As long as we have to put up with seemingly endless hours of darkness this time of year, we might as well put them to good use in contemplation of the wonders of the visible heavens. This winter has a lot to offer even novice skywatchers, including the total lunar eclipse expected the very night of the Solstice. And based on the “standard” 11-year sunspot cycle, activity is supposed to start building up soon to a new peak in 2012, so this may turn out to be a decent winter to catch the aurora borealis – especially as we get closer to the Vernal Equinox, when solar storms tend to become more frequent.
A great way to introduce youngsters to the joys of stargazing is to take them to a planetarium show, and the Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum (MHCM) in Poughkeepsie stays open late – until 8 p.m. – on the third Saturday of each month, so that families can come and learn a bit about the night sky within the cozy confines of its amazing inflatable Starlab. What’s so extraordinary about this resource is that it’s collapsible and portable; in fact, it was on one of its many rounds to school districts in the region that I was privileged to make Starlab’s acquaintance.
A little over ten feet in height and 16 feet in diameter, from the outside it’s a bit reminiscent of Rover, the scary giant rubber balloon that pursued and suffocated people who tried to escape from the Village in the ‘60s TV series The Prisoner. But unless you’re seriously claustrophobic, there’s nothing macabre about a visit to this room-within-a-room, its dome held aloft and the air inside refreshed by a powerful intake fan. You crawl in through the igloo-style entry tunnel, sit or lie on the floor and gaze up at the ceiling, where a sophisticated, compact projection system illustrates the astronomy program chosen for the month, narrated by a live educator who will also take questions from the audience.
MHCM’s Starlab program scheduled for this Saturday will emphasize some of the most familiar constellations that offer prime viewing in winter, like Orion and Taurus; explain what the Solstice is, exactly; and address questions like why Polaris, the North Star, never seems to move.
The sky show begins at 6 p.m. on Saturday, December 18 and costs only $4, in addition to the usual $6.50 Museum admission fee. As Starlab only accommodates to 27 people at a time, advance reservations are prudent; phone (845) 471-0589. The next planetarium program will be offered on Saturday, January 15, also at 6 p.m.
Also coming up in the next few weeks at MHCM are a couple of hands-on crafts workshop programs for the little ones: Next Wednesday, December 22 from 4 to 6 p.m., elf-wannabes can visit “Santa’s Workshop” and have hot cocoa and cookies while decorating a toy for holiday fun. Holiday photo ops are guaranteed. This workshop incurs a fee of $8 per child and $4 per adult for Museum members, $10 per child and $5 per adult for non-members, which in this case includes museum admission. The workshop on the following Wednesday, December 29 at 11 a.m. is called “Light up the Winter” and has more of a multicultural theme. Kids can celebrate the winter season with crafts from all over the globe, creating a clay menorah for Hanukkah, a colorful design for Diwali and more. The workshop fee is $4 per child in addition to the cost of museum admission.
Another way to keep the wee ‘uns occupied during the long school break is to go see the Puppet People’s production of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at MHCM, sponsored by M & T Bank. There will be two performances, beginning at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Tuesday, December 28. Combined show and museum admission is $10 per person.
Finally, the Museum is taking an innovative approach to what is normally the season’s most kid-unfriendly holiday: New Year’s Eve. Want to wear out your hyperactive brood in time for the babysitter to tuck them in well in advance of the actual turning of the year? Show up at MHCM between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Friday, December 31. As they count down to the stroke of 12 – noon, not midnight – children will get to pop in the New Year using that most irresistible of unintended toys: bubble wrap! Families can enjoy music, arts and crafts and snacks, including an edible New Year’s hat and yummy non-alcoholic punch. Admission to the Children’s New Year’s Eve Party is $10 per person for members, $15 for non-members.
Space is limited for all these special events, so prepaid reservations are required. Call the Museum at (845) 471-0589 to purchase tickets in advance, or visit www.mhcm.org/new/pages/PDF/EventListing.pdf for more information. The Mid-Hudson Children’s Museum is situated at 75 North Water Street, just north of Waryas Park on the Poughkeepsie waterfront.