The Solar Eclipse: Getting Kids Psyched and Watching as a Family

What's all too fleeting, potentially a bit hazardous, and absolutely something you need to experience with your kids? We're talking about the solar eclipse on August 21st, of course! For the first time since 1979, parts of North America will be treated to a total solar eclipse—a rare moment when the moon passes between the sun and Earth, temporarily blocking the sun. 

How dramatic the eclipse is will depend on where you are located geographically. People in the states that fall in a diagnonal line from Oregon to South Carolina are in the path of "totality," meaning they'll be exposed to a complete blocking of the sun. The rest of us will see a crescent shape as the moon partially blocks the sun from our view. Nevertheless, scientists and educators nationwide are encouraging everyone to plan to watch this astronomical phenomenon. So we tapped John Aviste, a civil engineer who runs the popular Edge on Science camps in New York and Massachusetts, to help us understand why—and how—families in all of Mommy Poppins' nine regions should witness the eclipse. Whether you've been preparing for this moment for years or are just catching up now, read on for some useful tips—from explaining eclipse science to little ones to ensuring that everyone's peepers stay protected.

Prepping for the Event

Over the next couple of days, it's a good idea to prep kids about what they'll be seeing. Knowledge will make the experience more meaningful (and potentially reduce the chance that anyone will be whining for snacks or focusing on their fidget spinner during the big moment). 

If you can get your hands on it, Magic School Bus Lost in the Solar System is a great book to put the position of the sun and moon in perspective, says Aviste. "But you can also explain how a total solar eclipse works just by stepping outside on a sunny day," he says. Draw a circle about a foot across on the ground or use a ball to represent Earth. Then imagine that your thumb is the moon and cast its shadow on Earth. Slowly move your thumb so that the shadow moves across our planet. "You can get fancy and draw North America on the circle or ball, and make the shadow move across the U.S. from 'Oregon' to 'South Carolina,' he says.

You can make a pinhole camera by poking a hole in a piece of cardboard; or just watch the gaps made by shadows of tree leaves. Photo by David Prasad/CC BY-SA 2.0

Aviste also suggests making a quick "pinhole camera" which will project an image of the sun on the ground during the eclipse, so you can see just how much of the sun is being blocked at any one time. It's an easy project to do with kids. Poke a small, neat hole into a medium sized piece of cardboard (like the front of a cereal box). On a sunny day, you can stand with your back toward the sun and hold the box in front of you—the cardboard will cast a shadow on the ground or a wall in front of you and the pinhole will represent the sun. Hopefully, Monday will be a sunny day, and you'll be able to see the shape the passing moon makes on the sun by observing the circle of light on the ground.

And, because we're talking about kids, treats often make experiences all the sweeter. "How about cupcakes with a dollop of chocolate eclipsing the top?" Aviste suggests.

Safety Precautions

The dangers of looking directly at the sun are real. "Except for the two to two and a half minutes of totality, which most of us won't even have a chance to see, you must use eye protection when directly viewing the sun," says Aviste. "Even if just a tiny sliver of the sun is visible, it is just as damaging to your eyes. Part of the problem is that our retinas do not have pain receptors and you can think its okay to look at the sun, while in fact your vision is being permanently damaged."

Solar viewing glasses are key. Photo by Kevin Hale/CC BY-SA 2.0

But since the whole point of experiencing the eclipse is watching it, stock up on some simple safety glasses now. Libraries, community centers, and science museums across the country are distributing "eclipse glasses," mostly free of charge, and as of publication, many of our contacts were not planning to distribute until this week or still had glasses left to distribute. If you call around and can't find a local distributor, you can look online, but be sure to purchase glasses printed with the code ISO-12312-2 (American Paper Optics, Rainbow Symphony, Thousand Oaks Optical, and TSE 17 are some certified makers). As of press time, Amazon was sold out of many options for these brands, but had some availability or were scheduled to be restocked sometime this week. Don't resort to snatching up available "eclipse glasses" that don't have the code, or resorting to sunglasses, which won't protect your eyes, says Aviste. For more details, check out NASA's complete safe viewing guidelines.

Another viewing hack you might be tempted to try: Viewing the eclipse through the camera display on your phone. While this is theoretically safe given that you'd be looking at an image, not directly at the sun, NASA doesn't recommend doing this for a couple of reasons: One, lining up your camera correctly without glasses could cause you to glance at the sun, which could cause damage; and two, there's some outstanding debate about whether the direct light could cause harm to your phone's sensor. Your best bet is to track down glasses or use a pinhole camera.

Photo by Sebastian Schille/CC BY-ND 2.0

Where to Be and When

Assuming most of you aren't planning on schlepping the kids to one of the cities in the path of totality, Aviste recommends that you simply plan to be outdoors, ideally in an area of clear skies, at the time that corresponds with the passing moon over your region on Monday, August 21. Here are approximate windows of time that you can view the patrial eclipse in your area, as well as a link to local events where people are gathering to watch together:

LOS ANGELES 9:05am to 11:44am (best time: 10:21am): Check out local events here.

HOUSTON 11:46am to 2:45pm (best time: 1:16pm): Check out local events here.

PHILADELPHIA 1:21pm to 4:01pm (best time: 2:44pm): Check out local events here

NEW JERSEY 1:22pm to 4:02pm (best time: 2:45pm): Check out local events here.

NEW YORK (NYC, LI) 1:23pm to 4:05pm (best time: 2:45pm): Check out local events here, here and here.

CONNECTICUT 1:25pm to 3:59pm (best time: 2:45pm): Check out local events here.

WESTCHESTER 1:26pm to 4:00pm (best time: 2:46pm): Check out local events here.

BOSTON 1:28pm to 3:59pm (best time: 2:46pm): Check out local events here.

On the Big Day

While it may seem a little corny, there are memories to be made in watching a once-or-twice-a-lifetime natural phenomenon with your kids. While planning well, including bringing some chairs or blankets and snacks to your viewing spot, is helpful, don't worry too much about making it the perfect scenario, or trying to capture a great photo (which is hard even for experienced photographers with fancy equipment). If you haven't gotten glasses or made a pinhole camera, you can set up near a shady tree, as the gaps in the leaves will act like dozens of pinhole cameras that project the sun on the ground and the crescent shape of the passing moon.

If clouds roll in as the eclipse is about to begin, Aviste says, don't despair. "Keep alert, because those clouds just might part before the eclipse ends," he says. In the end, it's important that you're soaking in the moment, not simply the sun. Mother Nature isn't always perfect, just like some other mamas your kids might know.

Top photo via Bigstock

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