What will it be like to fly into space? Visit another planet? See Earth from above? Do your elementary-aged kids ask questions like these? If so, I highly recommend you consider virtual space tourism for your family’s next educational adventure!

For much of human existence, these questions were purely hypothetical. Right now, they’re hypothetical for all but the most highly-trained specialists. But not for long. Thanks to near-miraculous advances in technology, these questions are less and less imaginary, and as amazing as it seems, our kids are growing up in an era when space tourism will be a reality.

When our children tilt up their faces and wonder in the dark what it’s like to fly through space, visit other planets, and see Earth from above, these aren’t mere flights of fancy; they’re questions with actual answers, and you can help your kids discover the answers while learning about astronomy and the universe as you take virtual trips to space.

The elementary years are a wonderful time to travel to space and learn about astronomy with your kids.

Young kids are always, always learning. They’re curious, imaginative, and love to explore new things. In the elementary years, they become enthusiastic detectives: putting together things and ideas to figure out why and how, naturally absorbing and synthesizing information and experiences.

Astronomy captures their imagination, and because it includes a wide variety of topics and scientific thought, it is a fantastic “gateway science.” If you combine it with travel – even the virtual kind – you’ve got a powerful, fun educational experience that helps foster an understanding of how we’re all connected and what makes home extra special.

Actual space tourism may be out of reach for most of us for some time yet, but with a little creativity, you can use virtual space tourism to take advantage of the many benefits of traveling with kids at this age while you explore science in ways that are meaningful and exciting.

As you and your family embark on your own space tourism, consider how you might make use of some of the following ideas. Please don’t feel that you must try to include all the sample ideas – think of them as a launch pad for creating an atmosphere of fun!

Challenge your kids to take the lead in planning your family’s virtual space adventure.

As you and your kids prepare for your adventures, ask them what they think you will need to consider and what they would like to learn about. In addition to the questions they would like to explore, and in order to make the destinations seem more real, you might want to also include questions such as:

• What will you encounter?
• How will you get there?
• What will you need for your journey?
• What foods might you bring?
• What other kinds of things might you learn when you’re preparing to travel through space?

Younger children may appreciate options to choose from, and older kids will appreciate resources including books and websites to help them figure this out. Be prepared for the kids to decide on taste tests! (Astronaut ice cream, anyone?)

Virtual Space Travel - Earthrise
Earthrise, taken from lunar orbit by astronaut Bill Anders in 1968, during the Apollo 8 mission. 

Image Credit: NASA

Don’t be surprised if your children decide this is the perfect time to build a rocket!

Even virtual travel can provide opportunities for hands-on learning for kids.

Don’t be surprised if your children decide this is the perfect time to build a rocket!

As your children plan the travel itinerary, they can build a scale model of the solar system and use it to figure out how the planets move in their orbits, which may help them plot your course as you travel from planet to planet.

If they create a model of the Earth, moon, and sun to figure out why the shape of the moon appears to change night after night, and what part of the moon is never visible from Earth, it may help them decide where they wish to land when you visit the moon.

Perhaps your kids would love to create a model of the surface of Mars in preparation for visiting that planet.

Or your family could use constellation and asterism diagrams to make a giant constellation cookie-cake with chocolate chips as stars – and bring it to snack on as you journey through space!

Encourage your kids to think of where they’ll travel in space as real places with real challenges that are different from those at home.

One fun way to explore this concept is with a free printable game for the whole family called “Crash Landing!” available for download from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. In this game, your family will work together to survive a crash landing 60 miles away from the nearest lunar base. In the lower gravity of the moon, that’s not too far to walk, but what will you need to take? Your family will think about the environment on the moon and try to determine which resources will help the most. There’s no single correct solution, but some answers are better than others. Work together to share your knowledge and try to come up with the best solution! Download here: https://www.astrosociety.org/edu/family/materials/crashlanding.pdf

Virtual space travel provides kids with many subjects for a wide variety of creative expression, both verbal and visual.

First, a gentle reminder about fun versus work. If you take your kids to an exotic location on a big vacation and one morning you plop them down in chairs and instruct them to apply themselves to producing three paragraphs on the climate and native plants of that region, well, sorry but you’ve just sucked all the fun right out of it. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to have fun while adding some language arts expression to your space travels without making it feel like more work!

If your child loves to write, they might enjoy creating a story about alien life forms (you may wish to take dictation) or perhaps they’d enjoy making postcards about their space travels to send to loved ones. If they’re into journaling, they may decide to keep a travel journal to record the things they think about as your family travels through space.

If writing isn’t fun, there are many ways to get your kids talking about space travel. Find a video of space exploration, such as the mammoth undertaking of Curiosity Rover landing on Mars (narrated by William Shatner or by Will Wheaton, two versions of the same NASA video on YouTube) and ask your kids what they think it would be like if they could travel with the rover.

Download vintage-travel-inspired posters from NASA/JPL and discuss with your child what the posters communicate.

Or ask them to create a flag for the planet they’d like to visit and then tell you all about it.

Space travel provides an awesome perspective of Earth, giving your kids a greater sense of our interconnectedness and inspiring in them a deeper appreciation for our unique and precious home.

Astronauts describe a sense of overwhelming awe when they view our beautiful planet from space. In his book,The Orbital Perspective NASA Astronaut Ron Garan describes this feeling:

Seeing Earth from this vantage point gave me a unique perspective — something I’ve come to call the orbital perspective. Part of this is the realization that we are all traveling together on the planet and that if we all looked at the world from that perspective we would see that nothing is impossible.”

Astronauts describe a sense of overwhelming awe when they view our beautiful planet from space.
On Earth, we can glimpse this awesome view through photographs from the International Space Station, but even more powerful is hearing what astronauts say in their own words as they mark these moments of pure awe. Read their words in NASA astronauts’ space travel journals online, or read how six astronauts more succinctly described their most powerful moments.

For older kids, the documentary series One Strange Rock from National Geographic, available on DVD in July 2018, puts this sense of awe into an astonishing visual story, narrated by astronauts.

When your kids experience moments of awe as they learn about our world, it can be life-changing. It may even inspire them to help our world in their own, unique way. Psychologists who studied feelings of awe found that experiencing awe produces a greater sense of well-being and a tendency toward altruism.

To place this in context, after witnessing the Earth from space, NASA astronaut Ron Garan began to describe our planet as a “fragile oasis.” As he puts it, if you came across a vibrant oasis in an inhospitable desert, you wouldn’t trash it. You’d take care of it!

If you need another reason to take your kids on a space tourism adventure, here’s the best one of all: It’s really fun!

It’s amazing to think that kids who will look up at the moon tonight live in a time when people may be able to travel close to the moon just for fun, if not actually land on it. Maybe your kids will someday be real space travelers!

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Denise Wilson

Denise Wilson is a pro-level follower of rabbit trails who has homeschooled her middle-schooler since he was four (it was his idea). Her work includes writing for children and the adults who love them; creating and teaching science courses for middle-schoolers; and the general magic of the everyday. Denise’s family loves reading, traveling, table games, making stuff, and playing with their dog, Charlie Barker. She blogs about their secular, eclectic, weird but awesome home education life at BackyardOwls.com .