ARE YOU TIRED of ending long summer days with "Down and Out With Donald Duck" or some other cartoon special you recorded in March, followed by bathtime blues and sibling strife? Try raising your sights before razing your homestead.
Look to the stars.
Although there is no star cluster that looks like Donald or any other duck, there's a swan. Also a bear, a giraffe, a lion, a dragon and a big spoon. And a little spoon.
There is even a letter of the alphabet to remind preschoolers of "Sesame Street." You can almost hear Oscar the Grouch saying, "The sky tonight is brought to you by the letter W" (or M if you're standing on your head.)
The night sky provides myriad entertainments for those who know where to look.
Children will be better prepared to gaze at the stars if they've first been introduced to them by a show at one of the many local planetariums -- or just by looking at pictures in a book. There are star-finders (wheel-shaped charts that indicate which stars are in our sky during which months) available at the Smithsonian's Air and Space museum and lots of star maps with the lines of the constellations drawn in -- like dot-to-dot pictures.
Binoculars are a big help in locating stars, says Steven Smith, director of the Arlington Planetarium. Pick a clear, moonless night, soon after sunset, so that only the brightest stars are showing. Spread a blanket and close your eyes. Allow about 10 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark.
Taking our courage (and our blanket) into our hands, my husband and I led our stargazers, Wynken, Blynken and Nod-Unless-You-Make-Me, out into the backyard dark.
While we were waiting for our eyes to adjust, Emily, 3, began to whimper.
"What's that noise?" she asked, fearfully.
"That's just Daddy snoring," said Adam, 7. "Are we going to tell ghost stories?"
"We're going to tell star stories," I explained. "Each twinkly little star you see up there is really a huge, hot sun. Although the constellations appear to move through the sky at different times of the year, they stay the same distance from each other. They are very far away. So far that we have to measure their distance in light years."
"What's a light year?" asked Ben, 5.
"A year in which we don't have another baby," said his father, rousing briefly.
"Light," I said, paraphrasing one of the astronomy books I had borrowed from the library, "moves faster than anything. It can travel 5.8 trillion miles in a year -- that is called a light year. Light from the sun reaches us in about eight minutes. When we look at a star like Polaris, the North Star, we are seeing what it looked like 450 years ago."
Seymour Simon, author of "Look to the Night Sky" suggests stargazers start by trying to locate one or two constellations a night. All stars in a given constellation can be located without turning your head, he writes, but remember, they're much bigger than you envision them from a picture.
Start, Simon says, with the Big Dipper, which is right overhead. From there you can find Polaris by drawing an imaginary line between the two end stars in the dipper's bowl and continue it until you come to the North Star. Polaris is the last star in the middle of the Little Dipper.
My children, after some pointing and arguing, found the Big Dipper and Polaris.
"Now," I said, "the handle of the Big Dipper forms the top of the head and the back of the neck of the Great Bear."
"I don't see a bear," complained someone.
That's precisely the problem most beginners have, says Smith.
"People expect too much from constellations," he added. "They think they're going to see Michelangelo up there."
"Is there a Great Bear story?" asked Emily, a fan of Goldilocks and the Berenstains.
"Sure," I said, consulting "Find the Constellations," by H.A. Hey, with a flashlight. "There's a Little Bear, too."
The Roman myth goes like this: Jupiter, king of the gods, was married to June. In spite of that, he married other women. Understandably, June tried to harm his other wives. One of them, Callisto, bore Jupiter a son, Arcas. June turned Callisto into a bear and ordered her to roam the forests forever.
Arcas grew up to be a hunter and nearly killed the bear who was his mother. Jupiter intervened and turned Arcas into a small bear. He placed them side by side in the night sky, where they can always be together.
"The Little Bear," I told the silent kids (perhaps they were imagining being turned into bears) is also the Little Dipper."
To find the W, which is also called Cassiopeia, draw an imaginary line from the handle star nearest the bowl of the Big Dipper to the North Star and an equal distance beyond. The line will reach a group of stars that looks like a "W" or the points in a queen's crown.
In between the Big and Little Dippers, Simon says, are some bright stars in a row. These are the tail of the Dragon.
Follow the stars on around the bowl of the Little Dipper, across the back and up the neck of the dragon to a triangle of stars that forms the dragon's head.
To find three of the brightest, or first magnitude, stars in the summer sky, which form the Summer Triangle, draw an imaginary line through the first star in the handle of the Big Dipper, past the dragon's head, to a brilliant blue-white star called Vega. Vega, in the constellation Lyra (the Lyre), was the first star to be photographed (in 1850). The other stars forming the triangle are Deneb, which is in the tail of Cygnus (the Swan) and Altair, the middle of three stars that make up the head of the Eagle, which was Zeus's pet eagle, before he put him in the sky.
"The swan looks like a cross, the eagle looks like a teardrop or raindrop and the Great Bear looks like a saucepan," Smith says, explaining how he is able to make out their shapes.
Earth and our solar system and millions of stars belong to a galaxy called the Milky Way. The edge of it can be seen most brilliantly in July and August, Smith says. It looks like a cloudy path through the dark sky, straight up south and down through the north.
