Emily LakdawallaJul 28, 2017

Sharing an eclipse with kids

There's a lot of buzz in the USA about traveling to see the upcoming total solar eclipse, but most of the country's residents -- as well as people in Canada, Central America, the Caribbean, and northern South America -- will be witnessing a partial eclipse. Here's a simple and safe way to observe a partial eclipse that's appropriate for young children with no eclipse glasses or other special equipment needed. Throughout the exercise, kids safely face away from the Sun. These instructions are good for all solar eclipses seen from all countries, not just the "Great American Eclipse" coming soon.

UPDATE: I've created a one-page easily photocopiable handout to share with teachers, parents, and students on eclipse viewing. It's currently available in English, Spanish, French, Russian, Japanese, and Chinese. See it at the bottom of this post.

Read on for step-by-step instructions, or just watch this video:

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Step 1. Find out when the eclipse will be visible in your area

I like the eclipse page at timeanddate.com for its simple interface. Here is what the page looks like when I ask for information about upcoming eclipses in Los Angeles:

timeanddate.com predictions for the August 21, 2017 eclipse for Los Angeles, California
timeanddate.com predictions for the August 21, 2017 eclipse for Los Angeles, California Note this diagram is only valid for Los Angeles, California! Visit timeanddate.com/eclipse to get information for your area.

Step 2. Plan ahead: find a good spot to see the eclipse

On a day before eclipse day, go outdoors to locate a good viewing spot, at the same time of day that the eclipse will be happening. But don't look for the Sun, look for your shadow. If you can see the shadow of your head and shoulders clearly -- whether it's falling on the ground or falling on a wall -- then you are in a good spot for observing the eclipse. If other shadows are touching the shadow of your head, you don't have a clear view.

Tip: Assign this task to the children. It's fun to observe and identify good and bad spots to see their shadows. And then they can play with their shadows.

This is a good spot to view an eclipse with a pinhole projector.
This is a good spot to view an eclipse with a pinhole projector. Emily Lakdawalla

It's also good to be close to a tree that is casting dappled shade. Those shade dapples will look very cool during the eclipse. For best results, find dappled shade falling on a flat surface like pavement, packed dirt, or a wall.

Dappled shade
Dappled shade Dapples are the circular dots found in the shade of trees. Each dapple is a pinhole-projected image of the Sun. Emily Lakdawalla

Step 3. Make a pinhole projector (simple or fancy)

For a simple pinhole projector:

Materials:

  • 2 index cards (3-by-5 or A6 or A7 size) or small paper plates for each child
  • pushpins (several kids can share)

Procedure:

  • Use the push pin to punch a small hole close to the middle of one of the cards. You're done.
Making a simple pinhole projector
Making a simple pinhole projector

For a fancy pinhole projector:

Materials:

  • 2 index cards (larger, 5-by-7 or A5 cards work better for this) or small paper plates for each child
  • pencil
  • 1 pushpin per child
  • towel, sweatshirt, blanket, flattened corrugated cardboard box, carpet, or other soft substrate to place underneath card during pin pushing (backpacks will work but less well)

Procedure:

  • Draw a simple design on a card. The lines should not be too close together. Here are some examples:
  • Place the card on top of something soft (blanket, towel, etc)
  • Using the push pin, make small holes along your design lines. Not too close together -- about 5 millimeters (1/4 inch) apart.
Drawings for fancy pinhole eclipse viewers
Drawings for fancy pinhole eclipse viewers
Fancy-punched pinhole projector cards
Fancy-punched pinhole projector cards Emily Lakdawalla

Step 4. Use your pinhole projector

Before you go outside, remind kids: you don't need to look at the Sun. You need to find your shadow!

  • Go to your eclipse observing spot and make sure you can see the shadow of your head and shoulders clearly.
  • Hold up the card with the hole on top of your shoulder so that you can see the shadow of the card above the shadow of your shoulder.
  • Now hold up the other card and make sure you can see its shadow, too.
  • Move the second card and watch how its shadow moves. Keeping the card in front of you, move its shadow until the second card's shadow overlaps the first card's shadow.
  • Now look at the second card. You should see a dot on the card for every hole you punched. Those dots are actually images of the Sun.
  • Move the second card closer and farther away. What happens to the images of the Sun?
  • You are now ready to see the shape of the Sun during the eclipse.
How to use a pinhole projector, keeping your back to the Sun
How to use a pinhole projector, keeping your back to the Sun Emily Lakdawalla

Here's what the fancy eclipse viewers look like:

Fancy-punched pinhole projector cards in the Sun
Fancy-punched pinhole projector cards in the Sun Emily Lakdawalla, with thanks to her daughters, niece, and nephew

Don't forget to look in the shadows of trees during the eclipse, too! What do you see there?

Eclipsey shade
Eclipsey shade Dappled tree shade during the October 23, 2014 partial solar eclipse. Emily Lakdawalla

Handout for Teachers, Parents, and Students

I've collected most of these instructions into a simple one-page handout designed for distribution to teachers, students, and parents. There are versions localized to specific cities, and also blank ones that can be edited to your location.

Blank: English - Spanish - French - Russian **You will need to print it out, use a dark pen (like a thin Sharpie) to draw the shape of the Sun during the beginning, maximum, and end of the eclipse, and also write in the local times for those events. You can get local times from timeanddate.com/eclipse. There is also a Japanese version that is localized to Los Angeles.

Thanks to Franck Marchis for the French translation. Thanks to Julio Rodríguez, Cesar and Rosi Peña, and Frances Rivera-Hernández for their help with the Spanish translation. Thanks to Yoko Matsui for Japanese. Thanks to Akhan Almagambetov for Russian.

The following sheets have times and eclipsed Sun shapes specific to certain locales.

Continental USA

Caribbean

Mexico

Central America

South America

Canada

If you are planning outreach in your own city and would like me to make bilingual sheets for you, send me an email. I obviously won't be able to do them all, but I'll do some. I'll give priority to people working with large numbers of kids or with underserved groups.

I'd like to point out a few things I did with these sheets to make them more accessible to a wider audience, and would encourage others considering outreach to community schools to do the same:

  • The sheet is black-and-white only for reproducibility on old/weak photocopiers
  • I used a widely available sans serif font (Calibri) as recommended by dyslexic associations for easier readability
  • I planned to take the time to get help to translate the text into Spanish. Fully 40% of Los Angeles County households speak Spanish at home. 

I will be using these sheets in my neighborhood elementary school. In order to do eclipse outreach at the school, I contacted them a few months ago and arranged to meet with the principal two weeks before the event. She was excited to have someone to come in to help with eclipse education, because the school's science teacher will be in Wyoming to see totality!

Want to learn more about the upcoming eclipse? Read our Guide to the Great American Eclipse of 2017!

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