If your children are interested in the night sky, I recommend two astronomy kits, Star Explorer, by DaMert Company, and Star Theater 2, by Uncle Milton Industries.
Star Explorer is fun and versatile. The kit consists of the Celestial Seeker handheld unit with belt pouch holder, 20 constellation transparencies and myth cards, seasonal sky charts, and a small night-vision flashlight. Before going outside, stargazers study the appropriate seasonal chart and identify the constellations visible at that time. The flashlight aids viewing of the sky chart in the darkness. The accompanying myth cards show the star arrangement with a superimposed drawing of the mythical creature for which the constellation is named; a retelling of the ancient myth appears on the back of the card.
Once familiar with the sky chart and the constellations, children select the corresponding constellation transparencies and head outside. Each transparency is oriented from Polaris, the North Star, so children must first find north using the compass on the Celestial Seeker. The transparencies slide easily into the Celestial Seeker and are illuminated in red. Using Polaris as a guide, children match the constellation on the transparency to the night sky.
Star Explorer is an excellent tool for identifying constellations in the seasonal sky and for exploring humankind’s ancient fascination with the stars. Designed for ages 8 to adult, the kit is appropriate for gifted elementary school children and for all middle school children interested in astronomy.
Parents need to be aware of a few limitations. A clear view of the horizon and minimum interference from artificial light are necessary, so visibility will be restricted in many urban and suburban locations. Star Explorer, however, could provide an excellent vacation activity for the mountains or along lake or coastal shorelines. The best viewing hours are between 9 and 11 p.m., so younger children will need adult supervision. The kit requires two AAA batteries and a jeweler’s-size Phillips screwdriver, which are not included.
An excellent alternative for indoor stargazers is Star Theater 2, which turns a darkened room in your home into a miniature planetarium. The kit contains a star sphere with an internal light that projects the visible night sky (in the Northern Hemisphere) onto the walls and ceiling. The sphere sits on a base with a compass that orients toward the north. The sphere can be rotated to coincide with the constellation configurations during specific seasons, months, days, and times. A detachable lighted pointer lets users trace constellations or create meteor showers. Additionally, the stars on the sphere glow in the dark, and the sphere can be detached from the base for use outdoors.
A 45-minute audio CD scientifically explains the night sky and narrates the myths of the major constellations in detail; the accompanying instruction booklet contains diagrams, planetary information and position tables, a chart of annual meteor showers, and other pertinent information.
Star Theater 2 provides an excellent simulation of the changing night sky. The earth’s revolution and rotation are evident as the user manipulates the sphere according to the instructions on the CD. However, this kit also has some drawbacks. The star sphere contains no focusing apparatus, and the unit needs to sit about three feet from the ceiling in the center of a room to provide a clear image. Ceiling fans, overhead lights, tall furniture, and wall hangings may distort the image. Also, while the information on the CD is appropriate for gifted middle and elementary school students, the tone of the narration assumes a much younger audience.
Sarah Boone holds a master’s degree in teaching and certification in gifted education. She teaches at Meredith College.