A 5-year-old’s guide to the solar eclipse

Published 7:10 pm Wednesday, August 16, 2017

One of the joys of being a parent is the opportunity to see everything from the exceptional to the mundane through new eyes.

Questions about what animal runs the fastest (the cheetah) and how do flowers grow are par for the course, and while there is no way to know the answer to every question an inquisitive child will ask, I firmly believe that it is important for a child to ask those questions. I also believe it is important for my son to see that even grownups have more to learn.

Sometimes, even moms and dads have to look up what a certain dinosaur ate or ask an expert if pigs like apples or carrots more.

My son and I have been discussing the solar eclipse this week, and because 5-year-olds accept nothing at face value, he has had some questions about how the eclipse works that even some adults puzzle over. My favorite question asked so far during our discussions has been, “Is it real?”

The question was asked the same way he would ask if Mickey Mouse is real or if cartoon hijinks are possible in real life — with a heavy dose of skepticism and a dash of hope. After confirming that yes, the moon will mostly block the sun from view for about a minute next week, and that the eclipse will be a real scientific event, not a joke or cartoonish prank, we talked about how it works.

My model of the solar system made up of shampoo bottles rotated by hand was far from proportional, but I think the visual may have helped because he turned away to begin playing again after that explanation of how the moon will come between the sun and earth in the way that I have noticed he does when a concept is beginning to overwhelm him.

Understanding the solar system is a little harder to understand than the fact that plants need food or that some animals can run really fast, but introducing hard concepts to young children in the simplest way possible is what education is about. Maybe he won’t understand all the details about what is going on when the eclipse occurs on Monday, but maybe he will be like Julia Dyar and Frances Hines, who I interviewed this week, and will still vividly remember watching this event from their childhood decades later.

Either way, I hope my son and I will get to enjoy the next eclipse in 2024 together with an even better understanding of science and the world as a whole.