As I make my final preparations for my eclipse travels (rural western Wyoming, if you’re curious) I’m hearing stories that are making me very unhappy: Some school districts across the country are telling children to stay inside during the eclipse, out of fear they’ll damage their eyes.
Let me be clear: Schools, administrators, teachers, parents: Don’t do this. YOU CAN LET THE KIDS SEE THE ECLIPSE. You just have to be safe about it.
I understand the reasoning behind this fear. Looking at the Sun without protecting your eyes can in fact damage them (more on that in a sec), and there are some companies selling fake eclipse glasses, ones that say they are rated for safety but aren’t*.
Given that, worrying over the safety of the vision of schoolchildren is natural. However, forbidding them from seeing the eclipse is overkill, and completely unnecessary.
First, a great number of eclipse glasses are fine. The American Astronomical Society has a list of vendors known to be safe. If the ones you have are on that list you should be okay. If not, you can perform some easy tests to see if they work or not, and again the AAS has you covered (Update: I had originally written that you can ONLY see the Sun through real glasses, but it turns out very bright LEDs can be seen (somewhat faintly) through them. Don't throw out good glasses because of this! Still, check the list to make sure they're OK. Thank to Christopher Becke for the note.).
My friend Stephen Ramsden, who runs the Charlie Bates Solar Astronomy Project (he travels all over the American southeast showing people the Sun through his incredible suite of telescopic equipment), has a page up on Facebook with descriptions and pictures of some glasses that aren’t up to snuff. I suggest following him there for updates. He has also personally given away thousands of glasses from Rainbow Symphony; I have some of these and I like them. If you got your glasses from Stephen, you’re good to go.
Second, and this is very important too, you only need to protect your eyes during the partial phase of the eclipse. That’s from when the Moon first starts to edge into the Sun’s face until it completely blocks the solar surface. Totality, when the Sun is completely blocked, is perfectly safe to look at, even with binoculars or other equipment. That lasts about two minutes; check your local listings.
When totality ends — the Moon slips off the face of the Sun — you need to have protection on again (it’s even more important at this point, because when the eclipse is total your pupils will open up to let in more light, so when totality ends that flash of light can do even more damage). To be safe, give yourself plenty of padding in time near the end of totality. Give it a good 20 seconds or so before the end to stop looking.
Third, you don’t even have to look at the eclipse directly to enjoy it! You can very easily make a pinhole projector, which will magnify the image of the Sun and project it onto a piece of paper. This costs almost literally nothing (two sheets of paper and a thumbtack), protects your eyes, lets you enjoy the eclipse when it’s partial, and is also educational! It’s also fun: The kids can punch a bunch of holes to make patterns, spell their name, create a cartoon character, whatever. My friend Emily Lakdawalla has a fantastic worksheet online on how to do this (it’s even been translated into multiple languages).
So I implore you, please, please, please don’t prevent your kids from seeing this eclipse! It’s a wonder of nature, a chance to learn science, a chance for them to have fun, and a chance for them to stretch their imaginations. These are all things we must encourage in them, and the Universe is giving us a gorgeous chance to do all of that at the same time.
* Let me be clear about that: Any person who knowingly sells fake eclipse glasses is a piece of human filth. They could be hurting tens or hundreds of thousands of people, including kids. There is no circle of Hell painful enough for these monsters.