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My almost 5-year-old son has developed a great interest in astronomy since last few months. I show him pictures of planets in books and videos on YouTube. He asks me to point out planets in the night sky which I do (incorrectly as I don’t know where each planet is located) just to engage him. I have not got a telescope yet or visited an observatory. We live in India, Bangalore. I would like to know some ways to encourage him at this age.

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I am going to answer a bit more generic, because I think this kind of question fits for many topics, not just astronomy. You write:

He asks me to point out planets in the night sky which I do (incorrectly as I don’t know where each planet is located) just to engage him.

Now, the actual lesson here is not “what’s the name of that star”, but “how can I learn about things I don’t know yet”. It’s ok if you don’t know the names, but unless you just want to give some random answer (and possibly be caught lying once you have given the same constellation three different names), I recommend you two learn about astronomy together. For about every topic under the sun there are books, videos, apps1... available. As a parent, select what you think is helpful and will appeal to your child. Read together, learn together, discuss. Go out and apply what you learned. Maybe fail and try again. Bond.

For children of your son’s age, pure “book learning” can get boring quickly, depending on his other interests, I would recommend something that can be “touched” (remember - we “grasp” a topic!), so pick whatever craft suits him and you, and make that “astronomy-themed”. Draw pictures (scratch art would make a beautiful night sky with stars or galaxies), build (paper mache) model planets or rockets/spaceships (and add a few model figures as astronauts to inhabit them), tell stories, ask questions that encourage lateral thinking...
And if you get fed up with “everything stars”, remember the first parents’ mantra: It’s just a phase!


1 I rarely post product names and generally it’s discouraged to do so, but you may want to check out Star Walk.

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In addition to the other good answers:

  • Put Stellarium on your computer and learn to use it. Its a free and highly accurate sky simulator which will tell you where the planets currently are. If you can go out with the current constellations printed on a sheet of paper you can start learning your way around the night sky together. (Of course a laptop would be even better if you have one). Edit There are a number of similar apps for phones and tablets too, although I don't know enough to recommend one in particular.

  • Bangalore is a big city so I'm guessing that there is a lot of light pollution. Can you make a trip somewhere with darker skies? Take a compass, a good pair of binoculars, and a torch with a red filter so you can look at a star map without destroying your night vision. It might help if your son practices using the binoculars before you go: aiming them at a star is tricky.

  • Be sure to use a flashlight with a red filter so that you can read the printed papers. Our eyes don't have to readjust when using red light. – Lux Claridge May 6 at 21:30
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Snap! Ours does too!

He loves reading space books and has memorised the planets in the solar system (including various dwarf planets). See what books you can find. They don't have to be current. This may also help his reading along (again, it did with my son - he loves reading about the Olympus Mons on Mars, and the Great Dark Spot on Neptune - his favourite planet).

Try and find a space mobile that you can hang from the ceiling in his bedroom, or a poster of all the planets. Maybe a few space toys (our son has a die-cast space shuttle toy, like your standard Matchbox car).

For all this stuff, second hand or charity shops could be great.

Museums can also have some great exhibits too which will be kid-friendly (and I believe Bangalore has a space expo which could be worth looking at, if there are any bits where you can simply see models of satellites). Are you able to visit the ISPO? Space-based kids TV shows could be good too (my son likes watching one called Ready Jet Go).

Or something more hands-on like grabbing an old bucket, cutting a piece out of it for him to see through, and playing astronauts.

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