"Milky Way!" shouted Adam, when I mentioned it to him. "That's a candy bar!"
"I'm hungry!" chorused the stargazers.
"The kitchen is closed," I said, "but I will talk to you about Mars. And Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mercury, the five planets that are occasionally visible without a telescope."
Unlike the stars that appear to be fixed in position, the planets wander. They wander, Simon says, in generally the same path as the sun and moon.
During the summer, any visible planet will be low in the southern sky, Simon says. They do not twinkle like stars, as their light is a reflection from the sun. Venus is silvery, Mars reddish, Jupiter white, and Saturn yellowish, although the colors usually cannot be seen without a telescope or binoculars.
The surface of each planet is different, too, I told the kids, quoting Hey:
Earth is the life planet. Mars is so cold that even Martians couldn't live there. And Jupiter, the biggest one, has a surface covered with miles of frozen ammonia slush.
"Yuck," said Ben.
"Not necessarily," said Adam. "It gives me an idea. Even if the kitchen is closed, we could go out for a Slurpee."
It seemed a fitting way to end the first experience with the night sky.
The following are local planetariums and events: ALBERT EINSTEIN SKY THEATRE --
in the National Air and Space Museum, 6th and Independence SW. Show times are 12:45 Monday through Friday, 11:15 to 4:30 weekends and holidays (8:15 through Labor Day). Closed Christmas. Adults $1, students and senior citizens, 50 cents. The 30-minute programs are geared to the general public. Two free programs are offered; "Noontime With the Stars" Tuesday from noon to 12:30, which discusses the sky for the upcoming week and "The Sky of the Month" the first Saturday of every month from 9 to 10. Call 357-1529.
ARLINGTON PLANETARIUM --
1426 N. Quincy St., Arlington. Programs vary but are open to the general public for $1. They include seasonal shows on the constellations. 558-2868.
FAIRFAX COUNTY PARKS --
"Stargazing" July 18 at the Burke Lake Park amphitheater includes a slide show by the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club from 8:30 to 9:30, and telescopy if the sky's clear. 451-9588. "Starry Starry Night" August 1 at the Lake Fairfax amphitheater, will feature a slide show and star legends from 8 to 9. Bring binoculars for a stargaze. 759-3211. The astronomy club will repeat the program August 19 from 8:30 to 9:30 at the Walney Visitor Center at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (rain date August 20) 631-0013.
"Moon Madness," a family-oriented evening of stories and songs about our nearest heavenly fellow traveler, will take place on the lawn at Green Spring Farm Park under a -- you guessed it -- full moon on August 9. Naturalist/storyteller Mona Enquist-Johnston says bring a blanket or chair. 941-1065.
SMITH ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION CENTER --
5100 Meadowside Lane, Rockville. "Star Search," an introduction to the night sky, is held in the planetarium and then everybody troops outside to take a look at the real thing, weather permitting. It happens July 23 and August 6 and 20, from 8:30 to 10. 924-4141.
OWENS SCIENCE CENTER & PLANETARIUM --
9601 Greenbelt Rd., Lanham. Take Greenbelt Road 2 1/2 miles past Capital Beltway to entrance on right. Planetarium open to public Fridays at 6:30 p.m. Closed in summer. Cost is adults, $1.50 and children, 75 cents. The center sponsors many programs in the summer for schoolchildren of Prince George's County. 301/577-8718.
DAVIS PLANETARIUM --
In the Maryland Academy of Sciences, 601 Light Street, Baltimore. The planetarium admission is $1, but it costs $5 for adults, and $4.50 for students and senior citizens to enter the Science Center in which it is housed. Hours are Monday-Thursday, 10 to 5, Friday and Saturday, 10 to 7 and Sunday noon to 7. 301/685-5225.
ROCK CREEK NATURE CENTER PLANETARIUM --
Military and Glover Roads NW. Shows Saturday and Sunday at 1 for children 4 to 7 (accompanied by adults), and at 4 for children 7 and older. Programs are free but tickets must be picked up at information desk which opens 30 minutes before show time. The show for younger children concentrates on the constellations. The later show consists of an astronomy presentation and a study of the sky as it will appear that night. Evening stargazing sessions, run in conjunction with the National Capital Astronomer's are held monthly at Military Field, and are listed below. 653-1543.
Stargazing sessions include telescopes and will be held in the planetarium in case of rain or clouds. They are all at 9 p.m. May 23, June 29, July 25, August 15, September 12, and October 10.
NAVAL OBSERVATORY --
34th and Massachusetts NW. Public access is limited and reservations are requested. On this tour, children see a movie on the determination of time, view highly accurate electronic clocks and are introduced to a 26-inch telescope. Evening tours include a look through the telescope at the sky. Tours are suited for children over age 12. 653-1543.
UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND OBSERVATORY --
Metzerott Road, south side, College Park. Open the 5th and 20th of every month at 8 p.m. EST and 9 p.m. Daylight Saving Time. Call in advance for programs. Topics include all segments of astronomy and a look through a telescope. It is not recommended for primary school children. 301/454-3001.