Teaching the Constellations

Printable maps of the stars, to label and use as guides to the night sky.

I think that every educated person should be able to look up at night, and recognize the face of the sky. We should know the constellations, for the same reason we know basic geography. We should feel at home on the surface and under the ceiling of the world we inhabit.

In school, we make students learn to recognize the shapes of countries and continents in geography class. We want them to know the arrangement of their world, and to be able to find their way around on a map of it. I say we should make students learn to recognize the shapes of constellations and 'landmarks' in the sky for the same reason. They should know the arrangement of the heavens above, and be able to find their way around on a map of outer space.

Geography Class for the Sky

And what's the best way to learn geography? In school, we hand out maps, and we practice labeling things with their names. Maybe we let students color in the countries to help reinforce the shapes. Why can't we do something similar for the night sky? We should have a set of constellation charts that resemble the night sky, and we should give these to students as worksheets, and make them practice labeling stars and star patterns with their names. (And then they should go home and try to find these shapes in the sky, for real, after dark.)

I couldn't find any such maps, so I made some. In the links below you can find a series of printable star maps, with blank versions and filled-in answer keys, for what I think are the major constellations in the night sky. They don't include every one of the 88 official modern constellations, many of which are small, dim, and unremarkable, but they include all of the brightest and most recognizable 'landmark' constellations, visible to students living in the northern hemisphere. My school had digital projectors and whiteboards in each classroom, and I would project the blank worksheet, with stars but no labels, onto the whiteboard, and then I would draw on it with whiteboard markers. I gave students their own copy of a blank worksheet, and we would identify stars one-by-one, circle them, and connect the dots to make memorable shapes that we could give names to. It worked beautifully. And I found that this made an educational and all-around popular classroom activity.

Video Course: Constellations For Kids

I published my first video course a little while ago, covering the constellations, using some of these worksheets as the primary activity. It covers most of the bright landmarks that you can see from the northern hemisphere, and it is aimed at roughly 10-year-olds, give or take a few years. If your kids (or you) would enjoy learning the constellations by filling out these worksheets, click here! It is currently available for $30, but once I develop a broader content library, I'll probably move it into that library and make it available along with everything else for a smaller monthly subscription.

Each of my charts includes most of the stars in the area, including the dim ones. The smallest may be hard to see on the paper, but they'll be hard to see in the sky, too. Depending on your sky conditions, you might not see them at all. (I found that very young children, say in 2nd grade and below, would very easily become distracted by too many stars. Someday perhaps I'll prepare a second set of charts for younger students, omitting all but the brightest stars.) Also, I designed these worksheets for use in the classroom, which is why they have labeling blanks at the top for name, date, and title, and room along the long edge for a three-hole punch.

In my experience, this was always a fun part of the year. Students loved it. However, I have to admit that this was in Southern California, where the skies are almost always clear. If you live in a place where the skies are often cloudy...well, learning constellations is an intermittent activity anyway, to be interspersed with other material. You will just have to be “opportunistic astronomers”, and take advantage of clear skies when you have them.