage this exercise so you can demonstrate why we can see some constellations from the Northern Hemisphere and others only when in the Southern Hemisphere.
Here are the constellations you can see in each hemisphere. This is for information only, pick one or two with your child to look into further:
21 Northern Constellations
Andromeda, Aquila, Auriga, Boötes, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, Corona Borealis, Cygnus, Delphinus, Draco, Equuleus, Hercules, Lyra, Ophiuchus, Pegasus, Perseus, Sagitta, Serpens, Triangulum, Ursa Major, Ursa Minor
12 Zodiacal Constellations
Aries, Aquarius, Cancer, Capricornus, Gemini, Leo, Libra, Pisces, Sagittarius, Scorpius, Taurus, Virgo
15 Southern Constellations
Ara, Argo Navis, Canis Major, Canis Minor, Centaurus, Cetus, Corona Australis, Corvus, Crater, Eridanus, Hydra, Lepus, Lupus, Orion, Pisces Austrinus
Just in case you need a refresher course in what these names refer to, there are several sites with information, but this one seemed very concise and easy to read: https://www.wwu.edu/skywise/greekmyth.html
Printing images and information about these constellations or at least your child’s favorite ones can be useful for sorting those images into a variety of categories, or people versus animals, Northern versus Southern Hemisphere, or any number of groupings that your child finds interesting.
There is a great deal of information on alternative names for the constellations. The Persians, Africans and Chinese and other cultures had active astronomers whose work we tend not to be familiar with in the West. Look at the following Wikipedia page for information on the constellation we know of as Orion. Throughout history and in different regions of the world it was known by other names representing other characters in myth or figures in different religions.
Measure and Experiment
A simple step is to count the number of stars in those constellations that your child takes an interest in.
The distances from earth or size of the stars are numbers that may be too big to process by young children. But there are other ideas that you can begin to explore with them. For example, the stars making up a constellation will all appear as though they are in the same plane, but in fact they may be different distances from the earth.
You can also discuss the fact that the stars are very, very far from earth. Interestingly, smaller or dimmer stars (more difficult to see) might be further away (or cooler, that is not burning as hot). The reverse is not necessarily true, however, or the brightest stars are not always closer.
In 1922, the International Astronomers Union (IAU) declared that there were 88 constellations. Forty-eight of those were the ancient constellations originally identified by the Alexandrian astronomer and mathematician Ptolemy from about 120 – 150 A.D. Included in these are the 13 signs of the Zodiac. Forty of those constellations identified by the IAU were new. The newer constellations are harder to see. These newer constellations are referred to as modern, although many were identified between 1500 and the 1700’s.
The classic or ancient constellations include the brightest stars in the sky and are the best to focus on initially. Constellations are not just groups of stars in the sky but areas of the night sky. Not all stars are in a constellation, but they will fall within these areas.
Experimentation is limited here as well other than checking the night sky at different times during the night or over a period of weeks and months, as it will change Because of the earth’s orbit around the Sun. So ask your child to predict what constellation she might see tonight and then check it out. Why do stars appear to rise above the horizon and then fall below it (because of the earth’s orbit)?
It might be interesting to try and recreate constellations. Take a piece of heavy paper (construction paper or card stock) and poke holes in it in the shape of a favorite constellation. Try to get a clean hole if you can. A hole punch may do the best job, but these do not work well if using a larger piece of paper.
Turn a flashlight on, and the room lights off, and close any curtains if it is daytime so as to achieve as to make it as possible. Shine the flashlight under the paper with those light beam working its way through the holes and projecting on a ceiling or wall. (You can also cut out circle size shapes that fit directly over the lens of the flashlight).
If the constellation does not look as expected, it may be necessary to experiment with the spaces or distances between the holes to get it right. It should not be difficult for you and your child to examine a star chart and think through the shapes, but if you would prefer help with these patterns, here is a site you can look at: https://www.pinterest.com/nickicastillo/stars/
If you are monitoring this activity, those same cardboard pieces with holes poked into them can be placed next to candles for a different and magical effect.
With mini-marshmallows or gumdrops, copy existing constellations or design your own. These can be connected with toothpicks if you want a three dimensional version, or simply lay them out on black construction paper, drawing the connecting lines in white crayon for the full model.
Elaborate and Glossary
There are many books available with versions of the Greek myths. A trip to the library should result in finding one that your child will enjoy. The favorite in our household was D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, which includes some inspired illustrations that bring those characters to life.
It might be helpful to prioritize doing one’s own research in a book over using technology first. That is, start reading about the constellations and then use technology. The apps I was referring to make it almost too easy to find and identify the constellations. A little reading on the topic to start with may ensure the information is learned rather than relying on the convenience of the app. Here are some other books to encouraging searching for information:
Once Upon a Starry Night: A Book of Constellations by Jacqueline Mitton
Zoo in the Sky: A Book of Animal Constellations by Jacqueline Mitton
A Constellation Album: Stars and Mythology of the Night Sky by P.K. Chen
Glow in the Dark Constellations by C. E. Thompson
Find the Constellations by H.A. Rey
The Greek and Roman names for constellations were adopted for official use, but they are not the only peoples who saw and named star patterns. Native Americans had their own myths and legends corresponding with groups of stars. Here is a start to exploring what they saw and named: https://www.wwu.edu/depts/skywise/legends.html
NASA has a fun site to explore: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/starfinder/en/
Explore the lives of early and famous astronomers, or Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Galileo. There are books available for children describing their lives and discoveries.
Can you take a trip to visit a powerful telescope and get a better view of the stars? Planetariums can introduce many new ideas as well.