On April 8, 2024, a broad swath of North America—including parts of Mexico, the U.S. and Canada—will experience a total solar eclipse. It will be an awesome experience for people of any age, as well as an educational one for kids.
It’s easy to get lost in celestial mechanics, though, so here’s a guide to help you explain the upcoming total solar eclipse to kids both accurately and clearly.
[Related: Here Are the Best Places to View April’s Solar Eclipse]
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1. Explain What a Solar Eclipse Is
Your explanation of this April’s eclipse can vary in complexity, depending on the age of the child. “At its very simplest, when the moon gets in between the Earth and the sun, and the moon appears to pass over the sun as seen from Earth, then we get a solar eclipse,” says Michelle Nichols, director of public observing at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. “If the moon partially covers the sun, we call it a partial solar eclipse. If it completely covers the sun, we call it a total solar eclipse.”
For young kids, this might be explanation enough. Older ones might have follow-up questions. For example, doesn’t the moon pass between the Earth and the sun every month? That’s what a new moon is, right?
That’s true. But the moon’s orbit around Earth is not completely lined up with our planet’s orbit around the sun. The orbit of the moon is tilted by about five degrees, says Jackie Faherty, an astrophysicist and senior education manager at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Normally, that tilt means that when the moon moves between Earth and the sun, the three bodies are out of alignment. The moon doesn’t block the sun, and the shadow of the moon cast by the sun lands in space instead of on Earth’s surface. That’s a typical new moon. Once in a while, though, all the orbits line up, making an eclipse instead.
The shape of the moon’s orbit matters, too. It is not a perfect circle but an oval. That means the moon is sometimes a bit farther from Earth and sometimes a bit closer. When the moon is so close that it appears big enough in the sky to block out all the sun’s light, conditions are ripe for a total solar eclipse. If the moon passes directly between Earth and the sun but is too far away to cause a total solar eclipse, the result is called an annular, or “ring of fire,” eclipse, in which the moon blocks the center of the sun while leaving a ring of light visible around it, Faherty says.
2. Tell Them What to Expect
A total solar eclipse’s “path of totality” is the area where the darkest inner shadow of the moon, called the umbra, travels across the face of Earth. If you aren’t in the umbra, you can’t see the moon completely block out the sun. In this April’s event, the path of totality will be about 100 miles wide, and will extend from Sinaloa, Mexico, through Texas, the U.S. Midwest and Northeast and northeastern Canada.
Outside of the umbra will be a partially shadowed area called the penumbra. If you will be in the penumbra, you will be able to see the moon block part of the sun. To explain to kids why April’s eclipse will have these two parts, it’s helpful to do a demonstration, Nichols says: Take two flashlights of similar brightness and hold them next to each other several feet from a wall. Put an object like a bottle between the lights and the wall. You’ll see a double-shadow effect. Just like the two flashlights, the sun is not a single point of light in the sky, Nichols says, but an extended object. “It’s not something we’re used to looking for, but once you see it, you go, ‘Oh, I get it,’” she says.
In the penumbra, you’ll need special eclipse glasses to directly view the partial eclipse of the sun. (These aren’t regular sunglasses, and it’s not safe to look at the sun without them.) To the naked eye, little will change around you, although the shapes of shadows will go blurry as the moon covers much of the sun and changes the light arriving on Earth. To see the partial eclipse indirectly, make a pinhole in a piece of cardboard and let the sun’s light shine through it and onto a piece of paper. You’ll see a crescent shape. You can also view the same effect when you look at shadows cast on the ground by the leaves of trees or bushes.
In the umbra, you’ll also need eclipse glasses to view the sun before and after the totality, when the moon will entirely cover our star and blot out its light. During the brief few moments of totality, it will be temporarily safe to look at the sun with bare eyes. You’ll see the corona, which is the outermost part of the sun’s atmosphere. It is so named because it looks like a wispy, glowing crown, and corona means “crown” in Latin. Outdoors, your environment will look like “dusk in every direction,” Faherty says. Nocturnal animals such as crickets may start making noise. “It’s very eerie,” she says.
3. Give Them Some Fun Facts
Kids often connect with trivia. Here are a few fun facts you can share about the eclipse:
- If the moon and the sun didn’t take up about the same amount of space in the sky, we wouldn’t have a total solar eclipse. Fortunately, the moon happens to be both about 400 times smaller than the sun and 400 times closer to Earth, so it fits just right!
- The moon is moving away from Earth a tiny bit each year. At the current rate, the moon will appear too small to cause a total solar eclipse in 600 million years.
- The shadow of the moon will travel at more than 1,500 miles per hour as it crosses Earth during April’s total solar eclipse.
- Right before totality, you might see bright specks of light at the edge of the moon’s shadow. These are called Bailey’s Beads, and they’re caused by the last rays of the sun shooting between mountains on the moon’s surface.
- After April’s spectacle, the next total solar eclipse to cross the contiguous U.S. will not occur until 2044—20 years from now! In that eclipse, the path of totality will cover only parts of Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota.