Which type of microscope to buy for children? The answer, in my view, is simple: the younger the child, the more you should trend towards stereo/binocular microscopes.
Occasionally people ask me for advice about which type of microscope to buy as a present for their children. I once responded to a newsgroup question making a very strong point in favor for stereo microscopes for young children (approx. 5 years of age), and I would like to reiterate these points below. Read the article “Different Types of Light Microscopes” for a description of similarities and differences between the different microscope types. The following section reflects my own personal opinion on this issue.
In any case, I do not recommend the purchase of “toy” microscopes. If you invest a little more you are able to obtain a “real” instrument with substantially better image quality and flexibility, one which will retain the interest of the child (and parent!!) for a longer time. And especially for children a good image quality is necessary. An experienced microscopist may be able to interpret the “dark washed-out blob” as a cell, but children need crisper and clearer images to maintain their fascination – my personal opinion. There is the danger of disappointment if they do not see similar images as those printed on the box, and I am almost certain that many “toy microscopes” are not capable of keeping their promise. But this is my personal opinion, and the quality of these devices certainly varies as well.
Some of these microscopes are also sold with unrealistic magnifications up to over 1000x. Please understand that toy microscopes are useless at this magnification, for a range of reasons:
- Resolution is too low: The object that you want to see is magnified 1000x for sure, but you only see a washed-out blob with no detail.
- Stability is low:. There is a good reason why microscopes are made of metal and why they are heavy. Every vibration (walking) is magnified as well and transferred to the microscope.
- Image is dark: A high magnification requires a high light intensity. Many of these microscopes are not capable of delivering the required light intensity.
- And: bad depth of field, optics not corrected for lens errors, etc. etc.
I have to admit that even “toy” microscopes vary greatly in quality (and price). If you want to buy one of these, then I would recommend you not to give magnifications above 200x or 400x much weight and to read appropriate reviews beforehand. A cheap plastic scope with 1000x magnification is unrealistic. I have already seen some better quality “toy” microscopes but the price difference to a microscope manufactured according to the international DIN standard was not too big. The bottom line is that the child should enjoy working with the instrument.
Compound or Stereo Microscope?
Instead of simply listing the pros and cons of each type, I’ll make life easy by giving you two simple rules:
The younger the child the more you should tend towards stereo microscopes.
If you intend to purchase a compound microscope, make sure that it works with the DIN standard. This allows for an exchange of objectives and guarantees a minimum quality.
There are many points that speak for stereo microscopes for young children, they are not only more “child friendly”, and more forgiving and easier to handle:
- The subjective visual impression of 3D samples (flies, hair, rocks etc.) can be quite fascinating. The view is, in contrast to compound microscopes, upright (!). A big advantage for orientation.
- Little to no sample preparation required for many objects. There is no need to cut and slice the specimens into the required thickness, even though this is possible as well. There is no need to prepare specimen slides with cover-slips. We use stereo microscopes in our school, and as a first introduction, we gave our students a post card and made them look at the colored dots that compose the image – fast, simple with an immediate result.
- Stereo microscopes have a low magnification, often not more than 40x. This means that there is less abstraction “from the real world”. A fly looks like a fly, only much bigger and more impressive. For a compound microscope you need to take the fly apart first and examine the individual parts, it’s too thick otherwise to be observed.
- Stereo microscopes also allow for an observation of non-transparent objects like rocks, fingernails (the dirt is pretty interesting…), skin, plant leaves etc. Stick a whole earth worm under the microscope and see how it looks like. Directly observe a dish of pond-water. If the child is already collecting rocks, insects, stamps, coins, etc. then a stereo microscope is the natural extension to observe these collected items.
- Some stereo microscopes also allow for a change in magnification, by zooming. This is not a necessity, though.
- Decent stereo microscopes can be cheaper than compound microscopes, because they are less complex.
- Stereo microscopes need less time for instruction. More instruction time needed for compound microscope. With compound microscopes, if you use a higher magnification and then turn the coarse-focus-adjustment knob into the wrong direction, you run the risk of ruining both sample and objective because you smash the objective into the specimen. Stereo microscopes have a large sample-objective distance.
- Stereo microscopes have a higher depth of field. It is therefore much easier to find what you are looking for.
Stereo microscopes also possess certain disadvantages:
- There may be some samples that you or your child is interested in but requires a higher magnification. For example, if you want to watch the nucleus of cells, then you are better off with a compound microscope. It is also not possible to observe bacteria, they are simply too small. As a comfort, a compound microscope with regular bright-field optics also does not allow you to view living bacteria, as they are transparent, you need expensive phase-contrast objectives (labs use them). Alternatively the bacteria have to be stained first, and then I doubt that novices will be able to recognize them as bacteria.
- Sample preparation may indeed be one of the activities that a child may be interested in, but stereo-microscopes do not require much preparation, while it is necessary in compound microscopes.
- Some younger children may have problems viewing through both eye-pieces (they can look through one of them if they want to).
- And possibly the biggest “problem”: There is the myth that microscopes have to magnify very much in order for the person to see much. Children may be disappointed if they hear that their stereo microscope only magnifies up to 40x, if their friend has a department store (“toy”) microscope which magnifies 1250x. This is where education comes into play – magnification is not everything, and a high magnification does not mean that one sees more, resolution also counts. I want to guarantee you that you won’t be able to see much at 1250x.