Glow-in-the-dark planets puzzle, flashlights, and “darkoscopes”

The astronomonsters’ favorite Christmas gift this year was their Glow-in-the-Dark Space puzzle. It’s a 2×3 feet floor puzzle with 100 pieces. The backside is a black-line drawing of the planets so kids can color it if they want. The colored image has glow-in-the-dark highlights. The pieces are sturdy, which is good, because my kids have been a bit rough with it and slide it across the wood floors to take it from one room to another. They’ve played with it every day since Christmas, and it has held up well. glow puzzle store image

We had a bit of a crisis Christmas morning when we assembled it. Having heard us say it was a glow-in-the-dark puzzle, Astronomonster #1 wanted it to make the room dark enough to see it. Our curtains aren’t darkening enough, so we told him he had to wait until the sun set and nighttime came. Maybe it was due to familiarity with the planetarium where we can have the sun set and rise whenever we want it, but he asked us to make the sun set. Sorry, kiddo. He couldn’t wait for dark, so we improvised.

Having emptied a salt container, we cut off one end and cut a small eye hole in the other end. We call it “The Darkoscope.” Hold it tight over a section of the puzzle you want to view, peek through the eye hole, and see the glow. You’ll need a smooth cut on the bottom so no light leaks through when you hold it against the puzzle. Oatmeal and cornmeal containers could also work–you’d want a wide tube in order to view enough glow to make it worth it. Decorate it however you wish.

Glow puzzle darkoscope

An empty salt container can make a “Darkoscope” to view glow-in-the-dark pictures in the daytime.

After nighttime arrived, we enjoyed the glow as is. Then we tried experiments with flashlights. Aiming a flashlight at a spot for even a short while dramatically increases the glow. With small LED flashlights, the kids were highlighting rings, planets, and moons, and making bright “impact scars” on the planets. “Crash!”

Glow puzzle 1
At nighttime, flashlights can provide shots of luminosity to the glow-in-the-dark puzzle.

Glow puzzle 2

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Rainbow Peepholes as holiday treat for kids

Everyone likes rainbows, right? So how about treating folks to the gift of rainbows?rainbowsymphony_2265_178104096

Two years ago I ordered a batch of diffraction grating glasses to share with the kids in our lives. This year, I ordered a batch of Rainbow Peepholes to share instead. They are small cardboard circles with a center hole holding diffraction grating film which splits and diffracts light into several different beams radiating in different directions, making rainbow copies of your light source, such as candles, light bulbs, or Christmas trees. So if you hold one up to your eye and look at some Christmas lights, you’ll get a visual treat of an explosion of rainbows. They are a fun, inexpensive “treat” to share in the holiday season, costing 30 cents each if you get a batch of 100. If you order more than 100, the price goes down to 25 cents each, so ordering 120 is the same price as ordering 100–that is, if you order from Rainbow Symphony. You can purchase smaller quantities on other sites like eBay or Amazon, but the cost per unit is 50 cents. Do a little shopping around and go with the choice that will make sense for you.

You can also get Diffraction Grating Glasses for around 40 or 50 cents each here or here.  The glasses work better for older kids and adults than they do for younger kids, because they don’t stay on little faces too well. For my preschoolers, I had to tape a paper strap in place in order to hold the glasses on their heads. So if you have little kids in mind for working with rainbow viewers, the peepholes may be a better choice. You can also get sheets of diffraction grating film, if you want to make your own projects.

To give as holiday treats, I typed up a brief note about what they were, fitting four to a page which I could then print, cut into quarter-pages, fold, and tape into envelopes to hold the Rainbow Peepholes. The text can read something like this:

Rainbow Peepholes have a diffraction grating film which splits and diffracts light into several beams traveling in different directions, so they make rainbows when you look at a light source, such as candles, Christmas lights, car headlights, fireworks, and so on. Have fun! Merry Christmas! 

We gave one to each of Astronomonster #1’s classmates and handed them to friends and coworkers with kids.

 This page from ScienceHouse.org recommends a simple home experiment with kids as young as first grade. So besides having fun with diffraction grating products to see rainbows all around, you can use them to “look at different light sources such as a black light, an infrared light, a full spectrum white light and a light for a photo lab and get them to make a drawing of each spectrum in their science journals and compare the spectra.”

While I’ve been giving them out for Christmas, you can also use them for watching fireworks, conducting light experiments, or giving them out at Halloween. If you have more ideas or projects with diffraction grating glasses or peepholes, please share them in the comments. 

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Two more nonfiction picture books that read like story books

I need a better title or a better way to categorize this type of book: Back in September of 2011 I reviewed five books which I awkwardly called “nonfiction picture books that read like story books,” and I have two more for you today. These nonfiction books have cartoonish artwork and story-like text, so while they are factual, they’re not encyclopedic, and are a good read for young kids.

