Are you thinking about buying a microscope for kids? Microscopes are amazing science tools that can greatly enhance your child’s learning experience. If you’re wondering what to buy, which features are important, or how much it could cost, read on!
Does my child need a microscope?
Many of us have memories of using microscopes in biology class, but is it really necessary to buy a microscope for kids? A child who is interested in science or medicine will need to be proficient in using a microscope for college and career purposes. But even students who don’t plan for a career in biology may need access to a microscope.
Although it’s possible to access high quality microscopic images online, it feels much more “real” and empowering to kids when they can see it themselves. With a real microscope, kids can sample and see their own environment, even their own cells! Using microscopes makes science hands on for students and helps them understand the methods that scientists and doctors use to study the world.
Microscopes become truly necessary when studying biology, particularly in looking at cells. If your child is in middle or high school, s/he will most likely need access to a microscope with at least 400x magnification. The good news is that there are many affordable options that provide microscopes for kids with this magnification or higher, at a reasonable price.
This compound microscope for kids that I used as a middle school teacher offered two eyepiece lenses, a 10x and 25x. The three objective lenses were 4x, 10x, and 40x. This meant that my students could view the same slide under 40X, 100X, 250X, 400X and 1000X.
What features does a microscope for kids really need?
Here are some important things to look for when selecting a microscope for home use.
Type of microscope
A compound microscope has several objective lenses of different magnifications to rotate as you view your item. The single eyepiece has an additional lens, which compounds or multiplies the magnification. For example, a 10x eyepiece with a 40x objective lens will get you 400x magnification. Compound microscopes require the user to prepare a slide (or use a premade one) with a thin, flat slice.
There are other types of microscopes as well, such as a stereo or dissecting microscope. These typically have lower magnifications and let you view 3-D specimens, like a crystal, coin, or bird feather. They may have additional features, like a large staging area for dissections. It’s possible to view prepared slides, but at a lower magnification than a compound microscope.
I have used both types of microscopes with kids in my years of teaching science, but if I had to choose one to buy for homeschooling, it would be the compound microscope. I only used stereo microscopes occasionally, while compound microscopes were used just about every day during our biology units.
If you are buying a microscope for biology, you will most likely need a compound microscope. Check the curriculum first! If you’re unsure, I recommend making a list of the specific things your child will be looking at under the microscope. If your child is being asked to view tiny samples on slides, you will definitely need a compound microscope.
An important feature of a microscope is its magnification – how large and detailed it can make what you want to see. A microscope for kids needs to have high enough magnification, without getting too fragile or expensive. But how much is enough?
What’s considered “enough” magnification depends on how small the items are that your child will need to look at. You can typically see cells starting at about 400x magnification. I wouldn’t invest significant funds in a microscope that didn’t have at least 400x available.
If you plan to get a microscope with higher magnification, check the reviews to ensure that it has a strong enough light source. The one complaint I had about my class microscopes was that it was too dark to get a clear view at 1000x magnification. Luckily, we didn’t need it! You may also find that the top magnification setting requires oil immersion, which is a technique that increases the lens capability.
If you are buying a microscope for a specific curriculum, check to see what magnification is required.
Source of electricity: cordless or not
All microscopes need a light source. As a lab teacher, it was important to me to have microscopes that could work on batteries, since I had students working throughout the room and didn’t want them tripping over cords. Think about your home setup and whether there is an outlet near where your child will be using the microscope. It may be worthwhile to select one that can work without a cord.
Depending on your setup, you may be interested in a microscope with digital features. Some microscopes plug into a computer, while others have a camera hookup. This option would work well for a homeschool co-op, in which an instructor is working with multiple students and would like to use the digital hookup for demonstrations.
Although it would have been nice, I didn’t have a digital hookup as a science teacher, and this wouldn’t be the priority when buying one for my own home. In my view, digital images should not replace taking detailed notes or drawing from observation. The act of drawing in a science context is necessary for focusing the observer on the important details.
Are there microscopes for younger kids?
Your elementary aged child can also benefit from using a microscope. Microscopes are an excellent tool for getting close up with everyday objects. As a science educator, I have used microscopes with children as young as 3.
For young children, I advise NOT buying a microscope for kids that requires slides or finely tuned focusing. The only reason to buy a sophisticated microscope is if you have an older child who needs all of the features. Most younger children can use a microscope safely with close supervision, particularly when handling glass slides.
If you don’t need a microscope for an older child, I recommend buying an inexpensive handheld magnifier such as the Carson Microbrite (http://a.co/d/9KRWyDW). The maximum magnification is as good as the lowest setting on a standard compound microscope, so you won’t see very fine details. However, it’s great for viewing household items and for nature walks.
Best of all, you don’t have to carefully prepare specimens. Your child can pop the microscope right onto the carpet fibers or a leaf still on the tree.
The microscope recommended by Pandia Press for REAL Science Odyssey Biology 2 is the AmScope 40x-2500x, which is currently $142.99. This microscope includes an oil immersion lens, two eyepiece lenses (10x and 25x), and many other nice features. However, many less expensive microscopes would be fine as well.
As a ballpark figure, expect to pay at least $80 for a quality compound microscope with good lighting and magnification. The one I used as a lab teacher is currently $86.98.
Portable, limited options like the Carson Microbrite can run about $10-$20.
Where to buy microscope kits
Lisa Greenhut is a homeschooling mom, science educator, and curriculum developer with classroom experience ranging from pre-K students to 7th grade. After almost 20 years in traditional school settings, Lisa currently works as a curriculum consultant to schools and families. She also teaches weekend, after-school, camp programs, and graduate courses for science teachers at the American Museum of Natural History. Lisa blogs at Inquiring Minds Homeschool.