By Christina VanGinkel
If you have a young child interested in astronomy, the best way to indulge that interest is simpler than you might think, and best yet, it involves very little, if any, money whatsoever. First, save those funds that you might have earmarked for a telescope for the time being. While a telescope might be of interest sometime in the future, for the very young, or just newly interested in astronomy, all that is really required is a night sky and a set of interested eyes! The secondary advantage of not running off to buy a telescope immediately is that if the interest in astronomy wanes, you will not be stuck with a telescope you do not want. In addition, by waiting, if their interest is true, you can rest assured that spending a bit more money down the road on a top quality telescope will not be wasted money. You can spend the extra time shopping for the perfect telescope that will last your young astronomer for many years to come.
If you do feel the need to buy at least one physical thing to peak the interest of a young learner though, invest a few dollars in a good beginners guide to astronomy. Choose one that will help them discern the different stars and planets that they can view, or that suggests some simple projects for them to take part in involving the night sky.
A couple of book suggestions include:
Exploring the Sky: Projects for Beginning Astronomers, by Richard Moeschl
Astronomy for Beginners by Jeff Becan and Sarah Becan
A Beginner's Guide to Astronomy, by Alistair Glase
A bit pricier than the others, but an excellent edition for those who are showing a positive attitude towards this lifelong hobby is, Astronomy: A Beginner's Guide to the Universe, Fifth Edition, by Eric Chaisson and Steve McMillan. This book is a bit on the pricey side at close to one hundred dollars, but if you check eBay frequently, or it's sister site Half.com, you might be able to find a copy for much less.
Other than books, you could also pick up an Orion Star Target Planisphere. It is best described by the manufacturer, who states that it is a detailed star map showing all of the constellations visible from the mid-northern latitudes. Simply dial in the date and time that you want to match up the map to, and you will have an accurate map of the night sky right in your hands. It is printed on a dew-resistant coated cardboard, perfect for late night star gazing when damp may settle in. Slightly larger than eight inches, it is easy to handle, yet large enough to read with ease, and is a perfect tool to add to any budding astronomer's cache.
While the Orion Star Target Planisphere, or one of the listed books or any beginners guide to astronomy for that matter, can all be excellent building blocks for your young astronomer, all that you absolutely need is a clear cloudless night, in a spot away from the city lights, and the time and patience to show off the sky to those who want to learn.
When my oldest son and daughter were about six and eight years old, my husband's cousin was visiting with us for a few days. I heard him ask them if they knew what the Milky Way was and if they knew the names of any planets yet. Later that same afternoon, the kids came running in the house asking how late they could stay up amid some chatter about stars, planets, galaxies, and more. As evening approached, they walked around our yard, settling on the slightly sloping piece of yard directly in the front of our house's exposed basement. From there, the three of them all lined up on their backs, one child on each side, as he pointed out various observations in the night sky above. To this day, all of my children, both the older ones, and my youngest who was also shown how interesting astronomy could be in much the same manner, only years later, have a love of the night sky and astronomy in general. All with no money initially spent, just time and patience by one adult who was willing to share his knowledge.