Astronaut Handbook by Meghan McCarthy.

astronaut handbook title page

astronaut handbook welcome

Welcome to astronaut school! If you have a youngster who wants to be an astronaut, this book can serve as a good introduction to what it takes to be an astronaut and the type of training they need.

astronaut handbook swimmingIt’s gauged for ages 3-7, or Preschool to Grade 2, so don’t expect volumes of information. With cute, cartoonish art, it mentions different types of astronaut jobs, some of the training they
undergo, and some of the skills and qualities they should have. It also includes information on food in space as well as diagrams of a space toilet and a space suit.

As I write this, there are 13 reviews on Amazon.com, and they are all 5-star reviews.

Pluto’s Secret: An Icy World’s Tale of Discovery by Margaret Weitekamp, Diane Kidd, and David DeVorkin. 

Plutos Secret title page

Pluto’s Secret was published in March of 2013 for ages 5-9 or Kindergarten to Grade 4. With cartoonish art throughout, one might expect the text to be a little more story-like or silly, but it’s not. It is nonfiction and tells the story of Pluto’s discovery and the controversy over what Pluto is—planet or something else—after more Kuiper Belt Objects were found.

Pluto secret solar system

At times I felt the art and text to be incongruous—that at times the text was clunkier than the artwork would lead us to expect, but that’s aesthetic snobbery on my part that didn’t matter at all to my kids.

Pluto Dancing with moons

Humor does come in when Pluto (personified) responds to suggestions of names after its discovery (Minerva? Certainly not!), when Pluto is characterized as dancing with its moons (Cha-cha-cha), and when Pluto has fun being different from the other planets.

The author keeps to the IAU (International Astronomical Union) definition of dwarf planet and doesn’t touch on the dissension among astronomers over the definition, nor that Quaoar (featured on page 23 in an illustration) did not make the dwarf planet list, nor that Makemake is a dwarf planet, nor that Ceres in the Asteroid Belt is a dwarf planet. So this book doesn’t cover dwarf planets or the Kuiper Belt in detail—you would need other sources if your child is doing a report—but it covers the topic of Pluto’s discovery and status pretty well, and is informational in a fun, story-like way. The book also includes a two-page spread in back with photographs and additional information. My astronomonsters enjoyed this as a bedtime story.

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Rocket Cake

Rocket cake with candlesAstronomonster #2 is turning 3! Since he enjoys pretending he has rockets lifting off, including a countdown–er, countup?–that no one could synchronize with, I wanted to make him a rocket cake. It’s nowhere near as cool as the Earth cake that’s made the rounds on social media, and I’m no cake boss, but my little Astronomonsters were enthusiastic about it.

First, we baked a chocolate crazy cake (an eggless cake recipe popular during the Depression). It’s firm enough that we figured it would hold up to being cut and moved around. We baked it in a rectangular pan and removed the cake from the pan. I then cut it as shown to create the pointed top.

rocket cake process 1

The pieces cut out from the top became the fins of the rocket, and half of the piece cut out from the bottom became the top fin.

I used frosting to hold the fins to the rocket, and marked out a window with a small cup. I had ordered colored frosting from the grocery store’s bakery, and since I’m unpracticed at cake decorating, I just started applying it as I saw fit.

rocket cake process 3

I mixed a small portion of the blue frosting with some white to make the light blue for the window. Using a small zip-lock baggie from which I cut a corner to make a pastry bag, I squeezed out the light blue frosting to fit the circular window.

For finishing touches, we added some Rolo Minis to look like knobs or rivets, and three birthday candles in the base of the rocket.

Rocket cake with candles

Don’t hold my novice icing skills against this simple and cute rocket cake design. If you make one for yourself, I wish you better success in the appearance of your final product than mine!

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Walk on Jupiter and Eat Mars: Teaching the Solar System Through Silliness

Can you walk on Jupiter? You can if it’s a picture of Jupiter on a floor puzzle.

Walking the planets puzzle

My Astronomonsters’ love Solar System floor puzzles. We have a few different kinds of Solar System floor puzzle, all of varying quality. My kids will assemble them and use them for play mats for toy space shuttles or cars. They also like to “space travel” and pretend they are floating in space by rolling across them or by stepping on each planet. I found a way to turn this play into learning about the planets. When they stepped on the Sun, I’d say, “Ouch! Too hot! You’ll burn your feet!” They would giggle and move onward. “Ah! Cool those feet in Earth’s oceans. Careful, you’ll sink through Jupiter’s clouds! Saturn’s ring particles will hit you! Brr! Pluto is so cold!” They would laugh, and go back to the Sun to do it all over again. I’d try to add some different information about the planets each time.

Another way we get silly about our planets is “eating” them. Yes, I know it’s bizarre, but the kids are 2 and 4. We have a magnetic Solar System set, and one day the kids decided to hold magnetic Jupiter in my face and say, “Eat Jupiter?” “I said, “Ew! Too smelly!” (With ammonia and hydrogen sulfide in the atmosphere, it could smell like window cleaner and rotting eggs.) My Astronomonsters found this hilarious, so they started offering up ALL the magnetic objects to me.

“Eat the Moon?” “Aah-Choo! Too dusty!”

“Eat the Earth?” “Mmmm, tasty plants and water!”

“Eat Neptune?” “Too windy!”

