Tips for solar eclipse viewing with children

How to safely view and explain a solar eclipse.

View a partial eclipse through special-purpose eclipse glasses or hand-held solar viewers that meet the ISO 12312-2 international standard. Homemade filters or ordinary sunglasses, even very dark ones, are not safe. Photo by Jay M. Pasachoff.
View a partial eclipse through special-purpose eclipse glasses or hand-held solar viewers that meet the ISO 12312-2 international standard. Homemade filters or ordinary sunglasses, even very dark ones, are not safe. Photo by Jay M. Pasachoff.

On Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, all of North America will be treated to a view of the eclipse of the sun. The path of totality, where the moon completely covers the sun, stretches from Lincoln Beach, Oregon, to Charleston, South Carolina. For those outside the path, you will still be able to see a partial solar eclipse where the moon covers part of the sun. Michigan falls into a 70-80 percent partial eclipse range, according to NASA’s “Eclipse: Who? What? Where? When? And How?”

An eclipse is an amazing experience to view, but it can be confusing for children and there are safety risks. Michigan State University Extension offers the following information for viewing and explaining an eclipse to your child.

What is an eclipse?

A solar eclipse happens when the moon passes between the sun and the Earth and causes a shadow to fall on part of Earth. The eclipse isn’t able to be seen from everywhere on Earth, but only where the shadow of the moon falls. The last time there was a total eclipse in the United States was in 1979, or 38 years ago.

A total eclipse is where the sun is completely covered by the Moon. On Aug. 21, a path about 70 miles wide, stretching from the northwestern coast in Oregon, across Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and North and South Carolina, will experience totality. The eclipse begins in North America at 9:05 a.m. Pacific Time in Lincoln Beach, Oregon, and ends at 2:48 p.m. Eastern Time near Charleston, North Carolina.

During the Aug. 21 eclipse, all of the United States outside of the totality area will be able to see a partial solar eclipse, where only a portion of the sun is blocked by the moon.

You can find out how much of the eclipse and when to look to the skies by visiting NASA’s Total Solar Eclipse Interactive Map. For instance, in Detroit, Michigan, there will be 80 percent obscuration (or percentage of the sun blocked). The start of the eclipse will be at 1:03 p.m., maximum at 2:27 p.m. and will end at 3:47 p.m.

How to safely view the eclipse

You cannot look directly at the sun during an eclipse without special glasses or view it through a smart phone or other camera without a filter. It can be tempting to go ahead and look as the sky becomes dark, but there is real risk to permanent damage to your and your children’s eyes.

The only safe way to look at a partially eclipsed sun is through special-purpose solar filters, such as eclipse glasses. Young children may do better with handheld viewers, as the glasses are often too large for their heads. Ordinary sunglasses are not sufficient to filter the damaging light.

Check with local libraries, science museums, astronomy clubs and even ophthalmologists to find these special glasses. There was a recent recall on several popular brands, so double check if your glasses are compliant. If your child will not leave glasses on or if they do not fit well, it may be a safer choice to view the event inside on the television.

Another method is to use pinhole projection. In order to do this, you pass sunlight through a small opening, for example a hole punched in paper, to project the image of the sun onto the ground or another surface. You can even do this by just crossing your fingers, slightly open, over your other hand, and holding your arms outstretched with your back to the sun. The little spaces between your fingers will create a grid of small images on the ground, each containing a little crescent of the sun. Pinhole projection does not mean to look directly at the sun through a small pinhole.

NASA offers additional tips on how to safely observe the sun during the eclipse, as well as links to approved glasses, filters and other resources for safe viewing at How to View a Solar Eclipse Safely.

Additional eclipse information

The earliest information we have that people were paying attention to eclipses in an official capacity are about 5,000 years old. Many people used to believe eclipses were a sign that change was coming. The Ancient Chinese believed solar eclipses occurred when the celestial dragon devoured the sun. The Ancient Greek explained that the Sues, father of the Olympians, could make night from mid-day by hiding the sun. Learn more about eclipse history at NASA's Eclipse History.

Eclipses have provided an important time for scientific discoveries. The moon covering the sun has allowed scientists an opportunity to study the corona and chromosphere. NASA's Solar Eclipses of Historical Interest for a complete list of important solar eclipses in history.

Many misconceptions have surrounded eclipses over time. Some debunked myths include pregnant women should not watch the eclipse because it can harm the baby, the food prepared during eclipses is poisonous, and eclipses are a sign something bad is about to happen. While eclipses are a fun and unique event, there is no danger to anyone during an eclipse. It is simply a naturally occurring phenomenon. For more misconceptions and their explanations, see NASA's Eclipse Misconceptions.

NASA offers a wealth of additional eclipse education material including an Eclipse Activity Guide; an Eclipse Education website devoted to eclipse educational material including activities for parents, K-12 teachers, homeschool educators and informal education settings; and a blog devoted to the eclipse. NASA recommends the book “When the Sky Goes Dark” by Andrew Fraknoi and Dennis Schatz to teach children about the eclipse.

NASA will offer an eclipse live stream on Monday, Aug. 21, with coverage from noon to 4 p.m. Eastern Time. Their coverage will be broadcast from 12 locations, airplanes, ground telescopes and 57 high altitude balloons. You can watch in a variety of ways. Visit NASA’s Eclipse Live website for more information.

The upcoming solar eclipse is a special opportunity to teach your children about astronomy, science and our solar system. Explain to them what will happen so they are prepared and not scared. Look up answers online and learn more about this special event. Take time on Monday, Aug. 21, to step outside, and with your safe solar eclipse glasses, view the solar eclipse.

Visit MSU Extension’s Early Childhood Development webpage for resources and information for families and children and to find upcoming events in your area.

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