In my opinion, children under the age of 6 or 7 should not be given a microscope, but rather a decent magnifying glass. Children of that age do not yet have the coordination skills to operate a microscope. Of course if a parent is also interested in microscopy, then I suggest that you buy a slightly better microscope and let your children also do some observation.
In any case, the age of children spans a wide range. A microscope that is suitable for a 15-year old will be different than one suitable for an 8-9 year old.
If a child is very young, then I recommend stereo microscopes. Buy stereo microscopes if you want to do nature observation with your children and do not have the interest or the resources to do laboratory work to prepare the specimens. These microscopes are less delicate, give an upright image and objects can be seen stereoscopically. The image produced can be visually quite impressing and makes otherwise uninteresting objects come to life. There is also less parental supervision needed, because stereo microscopes are generally easier to operate. The image produced is upright and not as abstract as the images produced by compound microscopes. Be aware that an online search for “microscopes for kids” will, unfortunately, return a large number of plastic (“toy”) compound microscopes and very few to no stereo microscopes.
There are several advantages of stereo microscopes for children:
- The objects do not look as abstract as under a compound microscope.
- The image is upright making orientation much easier
- There is only one focus knob, which makes the operation of the microscope much easier.
- The objects can be placed directly on the stage of the microscope and it is not necessary to cut them to put them on a microscope slide.
- They don’t cost as much
- They give you an upright and a stereoscopic (3D) image. The microscope is a natural extension of one’s vision.
Slightly older children might want to be challenged a bit more. Introductory microscopes can be bought already for about EUR/USD 100. These come with three objectives (4x, 10x, 40x) and with them you can see already almost everything that you can see with more expensive microscopes (even if the image quality is lower). The low cost of these microscopes makes them attractive, and these microscopes can also be used for home schooling to observe microscopes slides that are common in a biology curriculum. I also recommend these microscopes for adults who want to get a first small taste of microscopy without investing too much money.
Introductory microscopes have only one eyepiece, stage clips (and no mechanical stage) and no condenser. It is this missing last part which reduces the image quality somewhat, but which also makes the operation of the microscope easier (and reduces cost). Several of these microscopes already have a coarse and fine focus knob, which allows the children to learn proper microscope operations.
Advantages of introductory microscopes
- Low cost
- Small, portable
- Often battery operated
These cost already a few hundred Euros or Dollars, and are therefore suitable for adolescents and even medicine students who want to observe histology slides with different tissue sections (to study for an exam…).
These microscopes have all of the features of a microscope, and also a 100x oil immersion objective, which is already for more advanced observations. Many amateur microscopists will have a microscope from this category.
Educational microscopes that are found in schools belong to this category. The operation is a bit more advanced, because the child has to learn how to operate the mechanical stage and also the condenser of the microscope. Most microscopes of this category are binocular (having two eyepieces) or trinocular (with a phototube). This makes longer observation sessions more comfortable. Younger children might have a problem carrying these microscopes, however.
USB microscopes are cameras with a lens that can be plugged into a computer. The pictures that they produce are similar to those of a stereo microscope, without the stereoscopic view (because the image can only be seen on a computer screen).
What makes these microscopes attractive is that they allow for a fast way of exploring nature. The disadvantage is, however, that there are really not many “knobs to turn” and you are just pointing the camera to an object. In that sense, it does not allow the child to learn proper microscopic technique. I therefore recommend these USB microscopes as an additional item. In any case, I would prefer such a USB microscope over a toy microscope, simply because the image quality is superior.