Why My 4-Year-Old Stayed Up Late To Watch The Mars Curiosity Land

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Last night at 10:30pm, I would assume that most young children were cuddled in bed. They had probably been there for hours, snuggled in with their stuffed animals and blankets. Mine was cuddled up on the couch, also surrounded by giant plush, but wide awake. She was silently watching the Mars Curiosity and its “seven minutes of terror” landing.

My four-year-old has become pretty fascinated with space and astronauts lately. Like most women interested in space, the inspiration for her decision was the amazing Sally Ride. During the reporting of Ride’s death, my little girl saw a picture of the famed female astronaut on my computer. She asked who the woman was and started a long conversation about space, specifically the women who make it there.

And so, my daughter and I started researching female astronauts. We started looking at footage of flights to space. She sat in awe the first time I showed her someone walking on the moon. Then she spent an hour trying to understand why people have to “hop” when they’re in space. Turns out, gravity is a really difficult concept to explain to a pre-schooler. Really, the difference between mass and weight is hard for plenty of adults to grasp. Needless to say, I’m still working on a project to get the idea across.

Through all of it, my little girl began to get genuinely excited about the idea of exploring the galaxy. We started talking about the planets and how humans can see them. Her favorite planet at the moment is Saturn, in case you’re wondering. There’s something about those rings. We pulled out an old telescope and had a few viewing sessions in the back yard after sunset. My daughter giggles at the idea of staying up late and we cuddle up on the porch and just talk about the stars.

So with all of her space excitement, how could I not talk to her about Mars Curiosity and it’s exciting new journey? How could I not let her stay up and experience that thrill of hearing “Touchdown confirmed,” said by Al Chen, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer?

Sure, I could have DVRed the experience. We could have watched it this morning, or tonight when she gets home from daycare. Those were options I had. But I decided that one night up late just wasn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. In fact, staying up and cuddling mom while we watched the live coverage made the event even more special. It made the Mars Curiosity that much more exciting for her.

So often when children are interested in something, we have a tendency to infantilize it. We dumb it down. We assume that kids won’t be interested if they can’t understand every part of it. My daughter’s burgeoning interest in space showed me why that tendency is so unnecessary. Kids want to see how the real world works. My daughter wanted to see more than just the children’s book version. She loved watching the real thing, asking questions that her mom may or may not have had the answer to. But we learned about it together.

My little girl is a bit sleepy this morning. She might even be cranky. She’ll surely need an afternoon nap. But I think that this was one of the times it was worth it. Seeing her cheer that rover on, seeing her huge smile still plastered on her face when she finally made it to bed, that was proof I needed that sometimes kids can get excited about rather adult things.

(Photo: greenland/Shutterstock)


  1. Amy

    August 6, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    I love this article! I’m glad your daughter has such an interest in space and that you actually research stuff with her instead of just making something up like a lot of parents seem to do. I think it’s awesome you let her stay up to watch the Mars landing!

  2. Mandie Kok

    August 6, 2012 at 11:53 pm

    Getting to stay up late to watch important events or cool movies on tv was very important to me as a child. We didn’t get the best content, living in apartheid South Africa; shows were censored and dubbed. I remember they advertised the movie “Splash” for what felt like ages and I really looked forward to watching it. When the big day arrived, my meanest aunt came to visit us. The adults were talking in the living room, where the tv happened to be. I went to ask my mother if I could watch the movie and my aunt immediately told me that it was bedtime for children. My usually lenient parents probably wanted to look like good disciplinarians, so they sent me to bed. To this day, I get upset when I think about the injustice of it all.

    To demonstrate the effects of gravity to your daughter, get a large, strong magnet and a smaller, weaker one. Get a third, tiny magnet, like a ball magnet. Tell her that the bigger the planet, the stronger the pull and make her “walk” the smallest magnet over the big magnet. She should be able to take small “steps”. Then tell her that the other magnet is smaller, like the moon, so the pull is not as strong. Let her “walk” the smallest magnet over the moon magnet. She’ll be able to feel that it’s easier to hop than it was with the stronger magnet.

    • LindsayCross

      August 7, 2012 at 7:03 am

      First of all, I’m really sorry about “Splash.” If I knew where you lived, there would be a copy on DVD whizzing your way right now!

      And second of all, that is such an excellent idea with the magnets! Do you know how many people I’ve been discussing my gravity issue with? A lot! And no one had come up with such a great example. Do you teach kids? Because you totally could.

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