Gazing at the stars and creating constellations, or star patterns, has a rich and long tradition throughout history. This astrological practice dates as far back as the Babylonians or more than 3,000 years. The Greeks took it a step further by naming and documenting about half of the 88 constellations and loved telling stories about them. They created pictures of mythical creatures, heroes, and animals in the clusters of stars and filled the night sky with their imagination.
This lesson guide is a continuation of the Space and our solar system article and will give your kids even more fun activities to express their love of the stars and our universe. By the end, they will have learned about how constellations came about and where they can learn more about them while amusing themselves to no end.
The history of constellations
The constellations have served many purposes for several ancient civilizations over the millennia. As far back as the construction of the pyramids and the Sphinx in Egypt, they used stars to align the structures. The Sphinx, for example, was aligned with the constellation Leo, causing some to theorize that the original head was actually a lion’s. And the three large pyramids of Giza are perfectly aligned to the belt of the hunter Orion constellation.
Once people began to explore all corners of the globe, the stars became an even more important tool in navigating the seas. Sailors could keep the course on long journies by using the stars and constellations were a big part in being able to recognize their position. This practice also helped the first space travelers when the Apollo missions flew to the moon.
Where on the planet are you?
Exactly how the constellations appear in the sky depends on a few factors: in which hemisphere you are located, how close to the equator you are and the season you’re in. Nasa has a wonderful website dedicated specifically to see how the constellations look from month to month and for northern and southern hemisphere views. They even have a handy printable star finder game which will help you spot all your favorite constellations and maybe even discover some new ones!
Their position and angle change as each month passes. If you find yourself traveling from north to south, you will see different constellations. And the ones you see in the north will be upside down in the south. This is a fun fact you can experience with these star finders and a little travel.
For the little ones, the Wishing on a Star has many fun stories and activities.
The Constellations activity book has even more drawing and word games, great for rainy days or cloudy nights when no stars can be seen.
The Darkest Dark is the real-life story of a Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield, who overcomes his fear of the dark and discovers his passion for space travel at a very young age.
Felt playmat and 3 part cards
This activity implements several Montessori methods to learn about the constellations. The 3-part cards are a wonderful identification and matching game. If you are unfamiliar with using 3-part cards then check out this article.
The felt board is specially designed to lay four control cards out at a time while your little one constructs the constellations with dots and sticks. This is another way of reinforcing the learning and developing fine motor skills.
The felt constructions can replace the object card as an additional challenge to the activity. Below is a list of the constellations with some fun facts about who and what they represent. You can use them during the identification lesson to give your child a fun story to help associate each picture with its name.
Most of these constellations date back to the time of the Greeks as the astronomer Ptolemy named them. They represent the richest of Greek mythology and the mythological figures and creatures which make up this amazing story-telling culture.
In Greek mythology, Andromeda was the daughter of Cassiopeia. She is represented in the constellation as being chained to a rock waiting to be devoured by a sea monster.
This is one of many animal constellations from Greek mythology. Aquila means eagle in Latin and he was the one who carried the thunderbolts from Zeus.
This constellation is known as the charioteer in Latin and has a controversial history. Some say it depicts Ericthonius of Athens who conquered Athens with his four-wheeled chariot. Others argue that it depicts Myrtilus, the son of Hermes, who was placed in the sky after his death.
Just who this constellation exactly represents is unknown. Meaning ox-driver or herdsman, some say he is the plowman while other legends say he is Icarius who was killed for having made such strong wine that it poisoned shepherds.
Translated from Latin as ‘greater dog’, this constellation follows the hunter Orion on his celestial hunt through the skies.
A queen of Greek mythology, Cassiopeia was said to be a bit of a narcissist as she believed she was the most beautiful woman in existence.
Cepheus was so-called in honor of an Ethiopian king and father to Andromeda. He completes the family with Cassiopeia by his side.
This constellation represents the crown given to Ariadne by Dionysus at their wedding. He placed it in the heavens as a commemoration.
Identified as the legendary swan, it is the symbol of loyalty. Cygnus was Phaethon’s brother and was so distraught by his death that he refused to stop looking for his bones until he could give him a proper burial.
Draco depicts the dragon defeated by Minerva and thrust to the chilly north pole as a coiled up serpent.
In this constellation of Hercules, the strongest man in the universe is depicted kneeling with a club in hand, defeating the dragon Draco.
In Greek mythology, Lyra represented the lyre of Orpheus, which is said to be the first of its kind ever produced. The instrument was so potent in its seduction that it was able to charm even the most inanimate of objects, such as trees and rocks.
Easily the most recognized star cluster in the night sky, Orion was a super hunter of ancient times in Greek mythology. But its image can be found as far back as cave paintings discovered in Germany dating back to 32,000 BC.
Perseus is among the most famous worriers of Greek mythology after defeating Polydectes by turning it to stone with the head of Medusa, thereby saving his future wife Andromeda.
Also known as the Great Bear, this constellation includes the big dipper and is another famous constellation in the night sky. The Greeks believed it represents Callisto who was a beautiful nymph. Jupiter fell in love with Callisto and his jealous wife Juno turned her into a bear so Jupiter would no longer be attracted to her.
Ursa Minor or Little Bear, is part of the Jupiter-Juno-Callisto love triangle. It represents Arcas or the son of Jupiter and Callisto. Arcas was placed in the sky by Jupiter when he nearly shot his mother (the great bear) while hunting.
Bust out the telescope
Once a collection of constellations have been studied, it’s time to start looking for the star clusters in the night sky. On clear nights, outside the city, this can be done with the naked eye as the stars aren’t drowned out by the city lights.
For those of us who live in cities though, a telescope or even a star-finder app comes in very handy. These are great tools for spotting every star in the constellations, even some of the tiny ones which are not as visible.
Why are some stars brighter than others?
The fact that the stars all appear to have different sizes and brightness depends on how far away they are from our solar system. Just because they look close together in the sky doesn’t mean they are next to each other in space.
For example with the three stars in Orion’s belt, the two outer stars are about 9 light-years away (1 ly = 9.5 trillion km or 6t miles.). However, the middle one is about 13, making it look a bit dimmer than the others. So with that difference in distances, we can easily understand why the stars look so bright or dim.
Sleeping under the stars
I found a really nice way of making glow-in-the-dark constellations on this website. Unlike the typical ceiling constellations, this woman takes it a step further and uses hangers to make constellations. It looks really fun and is very easy to follow her instructs.
Over at Handmade Charlotte, she went through painstaking effort to create a truly hands-on crafty kids activity. Making constellations possible with the ease of switching off a light switch is a brilliant and quick way to study the stars and refresh the memory.
It’s also a great method of testing once the 3-part card lesson has been gone through a few times.
Constellations video to learn even more science
This woman is very good at explaining just what purpose constellations serve astronomers. They aren’t there just to make pretty pictures!