Watching the Solar Eclipse: Fun Facts, Family Activities and Safety Tips

Are you ready for Solar Eclipse 2017? On August 21st, the first solar eclipse in nearly 40 years will be visible from the continental United States. If you can’t remember way back to 7th grade science class, a solar eclipse is when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun, partially or fully blocking on the sun’s rays. While anyone in the United States will get to see at least a partial solar eclipse (if there aren’t clouds or storms), some people who live in or are traveling to the “path of totality” will get to see a total solar eclipse – where the moon will completely cover the sun for around 2 minutes!

To get your family excited and prepared for the solar eclipse, we’re sharing a few fun facts and activities for kids and families and very important tips for viewing the eclipse safely. Get ready to count down!

Solar Eclipse Fun Facts

Get your kids excited for the solar eclipses with these fun facts from Astronomy.com.

1. This will be the first total solar eclipse in the continental U.S. in 38 years. The last one occurred February 26, 1979 but not many people saw it because it crossed just five states in the Northwest and many of them had stormy weather. Before that eclipse, you have to go back to March 7, 1970.

2. Umbra and penumbra. Make your kids the top dog in science class by teaching them these two eclipse terms: umbra and penumbra. Remember that a solar eclipse is a lineup of the sun, the moon, and Earth. When the moon is directly between the sun and Earth, it casts a shadow on our planet. If you’re in the dark part of that shadow, you’re in the umbra, and you’ll see a total eclipse. If you’re in the light part, you’re in the penumbra, and will just see a partial eclipse.

3. A solar eclipse only happens on a new moon (but not every new moon). The moon has to be between the Sun and Earth for a solar eclipse to occur. The only lunar phase when that happens is new moon.

4. For this eclipse, the path of totality will cross through 10 different states. Starting in Oregon, the path of totality will then cross through Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina.

5. Darkness won’t be the only change. Depending on your surroundings, as totality nears you may experience changes in nature you can experience with all your senses. Shadows may look different. Often times, any breeze will stop and birds will stop chirping. A 10°–15° F drop in temperature is not unusual.

How Families Can View The Eclipse Safely

You’ve heard it before – looking directly at the sun without eye protection can cause serious eye damage, but there are ways to safely view an eclipse. During a partial solar eclipse, families can make a pinhole camera to watch the moon move across the sun’s surface. If you want to view the sun directly, use “solar-viewing glasses” or “eclipse glasses” or “personal solar filters” that has a rating of ISO 12312-2. Use the the American Astronomical Society (AAS) Reputable Vendors of Solar Filters & Viewers page for a list of manufacturers and authorized dealers of eclipse glasses and handheld solar viewers that meet the standards.

Safety tips from NASA:

  • Always supervise children using solar filters.
  • Stand still and cover your eyes with your eclipse glasses or solar viewer before looking up at the bright sun. After looking at the sun, turn away and remove your filter — do not remove it while looking at the sun.
  • Do not look at the uneclipsed or partially eclipsed sun through an unfiltered camera, telescope, binoculars, or other optical device.
  • Similarly, do not look at the sun through a camera, a telescope, binoculars, or any other optical device while using your eclipse glasses or hand-held solar viewer — the concentrated solar rays will damage the filter and enter your eye(s), causing serious injury.
  • Seek expert advice from an astronomer before using a solar filter with a camera, a telescope, binoculars, or any other optical device. Note that solar filters must be attached to the front of any telescope, binoculars, camera lens, or other optics.
  • If you are within the path of totality, remove your solar filter only when the moon completely covers the sun’s bright face and it suddenly gets quite dark. Experience totality, then, as soon as the bright sun begins to reappear, replace your solar viewer to look at the remaining partial phases.
  • Outside the path of totality, you must always use a safe solar filter to view the sun directly.
  • If you normally wear eyeglasses, keep them on. Put your eclipse glasses on over them, or hold your handheld viewer in front of them.

5 Family-Friendly Ways to Celebrate the Eclipse

1. Find out what time you’ll be able to see the eclipse on this interactive map.

2. Download NASA’s free Eclipse Kit full of hands-on activities for kids of all ages.

3. Build your own solar eclipse viewer with basic household supplies.

4. Kids confused why the sun which is so big can be blocked out by the moon? Do this simple Solar Pizza activity from NASA to help explain.

5. Have your own Solar Eclipse Party! Check for planned events at local museums, libraries or planetarium – or plan your own!

Be sure to click here to find out when you can see the solar eclipse in your area!

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About Kate Bayless

A mom to three boys, Kate Bayless has been assembling, testing out, and writing about children's gear for nearly a decade. An experienced freelance writer and editor in Southern California, Kate also covers parenting, travel, health and beauty for a variety of print and online publications. And lattes. She reviews lots of lattes. Visit her at www.linkedin.com/in/katebayless/.