Nothing will whet a child's appetite for science like peering into teeny-tiny worlds with a microscope. And nothing will quash their interest like a cheap plastic toy that reveals nothing.
Buying a kid a microscope, then, requires a little bit of care.
"You do want to spend a little bit more to get an actual metal, real-lens microscope," said Bev DeVore-Wedding, a science teacher at Meeker High School in Meeker, Colo., and a member of the board of directors of the National Science Teachers Association.
Plastic microscopes can't handle the use a kid will put them through, DeVore-Wedding told Live Science, and plastic lenses can't provide as good an image as real glass — they don't focus well and warp easily. For the best image, choose a microscope with a light source instead of one that uses mirrors.
You'll also want to look for the DIN standard of 160, which should be included in the microscope's specs and etched into the objective, which is the cylinder that holds the lens. You can skip fancy extras such as oil-immersion objectives, which are too complex for junior scientists and unnecessary for the kind of exploration a child will do.
"Keep it simple," DeVore-Wedding said.
Beyond these basics are other decisions: Stereo or compounding? Binocular or monocular?
A binocular microscope has two eyepieces and a monocular just one. Two might seem better than one, but for kids' close-set eyes, adjusting the binocular lenses can be difficult, DeVore-Wedding said. A monocular microscope may suit little eyes better.
Stereomicroscopes, sometimes called dissecting microscopes, have relatively low magnification and allow viewing of solid objects. These are easy to use and require no complicated slide presentation — plop a leaf or insect under the lens and you're good to go. Stereomicroscopes can be a good option for younger kids, who may not have the patience for sample preparation.
Compound microscopes are high-powered and use light transmitted through the sample for viewing. A number of microscopes (called dual microscopes) can be used both as stereo or compound microscopes.
And don't just stop at standard microscopes if you're looking to get a child passionate about science. Microscopy isn't just an indoor activity, DeVore-Wedding said. Many companies sell lightweight, handheld field microscopes for under $20, a good option if you want to be sure your child is interested before shelling out a large sum. Photographer wannabes can even buy magnifying lenses that fit over a smartphone camera lens, allowing for picture taking at 15X magnification.
Live Science's sister site Top Ten Reviews ranked children's microscopes for quality, ease of use and fun extras (like Petri dishes and stains). These picks are on the affordable end of the spectrum, so more serious users will want to check out more expensive models.
#1 My First Lab Duo-Scope Microscope
Made by C&A scientific, the My First Lab Duo-Scope Microscope works as a compound microscope (with light shining from below) or a stereomicroscope (with light shining from above). The lenses are glass, so as to magnify with clarity, and the kit that comes with the scope is stocked with several prepared slides, empty slides, covers and labels for the do-it-yourselfer, forceps, Petri dishes and more.
As with other microscope models, parents will have to encourage a do-it-yourself aesthetic or shell out separately for prepared slides. Few microscopes come with a large prepared slide library, and the My First Lab Duo-Scope has only four. The microscope body is mostly, but not entirely, metal, which makes it less sturdy than all-metal options, but cheaper.
Ease of use: The microscope magnifies up to 400X, which provides a detailed look at cells and tissue. The good-quality optics and accessories such as a scalpel and teasing needle to maneuver samples mean this microscope is not precisely a toy, and is best used by kids 8 years old and up. Otherwise, the microscope comes with a dust cover for protection and is battery-operated, so it is very portable.
Help and support: C&A is a scientific equipment company, not a toy company, so buyers are in good hands if they run into problems. The company has a customer service number.
#2 Omano OM115LD (Omano OM116L)
Omano's previous elementary microscope model, the OM115LD, got high marks from Top Ten Reviews for its all-metal construction and good-quality, glass optics for the price. The 115LD is no longer sold, but Omano's new OM116L model boasts similar features. The microscope comes with five blank and five prepared slides.
Ease of use: This basic scope gets high marks from Top Ten Reviews for being simple to use. You'll have to purchase accessories such as extra slides, slide covers and stains separately. The microscope comes with batteries and an AC/DC converter for use plugged in.
Help and support: Omano is sold by Microscopes.com, which has easy-to-find contact information on its website. A query to the online support chat by Live Science was answered immediately and helpfully.
#3 TK2 Scope
The TK2 Scope has a dual light for either stereo or compound viewing. It features real glass optics, but suffers from a plastic, not metal, body. Nevertheless, for the price, the lenses and magnification options offer quality viewing.
The microscope does come with a basic set of accessories, including five prepared and five blank slides.
Ease of use: As a beginner's microscope, the TK2 Scope comes with a helpful owner's manual, though some customers complain that more space could have been devoted to the care and assembly of the lenses.
Help and support: The company has a customer service line during business hours and an email contact.