iPhones. Texting. Instagram. We've come a long way from being kids in awe over Atari or a dot matrix printer. To our children, many of whom will own a cell phone and comprehend the notion of the QWERTY keyboard by the time they are four years old, technology is all together something different than what it was to us. As parents we may feel a bit behind the eight ball trying to keep up with technology as it advances as quickly as the texting thumbs of our teens, but luckily, there are still ways for us to connect with our kids using modern marvels.
Hard as it may be, if you can pry your kid away from her Wii, see if she'll join you outside for a look at the sky. Those things in the sky are stars. We're sure they know that from school, but have your kids ever been tempted to stay up after bed and really look a them? Hard to see the stars in your area? Tempt your kids further away from the TV with a telescope. Turns out they still make them, and they're not that expensive either. If you're not moved to rush right out and purchase a piece of equipment, start by working with what you can see in the sky. For the very small child, that can be as simple as the sun and the moon, followed by a twinkling little star or, in some cases, the north star. With older children, you can also point out the more obvious constellations such as the Big Dipper and Orion. Once you get them outside, they'll be happy they joined you.
And, since you're already outside, you might as well point out whatever planets might be visible in the area. Mars, Venus and Jupiter tend to be the most likely candidates, and again, you can get your children to help you navigate the wonders of the web to see what's best in your area. After a solid viewing, whether with the naked eye, binoculars (they help!), or an actual telescope, all of you can debate whether or not Pluto should be counted as a planet and whether or not the moon really looks like it's made of cheese.
But perhaps you and your kids prefer something on a smaller scale. The stars and our galaxy can be great as a concept, but a little too much for the youngest ones since they're literally so far out. Instead, why not go the direct opposite and get to know the minute particulars of things that are very tiny? It can be as easy as grabbing a magnifying glass. No, there's nothing electronic here, nothing that requires batteries or being hooked up to an outlet, just a specially made glass, generally surrounded by nothing more than plastic.
When we were little, we were encouraged to take a toothpick, rub it around the inside of our cheeks, and attempt to look at the cells under a microscope. We don't recommend doing any of that, for especially pointy reasons; instead, grab that magnifying glass and hold it over an open book or pretty much anything in order to show your children how it works. Then start looking for even more. We like looking at the carpet to see what we turn up. You might also try examining every day things buttons and toys.
Once you've all mastered that, take it outside. The backyard will never have been so interesting as when viewed through a tiny lens. With multiple children, you can stage a contest for the most interesting thing they can turn up or set them off to find things with smooth, bumpy, scratchy or soft surfaces. If the magnifying glass interest wanes, you can also pick up glasses that imitate the effect of an insect's compound eye. Frequently found in the gift shops of your local zoo or nature center gift shop, these fun glasses show kids can see what something looks like close up, from a zillion different perspectives.
Or, you can invest in a microscope. Microscopes unearth the hidden worlds of ours like almost nothing else. They prove that, indeed, there is an entire world in a drop of water (...depending on where the water comes from). Try comparing different drops of liquids, then a grain of sand, salt or pepper. Try other spices. Try scraps of different types of paper. Heck, try anything -- one of the most fun things about microscopes is seeing just what we can see.
These wonderful technological tools can help uncover the universe that is in our own backyard, foster a love of nature, and get your kids outdoors. And that's something we all could use a bit more of in our lives.
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