Kids commonly answer: “an astronaut!” to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” There’s little doubt why. Ever since the space race of the 1950s jumpstarted space exploration in the U.S., astronauts have become the heroic symbol of human potential. The American West may have closed at the end of the 19th century, but the universe was still infinite and untouched. And people like Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Sally Ride eventually became the Lewis and Clark of the new space “frontier.” Exceptional folks like these would come to represent freedom, discovery, intelligence, and integrity. So, there’s little doubt why children today still see the astronaut as the symbol of fame and glory.
So, if you think you’ve got a future Alan Shepard of Mae C. Jemison on your hands, there are some things you can do to help them along. One no-brainer is to involve them in as many science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs as possible. Having a strong background in STEM is essential, whether you become a NASA scientist, SpaceX engineer, or full-fledged astronaut. But aside from academics, there are some often overlooked ways you can prepare and inspire your child to lead the future of space discovery. Here are a few of them.
If you want a successful lift-off on your child’s career in space discovery, help them develop their brains as infants. The first year of a child’s life is crucial for setting a strong cognitive foundation. In the first year, a baby’s brain doubles in size as he or she develops motor skills and explores physical forces like gravity. Parents and caregivers influence how their child’s brain develops. So, choose activities to promote brain development when playing with your child. Buy toys and books with high contrast colors and images to stimulate their visual cortex. Black and white colors are easier for your baby’s new eyes to see when they’re exploring their environment. The earlier you start engaging their natural curiosity of the physical world, the stronger their desire to probe its mysteries.
Human curiosity about the stars and planets goes back to the dawn of humans. So nurture your child’s natural wonder with a telescope. Join them in exploring celestial bodies like planets and asteroids. Then move on to locating and memorizing the constellations. Make sure you never miss a lunar or solar eclipse. And use the opportunity to teach your child about the history of the telescope and how it works. Or make your own telescope and introduce your young astronaut to the properties of light, lens refraction, and magnification. With a telescope, you can explore the night sky and physics concepts. And sharing these experiences with them will increase their excitement and build a strong parent-child bond.
Monthly subscription services are a popular way to order products online. You can get a “crate” shipped to your house filled with everything from shaving supplies to cheeses. And some subscription companies specialize in shipping STEM activities to young subscribers. The crates are usually divided by interest and come with an age-appropriate project on science (e.g., build a planetarium) or engineering (e.g., assemble a trebuchet). Not only will your child learn science with hands-on activities, but they’ll also have something to look forward to in the mail each month.
Chances are if your child shows an interest in space exploration, they’ll be keen on science fiction books and space-themed movies too. So, use literature, cinema, and pop culture to expand your child’s interest in exploration. Of course, classic shows and books like Star Trek (Roddenberry) or Have Space Suit—Will Travel (Heinlein) are the epitome of bold space discovery. But don’t overlook other sci-fi works that are just as compelling for young people. The films Explorers (1985), Apollo 13 (1995), and The Martian are inspiring cinema that upholds problem-solving and adaptation as key elements of successful space exploration. And to inspire your daughters, show them movies featuring strong female roles, both based on fiction (e.g., Gravity, 2013 ) or based on real-life (Hidden Figures, 2016). Plus, you can easily find a good read in the long list of sci-fi books with female main characters.
Kennedy Space Center is heavily involved in educational resources for children interested in space exploration and the astronaut program. The Center’s Camp KSC program is a weeklong day space camp packed with hands-on STEM activities and astronaut-training simulations. Camp members get to tour various KSC programs like the Astronaut Training Experience (ATX). The ATX is focused on training astronauts to navigate NASA’s next big project: landing on Mars. At ATX your child can practice their docking skills and experience a spacewalk in microgravity. And the Mars Base 1 class challenges kids to solve problems specific to the Red Planet, like harvesting vegetables in a lab or developing unique ways to live the Red Planet’s harsh environment.