Play Better: What to Look for in a Microscope for Kids

Why did the cell cross the microscope? To get to the other slide.

byJohn Sass|
Play Better: What to Look for in a Microscope for Kids
Look mom, it’s mitosis!. Getty Images

Picking the perfect microscope for your budding naturalist’s home lab can feel a little intimidating, especially if you want to invest in a solid tool that can bring a wide variety of specimens into view without breaking the bank. Here’s the lowdown on the big considerations when shopping for this science tech.

Good for Beginners
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Young biologists can toggle the light source to view 3D objects directly or practice basic specimen mounting with included supplies.

There are two basic types of light microscopes. Stereo microscopes are perfect if you want to see everyday objects super close up—without the hassle of preparing slides. These usually have lower magnification and a larger stage for plopping down an insect or flower petal for direct viewing. For these instruments, the light shines from above the specimen.

Compound microscopes are ideal for bringing even smaller objects into view—like plant cells or microscopic animals living in pond water. For these, your young explorer will learn to make slides, and the light source will shine from below the stage, illuminating through the slide. Some microscopes offer the flexibility to do a bit of both. They have light sources above and below so the user can view 3D objects as well as slides.

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An affordable, portable tool for learning the basics.

One of the most important considerations is how much the microscope magnifies those small objects. Microscopes have two types of lenses. The objective lenses are in the circular nosepiece just above the specimen. Most instruments will have two or three of these lenses clearly marked and color-coded to show their magnification level.

The other type of lens is the ocular lens (or lenses, if the microscope has two eyepieces). Common magnifications for beginner microscopes are 40x, 100x, and 400x, which means the microscope will magnify the object 40 times (or 100 times or 400 times). Young scientists need a microscope with at least a 400x magnification to be able to see plant or animal cells.

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Advanced options for the serious home biologist looking for higher magnification and greater control.

Some microscopes take it to the next level with a 100x oil immersion objective lens. When combined with a standard 10x ocular lens, the 1000x total magnification brings things like bacteria or cell structure into view. To use this feature, place a drop of oil on top of the slide’s coverslip and slip the objective lens into the oil. At this level, it’s important to select a microscope with both coarse and fine adjustment knobs so you can control the focus.

Serious home biologists should consider an instrument with a mechanical stage attachment, which lets you make adjustments to the slide while viewing. And don’t forget to check out the light source apparatus. Ideally, you want an Abbe condenser with an iris diaphragm so you can fine-tune how much light reaches your slide. When it comes to the eyepieces, look for widefield eyepieces with achromatic lenses. These maximize your field of view, which is particularly helpful for younger naturalists learning to focus. The lenses have been color corrected to ensure you see every breathtaking shade of your specimen.