Revisions of classic fairytales to portray “villains” in new and complex ways has become a popular storytelling device these days, and it’s time to get to know another misunderstood phenomenon: the night. Going beyond quotidian worries of a dark sky, many of us can list several fond memories that take place when the sun is down—catching fireflies on a warm summer night, roasting marshmallows around a campfire, counting stars on a crisp winter evening, waiting for a shooting star. This Biophilic Cities newsletter is all about ways cities are embracing smarter policies regarding darkness, and we wanted to include some ideas of how to involve children in rethinking our relationship with the night sky.
Build confidence inside. An easy way to celebrate the natural night sky is to pick bedtime stories that celebrate stars, nighttime adventures, and humankind’s rich history of storytelling about constellations. There are a plethora of children’s books about these subjects, and also overcoming our fear of the dark, but if you simply cannot find a title you like an even better option is to write a story with your child about having fun under the night sky.
This book on astronomy has a star finder chart for families living in the Northern Hemisphere, so you can figure out which constellations are visible during which months. A great guide for children middle school and up.
Discuss our biological need for darkness. Another place to start the discussion about the night sky is understanding our biological need for darkness, and its necessity for countless other creatures. Teach your child about circadian rhythm and their circadian clock, as well as the rhythms of plants, animals, and fungi (there are many educational resources for K-12 through various universities, for example Sleep and Circadian Rhythms from Baylor College of Medicine, or What makes me tick…tock? from University of Illinois Project NEURON). For older children you can even discuss the health effects of constant light- like the retinal cells with the photopigment Melanopsin, which is sensitive to blue light and affects the body’s natural release of Melatonin before sleep.
If your family doesn’t use apps that switch electronic device light to a red band, rather than the typical blue emission, research apps with your kids to help everyone feel ready for bed while still using that tablet or laptop before bed. Technology at your fingertips includes apps that change electronic device lighting, such as Android compatible Twilight or iOS compatible f.lux. There are even apps for your circadian rhythm, such as Entertain for iOS or an Android app like Solar Clock.
Take that knowledge outside! Go on an outside adventure to spot as many crepuscular and nocturnal animals and insects that you can. How does your regional ecosystem differ from other areas? How do the sounds of the night differ from the natural sounds during the day? Talk with your child about the negative impacts light pollution can have on animals—everything from confusingly making animals think there is always a full moon, to birds accidentally colliding with urban buildings, or turtle hatchlings heading towards land instead of the ocean. Then help your child discuss solutions that could be made at home, such as outdoor dark sky light fixtures, or even encourage your child to voice their opinion and be civically active by writing to the local government or starting a dark sky group at school.
For older children you can easily download an app that measures lumens, which could be a fun way to complete a home light audit. Once you’re comfortable measuring light take your knowledge outside to see how your neighborhood measures up. For example, Lux Meter for Android or Light Meter for iOS both measure lumens so you can see how much excess light is being shed into the night. Do you have an excessively lit neighborhood, or does it provide enough darkness to benefit nocturnal animals?
Stargaze. Of course, stargazing is another activity that can be a lot of fun, so consider getting an entry-level telescope. Navigating the world of new hobbies can be overwhelming, so keep these details in mind when picking a telescope:
• If the telescope doesn’t come with a moon filter, purchase one, as this filter blocks some light to allow you to see more lunar details.
• For looking at planets like Jupiter, Mars, or Saturn, red and blue lens filers will also help you to pick out details on these unique planets.
• Look for a telescope with eye relief, measured in millimeters, if you or your child wear corrective lenses; eye relief is the distance from your eye to the eyepiece lens when the image is in focus, the rule of thumb being 15mm to 20mm of eye relief.
• Decide what kind of telescope you want depending on where you live, and whether you will be packing the telescope for a camping or hiking trip.
• Read up on buyer’s guides and read reviews to see what best fits your desired star gazing level. Some good starter guides that popped out while navigating the world of telescopes: two good guides from space exploration and innovation website Space.com, the second of which details several entry level telescopes (guide 1 and guide 2); this comprehensive guide by Sky and Telescope magazine; or this guide from Astronomy magazine and Celestron Telescopes.
Explore more of the Universe. Move beyond your backyard or neighborhood by visiting a dark sky park to take your nighttime adventuring to the next level. Dark sky parks are parks or public spaces in which the night sky is valued as a natural resource, both cultural and as a source of habitat, as well as for its scenic beauty and educational qualities. Green and blue infrastructure are increasingly recognized resources, why not night sky infrastructure too? And one of the best places to experience the awe-inspiring wonder of the night is at a dark sky park.
The International Dark-Sky Association has a guide to rate parks on metrics such as levels of light pollution, observable sky phenomena, quality of nocturnal animal habitat, and how an area ranks along the Bortle scale, a measure of the intensity of night sky and observable celestial objects. The International Dark-Sky Association has a list of ranked parks, all of which are worth a visit! If you live in North America there are several choices, such as the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument which has been recognized as a gold tier “night sky province” by the IDA. If you are in the United Kingdom plan a visit to Galloway Forest Park in Scotland to catch a glimpse of the Cygnus galaxy rising above the sylvan landscape. On mainland Europe, stargazers can visit the recently created Eifel International Dark Sky Park in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. Or, a trip to Hungary to the Hortobágy Starry Sky Park is worthwhile for astro-tourism and bird watching, as the Zselic region is home to migrating cranes as well as other many other avian species.
Whatever your activity level, plan a night in which you and your children unplug, instead find entertainment from the beauty of the night sky!