Innovative Astronomy Programs for Camp

by Eric Jackson

Many camps are in rural locations where stars are more readily seen than from towns and cities. Yet most camps don't include any form of astronomy in their camp programs because they only see it as a night-time occupation — and one that requires experts and equipment. Carey Park Christian Camp in New Zealand found a way to overcome this in a very innovative way. The camp introduced astronomy during the daytime.

An Understanding of Astronomy

Experience shows that campers come to camp with little or no understanding of astronomy and often confuse it with astrology. They probably haven't had any astronomy lessons at school and have commonly-held ideas to explain "what is happening in the sky." The following are two views or perspectives of "what happens in the sky" — the apparent movement of the sun during the day.

  • Earthbound view — On Earth, our perception is that the sun, stars, and all other natural objects in the sky move around us from east to west. We say that the sun "goes across the sky."
  • Astronaut's view — An astronaut looking at the Earth from far out in space sees the Earth rotating from west to east as it orbits the sun. They say that, "it is the earth that is turning."

This apparent motion of the sky varies depending on where you are on the Earth — so latitude, or where you live is important. To understand our place in space, we need to hold both views in our mind together.

In many camps, staff who are apprehensive about offering astronomy sessions at night never even think of doing it during the day. Before attempting a night astronomy program, you can establish the principles of astronomy by using shadows during the day.

Daytime Observations

Daytime Astronomy Activities

Daytime observations based on the movement and direction of shadows are intriguing to explore and offer information that most people didn't understand or know.

  • There are two noons every day — 12 o'clock "standard" time and noon by the sun, which is called solar noon.
  • Solar noon is when the sun is half way in time — between sunrise and sunset at your location and is therefore called local noon.
  • At solar noon, the sun is directly south of your location, and all shadows point to the true North Pole.
  • If a camper stands with his or her back to the sun at solar noon, the shadow lies along a line from the South Pole to the true North Pole through your camp. The camper's heels point south and his or her head's shadow points true north.
  • Being the true North Pole raises the issue of magnetic north and the difference between them. Campers can use their shadows as the basis for a compass to find their way.
  • At solar noon we say that the sun is on the meridian — and that it is noon. Before then, the sun is before the meridian, or ante meridian (a.m.). After then the sun is past the meridian, or post meridian (p.m.) and is afternoon.
  • The length of the camper's solar noon shadow is directly related to the season. Short shadows occur in the summer; long shadows are seen in winter.
Available from the ACA Bookstore
Silva Starter Compass
Star Quest Fundana from Imports Unlimited, Inc. — star map bandana

Arising out of these points are four basic observations upon which many astronomical understandings are built. These observations set the scene for night-time observations:

  1. At solar noon local time, the meridian is on the sun. The meridian is an earthbound concept; the correct observation is the meridian is on the sun. All shadows point to the nearest pole and are aligned true north/south.
  2. The sun appears to move in a wide band across the sky between the longest and shortest days.
  3. Along this band are found the moon, all the planets, and the constellations of the Zodiac.
  4. The height of the sun at solar noon increases from the shortest to longest day and decreases back to the shortest day, thus creating the seasons.

The nearest star is the sun, the nearest planet is Earth, and the nearest moon is our moon. All three can be seen during the day. Understanding the motions and interaction of these three planets helps explain what is happening daily, nightly, seasonally, and yearly.

Implementing the Program

With this introductory information and observations, an astronomy program for campers can be implemented at camp and explored further at home or school. Many schools use Carey Park's astronomy program to meet their science curriculum standards. The original daytime astronomy activities have now developed into a worldwide camp and school astronomy program.

The Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s The Universe at Your Fingertips
  B-6 “Making Pictures of Motion” (using a traditional stick),
  B-7 “Making a sun Clock” (using a sundial), and B-8 “Plotting the Apparent Motion of the sun” (using a clear plastic hemisphere).
  B-9 “Solar Motion Detector” addresses the yearly interval.
The Ever-Changing Sky: A Guide to the Celestial Sphere by James Kaler

Eric Jackson is the chairman of Carey Park Christian Camp in Auckland, New Zealand, and has had extensive international camp leadership experience. Until his recent retirement, he was district science adviser for the Auckland Education Board's 600 schools and was responsible for science curriculum development, teacher in-service training, and the development of Education Outside the Classroom programs, particularly those that relate to camps. For more information, contact Eric at

Originally published in the 2004 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.