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EVERY CHILD DESERVES TO SEE THE STARS: Five Ways to Make It So. Please Share Your Suggestions.

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of nine books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" and "The Nature Principle." His newest book, "Vitamin N," offers 500 ways to build a nature-rich life. In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal.

 
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Photo: PhotosForClass, Creative Commons

 

Starlight is a good source of Vitamin N. A few years ago, Madhu Narayan, a Girl Scout leader in San Diego, told me a story about a girl who saw the universe.

“In my first counseling job, with another organization, I took children with AIDS to the mountains who had never been out of their urban neighborhoods. One night, a nine-year-old woke me up. She had to go to the bathroom,” said Narayan, as I quoted her in The Nature Principle.

“We stepped outside the tent and she looked up. She gasped and grabbed my leg. She had never seen the stars before. That night, I saw the power of nature on a child. She was a changed person. From that moment on, she saw everything, even the camouflaged lizard that everyone else skipped by. She used her senses. She was awake.”

Madhu’s story illustrates two issues: One is how important seeing the stars can be to a child’s perception of her or his personal universe, as well as the one beyond the Earth. The other issue is that such an experience is increasingly rare. In the journal Environmental Health Perspectives researcher Ron Chepesiuk reports,

“When a 1994 earthquake knocked out the power in Los Angeles, many anxious residents called local emergency centers to report seeing a strange ‘giant, silvery cloud’ in the dark sky. What they were really seeing — for the first time — was the Milky Way, long obliterated by the urban sky glow.”

These days, for children and adults, sky blindness is common. Sure, we can download one of those stargazing apps and point our smartphones at the sky to “see” what’s up there. But somehow that’s, well, not the same experience.

Apps aside, two-thirds of the U.S. population and more than one-half of the European population may have already lost the ability to see the Milky Way with the naked eye. When air pollution and urban domes of artificial light obscure our view of the night sky, our mental and physical health pay a price. Stars or no stars, natural darkness has value; our biological clocks count on it. Researchers in Israel have linked the amount of artificial nighttime light to higher rates of breast cancer.

Although some cities now require low-pressure sodium streetlights and other light pollution controls, regulation alone won’t cure sky blindness, in daytime or night. What we need most is a perception of value.

Ultimately, our relation to the sky is not only about health (and we do need more research on that front), but also about wonder. Trevor Hancock, a professor at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy, asks this question: “If we can’t see the stars, how will we know our place in the universe?”

As part of the new nature movement, schools, service organizations, astronomy clubs, camps, Scouts, places of worship, family nature clubs, and other organizations should create more programs like one Madhu Narayan worked with — programs that focus on the kids who don’t have the resources or the access for stargazing, particularly those who live in urban neighborhoods where seeing stars is a rare experience.

Every child deserves to know the stars, to have the kind of memory that Rosanna Nydia Snyder, of Seattle, Washington, shared with me last year, which I then shared in Vitamin N.

“Last night, right before bedtime,” she wrote, “my four-year-old daughter wanted to invite us to a ‘perfect party’ that she was adamantly planning for right that very moment. Not tomorrow, but ‘tonight.’ This ‘perfect party’ involved going outside on the porch and gazing at the stars while drawing pictures.”

She continued: “We could have easily ignored her desires and sent her straight to bed, but we knew there was so much more value in saying yes to her invitation. To be outside gazing at the stars required no more than bundling up with jackets and blankets; watching the sky grow dark, and talking about the different moon phases. We seized her interest and made sure to show that we supported her passion right then because I never want to extinguish her flame for the outdoors while it’s continuing to grow more bright.” To her, the key to outdoor experience is to keep watching for these moments of confidence and support her daughter’s self-driven outdoor experiences.

Rosanna’s daughter is lucky. She lives where stars are sometimes still visible, at least part of the time, even with all that rain. And she has perceptive parents. But all children deserve to see the stars, including those without such perceptive parents, and those who live where starlight has faded completely.

How do we help all kids look up? We welcome your suggestions.

______________________

 

Five Tips for Stargazing and Skywatching from “Vitamin N”

1. Explore the universe together.
In your child’s first months and years, and beyond, go to a park together, spread out a blanket, lie side by side for an hour or more; look up through moving leaves and branches at clouds or moon or stars. Bring water and milk. You may be there a long time.

