This Jan.15,2010 combination of three separate photographs shows the various stages of an annular solar eclipse seen over Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena,File)
Solar eclipse kids activities can be very simple. In Mad Men’s “seven Twenty Three” episode, Don Draper’s kids get inside a cardboard camera obscura to watch a solar eclipse with their teacher. Would today’s kids make the same box to watch a solar eclipse or is there a better way? I talked with Jonathan Braidman, instructor and astronomer at the Chabot Space and Science Center in California to get a few tips to watch a solar eclipse safely and to get kids excited about this rare event.
Total eclipses of the sun rarely ever happen (roughly once a year) but depending on where you live, the frequency is only once every few years. In some places, eclipses are a once-in-a-lifetime event. You’ll want to be outside for a total eclipse of the sun and you’ll want to make a big effort to see a partial or annular eclipse. For your planning, here are the dates of solar eclipses over the next five years.
What Is a Solar Eclipse?
Kids need to understand what happens to realize how extraordinary a solar eclipse is. Basically, it will be night during the day and that’s pretty awesome. A solar eclipse happens when the moon gets between the Earth and the sun, therefore blocking the sun from our view.
- When the moon and Sun are in a perfect line, it is called a total eclipse. These are very rare. Most people only see one in their lifetime.
- An annular solar eclipse is when the Moon is close to the farthest point of its orbit, thereby obscuring only part of the Sun during the eclipse because its apparent diameter is smaller than the Sun’s.
Since the Earth is round (unless you live in Lancaster and still believe that the Earth is flat), people experience the eclipse differently depending on where they live on the planet. This animated video shows two children trying to understand what’s going on during a lunar or solar eclipse.
Education Video for Kids to Understand Solar and Lunar Eclipses
Crafts & Activities
Make a Solar Eclipse Model at Home
Use props! You can reproduce a solar eclipse at home and shine some light on the subject with different sized balls, items you probably already have in your cupboards. I created this example of a solar eclipse simulation based on various solar eclipse models but you can use your imagination and make up your own version. In my world, this is what you’ll need:
- a flashlight or table lamp (that’s the Sun)
- a soccer or soft ball (that’s the Earth)
- a table tennis (ping pong) ball (that’s the Moon)
- Wire or string
- 3 people or 2 people if you’re willing to hang the Earth from your ceiling
- First, you’ll need a dark room to do this which makes bedtime an ideal timeframe. With tape, secure the wire or string to the two balls. If you only have 2 people (child and parent), pin or tape the Earth to the ceiling, with the wire long enough so that the Earth hangs at flashlight level. If you have 3 people, have one person hold the wire with the Earth at arm’s length, one person hold the wire with the Moon at arm’s length, one person stand behind the light source. The person with the Earth stands in the middle of the room, the person with the flashlight against the wall. Showtime!
- When the room is completely dark, switch on the table lamp or flashlight. Have the person hold having the light source shine them straight at the Earth.
- Now there’s going to be a little bit of experimentation to find where the Moon should be so that the eclipse will work. You want the moon to be between the Sun and the Earth at a distance where the Moon’s shadow will obscure the Earth when directly before the Sun. Sorry, long sentence. Was that clear?
- Once you find that distance, the person holding the Moon is going to orbit around the Earth, slowly (not 24 hours but a minute would be great).
- When the moon stands between the Sun and the Earth, you can explain how the shadow creates a “partial night” on Earth despite the fact that it’s still daytime.
Build a Pinhole Camera
As you’ve probably heard, watching the sun during a solar eclipse is as dangerous as watching the sun without the solar eclipse. Meaning, DON’T DO IT. Kids can’t look directly at the sun but they can create a pinhole camera to look at a reflection of the sun on a harmless piece of white paper. Here are two fun crafts to create your own solar eclipse viewing camera:
- Life’s Little Mysteries How To Build a Shoebox Pinhole Camera – a 2-minute instructional that’s simple and uses only a shoebox, foil, white paper, tape, a pin and an xacto knife.
- The Exploratorium’s Make a Pinhole Projector – same idea as the shoebox except using one of those long UPS shipping tubes. The longer the tube, the bigger the sun image your child will be looking at!
- Failing shoeboxes or shipping tubes, you can overlap your hands with fingers at right angles and look at the shadow on a piece of white paper. The holes between the fingers are pinholes.
Create a Solar Eclipse Family Movie
According to Space on msnbc.com, here are the steps for optimal solar eclipse photography and future bragging rights. These guys are pros so you’ll have to tailor the advice to your photo equipment and capabilities.
What I suggest goes beyond the photo session. Once you have a bunch of solar eclipse photographs, you can stitch the shots together to create a video of the experience and have your child narrate what it was like. For narrated slideshows, you can use Windows Movie Maker or Fotobabble. If you prefer a music video, check out Animoto and use the Star Wars themes if they have them!
Now if you have any brilliant ideas, please add them in the comments. I’d love to hear how other parents get their kids interested in astronomy.
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