Warm summer nights are like the siren song to active families everywhere. Stay out late! Bed time, what’s that? And if we’re honest, sometimes it’s hard to resist the call. On those nights when you’re just itching to extend family play time, shuttle your crew to the backyard or an open field for a night sky odyssey. We’ve charted out the star gazing basics in this beginner’s guide. Read on and then blast off!

Boy and telescope pointingPhoto: Allison Sutcliffe

Cultivate Curiosity

Spend the day light hours building excitement by letting the wee ones explore the evening’s coming attraction. A few simple activities will spark their curiosity and help them figure out what to be on the lookout for that night. Set out Cheerios, beads or other doodads for the tot lot to glue in place of stars on constellation cards. These free printable charts from Lie Back, Look Up work well, and the fun facts on the back make for good trivia the night of your adventure.

Telescope Ryan Wick photo: Ryan Wick on Flickr creative commons

For the older bunch, try lacing the constellations with these free printables found at the Mrs. Home Economist blog. Or put your Pinterest skills to the test and make your own with cardboard and a hole punch. Not feeling the crafty love? Grab a pack of these adorbs animal lacing cards that glow in the dark to help your amateur astronomer visualize what she’s seeing in the sky. After the day’s activities they’ll be ready for take off when the time finally comes.

Animals in the Stars lacing cards

Practical Matters

To find those star-light, star-brights in the night sky, darker is better. Be sure to scope out a location that has low lights, whether it’s your backyard, a local park or a clearing in the woods. Save your neck from unnecessary craning by bringing blankets or reclining chairs. Is anything more precious than lying head to head with your kiddo? If you want to turn your stargazing session into a campout, tents with mesh roofs will let you look around and offer a cozy space to drift off to sleep under the stars. Dress for the weather (darker equals colder), and pour a thermos of hot chocolaty goodness to bring along too. It helps to keep everyone comfy so they can focus on the lunar lights above.

Girls looking through telescopephoto: brunosan via Flickr creative commons

Check the weather forecast for clear skies and consider starting around the setting sun (which is a star after all). That way, mini me’s who have a hard time staying up won’t miss out. Remember to check the rising and setting times of the moon too, as the amount of moonlight can also determine how many stars you’ll see. If the sun sets really late in your city, take a nap before dinner. You might also want to start with shorter stargazing sessions, no more than 30 minutes, and work up to longer sessions as your kiddos develop more interest. If this passion takes hold, be sure to check into local astronomy-related activities in your area using NASA’s Night Sky Network. Just type in your zip code to find local meet-ups, star parties and more for your mini astronomer wannabes.

telescope gazing with DC in backgroundphoto: brunosan via Flickr creative commons

Bring the Right Stuff

Binoculars on a tripod work well for beginning star gazers. Afterward, if your sidekick develops a serious interest, consider investing in a relatively inexpensive beginner telescope. The Backyard Astronomer has great recommendations for budgets big and small. After all, the right telescope makes spotting the rings of Saturn, the craters on the moon, or the swirling storms on Jupiter much easier.

Telescope and mountains by makelessnoisephoto: makelessnoise via Flickr creative commons

Download a few digital tools onto your device before you hit the road or head outside. Because when it comes to connecting future astronauts with the stars, virtual is a good place to start. We’ve scoped out two galactic apps that bring the heavens down to earth so your littles can get a closer look. Vito Technology’s Star Walk app ($2.99) uses the GPS system on your device. All curious kiddos need to do is point and shoot to see what’s looming up above on a clear evening. Or check out the colorful graphics and interactive games that are part of The Explorium—Space for Kids app ($2.99). Characters Alex and Alice lead the way through this fact-filled adventure for kids ages 6 and up.

Star Walk screen photophoto: Star Walks

Don’t discount the lure of low-tech items to help shine a light on the heavens above, either. Star wheels help make sense of all those tiny stars dotting the sky, so kids can distinguish Ursa Major from Minor, and make contact with the brighter planets too. Or flip through a few books before heading to your viewing spot to set the scene. Zoo in the Sky by Jacqueline Mitten appeals to little animal lovers and astronomers alike, while The Big Dipper by Franklyn M. Branley tells a familiar story of a daughter and dad heading out to look at the stars. Pick up either one for post-viewing, pre-bedtime cuddling.

boy gazing through telescopephoto: Allison Sutcliffe

Blast Off with Snacks

A case of dehydrated astronaut ice cream isn’t a necessity when it comes serving up tasty treats to tiny star gazers. Try fresh and (mostly) healthy ideas to fill up little bellies when hunger strikes—turn a simple plate of cheese and crackers into a starry night sky using a cookie cutter with this cute idea from Little Helping Hands. Or bake up a batch of delish Constellation Cookies. Simply whip up your fave chocolate chip recipe, but hold out the chips. Instead, use M n M’s to make constellations on top of the cookies, pulling them out just a few minutes before they’re finished. Once the constellations are on, pop them back into the oven to finish baking. You can also have the kiddos engineer healthy treats by creating constellations from bite-sized fruit pieces (they’re the stars) and toothpicks. These edible 3D models are almost as fun to build as they are to eat!

constellation foodphoto: Allison Sutcliffe

…And Beyond

After your successful mission, a trip to the local planetarium or other science museum in your area is definitely in order. It’s a great way for kiddos to connect their newfound knowledge with hands-on exhibits. And if they have star theater, all the better!

Space museum shotPhoto: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Have you gone star gazing with your crew? Share you experience in a comment below.

—Allison Sutcliffe & Scott Wardell & Christal Yuen