“Eat Venus?” “Ouch! Too hot! It burned my lips!”

They found it all too funny and laughed their cute little laughs, but they remembered their planet facts for the next time we played with these planet toys. Do you have other “teaching astronomy through silliness” activities of your own to share?

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Teaching Children How to Use Binoculars

In getting children started with astronomy, I recommend beginning with what you can see with just your unaided eyes, sometimes called naked eye observing. You can learn the constellations, learn to pick out the planets, and follow the moon through its phases without any kind of optical aid.

binoculars in spaceAfter learning your way around the sky this way, you might consider a telescope, but I recommend trying out binoculars. You might even have some lying around the house. With binoculars you could point them at the Moon, see what you can see in regards to planets, star clusters, and double stars–but knowing your way around the night sky first can be a big help.

I recently posted “If you already have binoculars” which addresses the above and links to an EarthSky article on the “Top tips for using ordinary binoculars for stargazing.” But neither I nor EarthSky addressed specifically how to teach kids to use binoculars.

I just came across a blog called OutsideMom.com which has a post on teaching children how to use binoculars. It’s not geared for astronomy, but for wildlife, and I think this is a smart way to start with binoculars. Teach kids good daytime binocular skills first–using them to look at wildlife will be a rewarding introduction to using them for astronomy, and the same skills and tips apply to astronomy use. In short, binoculars work best for children ages 4 and up, but it can still be tricky to get them started. Go where you’re sure to see wildlife–near water, at a zoo. Use binocular straps. Make sure the binoculars are fitted to their eyes. Stare at an object without binoculars first and then bring the binoculars up to their eyes without looking away. Adjust the focus. And do not walk while holding binoculars up to your face. Also, do not stare at the sun. For more details on these, see OutsideMom.com’s post.

My kids are a bit young yet. We have toy binoculars, and I have found that at age 2 and 3 they have had a tendency to place toy binoculars or telescopes up to their noses instead of their eyes. Toy binoculars don’t really do much, but they’ve been having fun with them anyway. Today I brought out a magnifying glass and some cheap, low-quality binoculars as an introduction to taking better care of them–don’t touch the glass, treat them gently, put them away when done, etc.

Do you have any other tips or stories on teaching children to use binoculars?

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Magnetic Solar System Attractive to Astronomonsters

magnetic solar systemOne of my astronomonsters’ favorite toys this week is the Magnetic Solar System by Smethport. It folds open like a book. Inside, the Sun is on the top left corner, and orbit lines are drawn so kids can place their planets in the right order. There are magnetic planets (the traditional nine planets), plus a space station, an astronaut, a space shuttle, a supernova, a nebula, a galaxy, a comet, an asteroid, and Earth’s Moon. There are also magnetic words for each item, but we haven’t been playing with those.

The pieces are pretty, and the kids have fun with it. I wish the pieces stuck a little more strongly though, because sometimes they just shake out if you carry it by its handle and jostle it too much. We’ve already lost some of the small pieces–not surprising, because, yeah, young kids. It’s been very entertaining for my planet-loving children, but I have concerns about its hardiness. I’ve already had to reinforce Saturn’s rings with tape.

I may try making replacement magnets sometime, and if you’re a crafty person, you could make your own magnetic board and pieces. Here is a video from Martha Stewart for making your own Magnetic Bulletin Board. She uses a snap-in-place frame, galvanized steel sheeting, and Masonite board. If your goal was to make a solar system background, you could cover the metal with a starry fabric. I’ve also seen other instructions on Pinterest, such as using an old cookie sheet for your metal board.

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Prepare for Perseids

The Perseid Meteor Shower approaches!

Great info on EarthSky’s meteor shower guide and from Astronomy magazine’s Perseid Meteor Shower article.

From Astronomy.com: “If predictions hold, observers across eastern Europe and northern Asia could witness 100 meteors per hour if they watch under clear dark skies. Viewers in North America should see up to 80 meteors per hour — still an average of more than one per minute — in the hour or two before twilight starts to break shortly after 4 a.m. local daylight time. If cloudy skies prevail on the 12th, look on the morning of the 13th, when rates will be somewhat lower but still impressive.”

And to get in a meteor mood, watch this video of “What is a Shooting Star?” by They Might Be Giants.

An Astronomommy Paint.NET original. My astronomonsters saw me doodling this meteor picture and thought the reclining lady looked like me, so then they started requesting themselves be painted in, too, so they are, sort of. :)

An Astronomommy Paint.NET original. My astronomonsters saw me doodling this meteor picture and thought the reclining lady looked like me, so then they started requesting themselves be painted in, too, so they are, sort of. 🙂

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Wordless Wednesday: Studying frictionless surfaces

What happens when another science blogger watches my kids:

Wordless Wednesday: Studying frictionless surfaces.

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Commission: Earth Structural Layer Cake

Amazing Earth cake found here:  Commission: Earth Structural Layer Cake. The Cakecrumbs blogger also has an amazing Jupiter Structural Layer Cake with more commentary on making such a cake, and a Spherical Concentric Layer Cake Tutorial. Great work, Rhiannon!

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