How kids are like astronauts

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Aaron Sheldon photographed his son around town in an astronaut costume

The project is a reminder that children are explorers still learning the world around them

CNN  — 

Aaron Sheldon has never particularly enjoyed riding the bus.

But to his young son, Harrison, it is an adventure.

“One day we’re on the bus downtown, and I’m just sitting there looking at him and he’s just in awe of such a mundane and pedestrian task,” said Sheldon, a photographer who lives in Columbus, Ohio.

It reminded him that even the most ordinary acts can seem extraordinary to someone experiencing it for the first time.

“I wanted to try to capture that sense of wonderment that kids have just in our everyday world,” Sheldon said.

He didn’t know the best way to go about it, though, until later that week when Harrison – 3 at the time – got an ear infection and had to go to the doctor’s office.

Photographer Aaron Sheldon

Harrison likes the doctor’s office. The exam table? Not so much.

“He was afraid to sit on (it) because it’s so high,” his dad said. “And so I was telling him what kind of brave people have to go to the doctor’s. And we had gotten him a cheap little astronaut helmet at the local science center, and he was all about space then. He said: ‘Well how about astronauts? Are astronauts brave?’ Then the idea just really hit right then. ‘Yes, astronauts are brave. Pretend you’re an astronaut. That works great.’

“On our way out of the office, I told him how proud I was of him for being brave and he said, ‘Maybe next time I can bring my helmet and really be an astronaut.’ And then I thought hey, you know what? That’s an idea.”

Sheldon went on Amazon and bought his son a full spacesuit with a better-looking helmet. Harrison wore it at the doctor’s a month later, and his dad was there to take his photo.

In the weeks after that, the two would visit more places with Harrison wearing his astronaut costume: the barbershop, the grocery store, the movie theater, the swimming pool. We might take those for granted, but Harrison’s outfit reminds us that children are explorers – and much like astronauts they are still learning the world around them.

The project is called “Small Steps Are Giant Leaps” – a reference to Neil Armstrong’s words when he first landed on the moon.

“I hope it’s a good reminder to that parent who, you know, is kind of losing their calm while they’re out running errands – their kid’s not listening to them, they’re off in their own little world. … Hey, that’s a good thing. Give them that extra couple of minutes, be patient with them, because they’re doing something pretty amazing,” Sheldon said.

The photo in the doctor’s office was taken in November. Since then, father and son have done about 24 different shoots for the project.

“It helps that every location that we’ve shot has been somewhat kid-friendly,” Sheldon said. “I didn’t just want this to be, ‘OK, let’s go out and take this photo.’ It was, ‘Let’s go out and do something together,’ and he’s got good memories from these places.”

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    They try to keep a low profile: Get in, get out, move on with the day. Sometimes the cuteness of the whole thing will attract attention – maybe from a fawning office staff, for instance.

    If that happens and it gets to be too much for shy Harrison, “the visor on the helmet goes down,” his dad said.

    Many of the locations were inspired by questions Harrison asked his father about astronauts. Sometimes, Harrison will have his own ideas about a shot.

    His dad just lets him go.

    “Once I got him where I need him to be, his gestures and actions are all him,” Sheldon said. “When he puts that helmet on, he stops listening to me. … To me, that’s the magic of the project: Just capturing his little gestures and poses and not trying to influence them at all.”

    On Friday, the project reached its funding goal on Kickstarter. Sheldon is going to use the money to make a book and prepare for a gallery exhibition in 2017. He’s going to buy a new spacesuit for Harrison, who has worn his out and is nearly too big for it. And he’s going to get a couple extra spacesuits for Harrison’s preschool friends.

    “To this point, (Harrison) has been the only person in like 99.9% of the shoots because I want to show that kids are off in their own little world while they’re exploring,” Sheldon said.

    “And now I want to show the community of kids – that relationship that they have – is just as important as their own individual need to explore.”

    Aaron Sheldon is a photographer based in Columbus, Ohio. You can contribute to his Kickstarter for his project “Small Steps Are Giant Leaps.” Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.