2. Set a star date.
If your family is lucky enough to live where the stars are visible, stargaze in the evening or very early morning. In the yard, from a balcony, or out beyond the city lights, take a blanket, binoculars, or small telescope, and stargaze together. With your kids, locate a few key constellations and orient to those. Air and light pollution prevent two-thirds of the U.S. population and more than half of Europe’s population from seeing the Milky Way with the naked eye. Schools, sky-watcher groups, amateur meteorologists, and even star charts in our smartphones can help. Resources include the sky-awareness initiative. International Dark-Sky Association. Also, see How to Start Stargazing With Your Kids.
3. Study the constellations.
Learn where the North Star is, in relation to other constellations. “If you find yourself lost in the wilderness — or out at sea — a few useful star navigation techniques can help you find the way again,” recommends the Appalachian Mountain Club. “Celestial navigation draws on the placement of the stars to infer location and it remains one of the best ways to find your north-south position. The key is to use the angles between the stars and the horizon to locate your position on the globe.” Learn more about celestial navigation at Astronomy.com
4. Set up a world-watching window.
Not every child is able to leave the house. Some have mental, physical disabilities or an illness that limits or even prevents outdoor activities. They can still experience moon watching, stargazing (if stars are visible), cloudspotting, bird-watching, and more. Keep handy: a nature notebook, field guides for birds and stars, binoculars, a telescope, a digital camera with a telephoto lens, and maybe even a sound recorder to capture the sounds of the natural world.
5. Join or create stargazing partnerships.
Through scouting organizations, schools, places of worship, astronomy clubs, planetariums, museums, businesses and city, county or state recreation departments, join, promote or create skywatching programs with a special focus on urban neighborhoods. One example, the Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI) in Tampa, Florida, which offers scholarships for kids from low-income families to go to MOSI Science Camp; gives free training to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) educators across Tampa Bay; and sends its mobile science lab around the state of Florida “to educate and inspire.”
If you know of additional stargazing ideas or programs for children who rarely see the stars, anywhere in the world, please share them in the comments section of this blog post.

Other resources
How to Find an Astronomy Club Near You
Urban Astronomy 101: Stargazing for Beginners-Chicago Tribune
How to Get your Kids into Star Gazing – Time Magazine
Urban Astronomy
Vitamin N
: The Essential Guide to the Nature-Rich Life

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Richard Louv is co-founder and chairman emeritus of The Children & Nature Network, and author of “Vitamin N,” “The Nature Principle,” and “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.”

 

4 Comments

  1. I have a similar story, living in a big city with no stars to see. If not for a 6th grade school camping trip, a teacher who was able to convince my overprotective, new immigrant parents to let me go on the trip, and my hard working mother who took on extra jobs to help pay and shop for a sleeping bag (and the store clerk who helped us figure out what a sleeping bag was), I am not sure I would be where I am today.

    Today I bring similar experiences to students all over NYC. But it has been getting more challenging each year. We are desperate for funding and in need to ideas and support. Our program helps thousands of underserved schools get students out of the city to experience nature. For many of our students it is their first time experiencing nature. I hope that we are able to continue this project for as long as these children need it.

    Reply
    • Keep up the great, important work! NYC has the Youth Opportunties Program – through the Appalachian Mountain Club as a resource for you for gear, as they run trainings and a gear library where you can borrow gear for students for free! Keep it up.

      Reply
  2. Take action so we can see the stars! Consider joining The International Dark Sky Organization: http://www.darksky.org/

    From their website:
    You can help us fight light pollution and protect the night sky. Our members and supporters are on the ground making a difference every day by spreading the word about light pollution to their neighbors, communities and public officials. You can make a difference, too! Become a leader in night sky protection. Here are some ideas to get you started.

    1.Inspect the lighting around your home

    Poor lighting not only creates glare and light pollution but also wastes enormous amounts of energy and money. Take a few moments to inspect your property for inefficient, poorly installed and unnecessary outdoor lighting. Learn how by visiting our Residential/Business Lighting page.

    2.Use dark sky friendly lighting at your home and business

    Look for the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) Fixture Seal Of Approval on any outdoor lighting you purchase. IDA maintains a searchable database of lighting products certified to minimize glare, light trespass and skyglow. These products are recommended when replacing outdated or inappropriate lighting fixtures.

    3.Talk to your friends, family, and neighbors

    You can be a powerful dark sky advocate for your neighborhood, your city, and even your state and country. Solving the light pollution problem involves raising awareness of the issue so that people are empowered to make better decisions as consumers, voters and community members. Use some of our resources like our General Brochure, “Losing the Dark Film” or Mobile Apps to help spread the word.

    4.Spread the word online

    Engage your online community about the issues and explain why to support IDA. Also, be sure to let them know about joining our email list to receive our monthly e-newsletter and other timely information. They – and you – can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.

    Reply
  3. For star gazing on the beach, head to the Eastern Shore of Virginia/ Maryland!
    The NASA Wallops Flight Facility Visitor Center partners with the National Park Service, National Wildlife Refuge, local state parks and the Delmarva Space Sciences Foundation to offer a summer series of Astronomy programs on the beach. The NASA informal educators conduct Astronomy 101 presentations, and DSSF provides telescopes and night sky viewing expertise on the beach at Assateague National Seashore, which has some of the darkest skies on the East Coast! A super cool opportunity for those who love the beach and are interested in astronomy. The August event usually happens during the Perseids Meteor Shower for that extra “wow factor” when observing the night sky. https://www.nasa.gov/content/wallops-visitor-center/special-events

    Reply

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