Parent Today: How to safely watch the solar eclipse with your kids

| August 18, 2017

On Monday, August 21, 2017, a total eclipse of the sun will be visible from coast to coast in the United States for the first time in almost 40 years.

The event is being referred to as “The Great American Total Solar Eclipse,” and will start in Salem, Oregon and stretch all the way to Charleston, South Carolina.

According to NASA, a solar eclipse is when the moon passes between the sun and Earth and blocks all or part of the sun for up to about three hours, from beginning to end, as viewed from a given location. For the eclipse taking place on Monday, the longest period when the moon completely blocks the sun from any given location along the path will be about two minutes and 40 seconds.

Those lucky enough to be in the total solar eclipse’s path of totality will be able to view the total eclipse (where the moon fully covers the sun for a few minutes), and day will temporarily turn to night. But anyone in North America will be able to see the partial eclipse (where the moon covers only a part of the sun), weather-permitting.

Beverly Bisnett-Jenks, an instructional administrator for Math, Science and Technology at Farnsworth Middle School in Guilderland, NY, is excited to be able to share this next experience with her students.

“I wasn’t old enough to see the last total eclipse [that was visible in New York state], but I do remember a partial eclipse in the early 1990’s. Just like this upcoming eclipse, it was in the summertime, so the warm weather really made for an accessible event. People were coming out of their offices and families were gathering with safety glasses or handmade devices to watch the ‘show!’ It’s always amazing when you witness an event with large numbers of people standing in awe of what nature shows us. A solar eclipse is a great time, for everyone, to stand in awe, wonder and be curious.”

What’s the big deal?

Aside from the fact that all solar eclipses are considered a natural phenomenon, eclipses are not necessarily rare – there are about two eclipses every two years – but total solar eclipses, like the one set for Aug. 21, are extremely rare and rarely seen, especially in the United States. NASA explains that “the shadow the moon produces on Earth during an eclipse isn’t very big, so only a small portion of places on Earth get to see eclipses, let alone total eclipses.

“The total solar eclipse provides a once-in-a-lifetime learning opportunity for students,” said Bisnett-Jenks. “[As a science educator, I believe] it’s important for students to witness and observe all kinds of scientific phenomena, but an event like this may only happen a few times, if ever, in a person’s lifetime. What a great time to ask kids to think about their relationship to the sun, moon and earth, and to ask questions about why [a total solar eclipse] occurs.”

Experiencing the total eclipse with children

Bisnett-Jenks suggests to help children fully understand the uniqueness of this event, to explain that the last time the [continental] U.S. saw one was back in 1979, and how a total solar eclipse is much more rare than a partial eclipse.

She also says, to involve children, plan activities like art, baking or science projects. NASA has suggestions on their website, with activities like sun funnels, how to perform an eclipse dance and how to take a selfie with sun.

“This is a great resource because their ideas run the gamut for ages and abilities.”

The single most important thing to keep in mind during the viewing of the total solar eclipse is to do so safely. The only time it is safe to look directly at the sun is during the brief total phase of a solar eclipse (“totality”), when the moon blocks the sun’s bright face.

The only safe way to look directly at the uneclipsed or partially eclipsed sun is through special-purpose solar filters, such as eclipse glasses, or hand-held solar viewers. (Amazon Primers beware  Amazon has recently issued a recall for some eclipse glasses sold on its site, saying it was unable to confirm whether the protective glasses were up to safety standards.) Without proper eye ware, unprotected glimpses of the sun can cause blurry vision, temporary and even permanent blindness.

While there’s nothing necessarily different about the strength of the sun’s light during a solar eclipse, eclipses are dangerous due to the sudden changes in luminosity, which can cause retina damage before your eyes have a chance to adapt, or before you have an opportunity to say “ow, that hurts” and look away.

Bisnett-Jenks adds: “It is never safe to look directly at the sun without protective eyewear. The danger is that an eclipse is so fascinating and we’re tempted to stare right at sun! But please, do not even try to sneak a glimpse.”

For the safest experience of the upcoming total solar eclipse, Bisnett-Jenks recommends parents prepare by securing safety eye ware for family members. Many places are selling and distributing free eclipse glasses. Check out the American Astronomical Society’s approved list of safe eyewear distributors.

““Check your glasses for scratches and scuffs, even if your glasses are brand new. When you know you’ve taken the right safety precautions, there’s nothing standing in you and your family’s way of experiencing the ‘Great Total Solar Eclipse of 2017!’”

The total solar eclipse experience:


Aubree Kammler is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. She is the mother to a one-year old son – together they’re exploring the world one wobbly step at a time.

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