If you’re thinking about buying a telescope for your kids, there are several main considerations to make before even picking the model.
First, there’s age. A young child under five is simply not going to be able to grasp the complicated concepts behind viewing anything besides the Moon and simply won’t be able to use the instrument at all on their own – furthermore, there’s a high risk of them being unable to understand the danger of viewing the Sun and blinding themselves.
Over the age of maybe eleven, you might be better off picking a full-fledged, adult-sized telescope for your child to use. This article is intended for parents looking to buy a telescope for an elementary school-aged or older kid. If you have a larger budget or an older child, it may be worth reading our regular guides for purchasing telescopes.
Second, there’s the usage. Do they want to view objects during the day? Only a refractor can do that. Kids aren’t as picky about things like chromatic aberration, so a short refractor which I wouldn’t recommend to an adult will be fine for a child.
Lastly, there’s of course budget. For a real telescope, one should spend between at least $100 and $200. However, there are some passable options in the sub-$100 price range which I will mention here.
1. Celestron FirstScope
This scope is something I have highly mixed feelings on.
It’s a working telescope under $50, and it doesn’t have a shaky mount. However, it has many, many issues befalling it. For one, the primary mirror is spherical, and thus fails to deliver sharp images at “high” (really over maybe 40) magnification.
Second, there’s no finderscope. The extremely low magnification provided by the 20mm eyepiece (15x) allows one to sight along the tube, but it’s not the easiest, especially for a child.
The eyepieces are… horrific. The 20mm Huygens (15x) works, but that’s about all I have to say about it. The 4mm Ramsden is literally useless and tends to get stuck in the focuser.
You can’t collimate the primary mirror, but you’re limited to such low power anyway that as long as it’s roughly correct the images will be alright.
Celestron sells an accessory kit for the FirstScope including some more junky eyepieces and a finderscope, but the finderscope is less effective than sighting down the tube and the eyepieces are useless.
What is in effect a 15x monocular with relatively poor image quality is something I’d find difficult to recommend to an adult, which is why I typically suggest 50-60mm binoculars to adults with such a tight budget. But a child will have trouble holding binoculars steady, and of course they want a telescope – not binoculars.
With this scope you can expect to see a good amount of detail on the Moon, Saturn’s rings, Saturn’s moon Titan, Jupiter’s moons, Venus’ phases, and maybe some detail on Mars and Jupiter if you’re lucky, but that’s about it as far as the Solar System goes – you’ll be able to identify Uranus and Neptune as star-like points and nothing more. Deep-sky wise, the Pleiades and a few open clusters are nice and you can see the Orion Nebula. But that’s really it.
The FirstScope will be crushed by a serious instrument of almost any aperture, even one slightly smaller.
If you really must get a telescope for your child under $50, the FirstScope will do it. But if you really want to give them a satisfactory experience, I’d suggest doubling or even tripling your budget.
2. Zhumell Z100 Portable Altazimuth Reflector
The Zhumell Z100 is certainly a decent telescope, but its price does mean a few quality features have been subtracted.
For one, the eyepieces are rubbish Kellners, and the “low”-power 17mm provides a bit too much magnification to be a good low-power eyepiece – a 20mm or 25mm would’ve been far more desirable.
Second, the primary mirror cannot be collimated. If the scope suffers a lot of bumps and jars during shipping or even just on a trip in the car, you will never be able to get sharp images because re-aligning the primary is impossible.
That being said, the Z100 is still better than anything else at its price, and certainly beats the Celestron FirstScope. It can be mounted onto a medium-duty photo tripod if one lacks a table. And its 4” aperture means it can show a lot of detail on the Moon and planets and a fair amount of deep-sky objects – assuming it’s collimated, of course.
3. Meade Lightbridge Mini 114
The Meade Lightbridge Mini 114 is a compact, portable scope and it’s perfect for children.
The wide field of view (3 degrees with the included 25mm eyepiece) makes it easy for even an impatient user to find objects with the cheap (albeit functional) red-dot finder, while the collimatable, high-quality primary mirror allows one to take it up to 200x or so on the Moon and planets with an additional eyepiece – although the included 9mm eyepiece’s 50x can still show plenty.
The Mini 114 fits in a backpack, meaning it’s perfect for camping trips if you have access to a bench or picnic table to use it on. But, it cannot be mounted on a tripod and being a tabletop scope doesn’t come with one.
Also, being a reflector, it can’t be used terrestrially and collimating can be a bit of a pain, especially for a child. However, it is simply unmatched in value and thus is still my #1 recommendation.
The Mini 114 has a wealth of objects to show. Its wide field means it excels at open star clusters, but its large aperture allows one to see quite a handful of nebulae, galaxies, and globular clusters, the latter of which can even begin to be resolved into grainy stellar masses. In the Solar System, the Mini 114 will show the phases of Mercury and Venus, Mars’ ice cap and a few dark markings at opposition, Jupiter’s cloud belts and Great Red Spot, the 4 Galilean moons circling Jupiter, Saturn’s rings and the division within them, Titan and a few other Saturnian moons, and Uranus and Neptune as tiny teal- and azure-colored disks.
4. Celestron Inspire 100AZ
Celestron’s Inspire 100AZ is a decent scope for kids, though not without its flaws.
The Inspire 100 is a 4” f/6.5 doublet refractor. Thus, it will have some chromatic aberration, though not severe. Thanks to being a refractor, the scope doesn’t require collimation like a Newtonian and can be used for terrestrial viewing thanks to its upright image – in fact, it includes an Amici diagonal so images aren’t reversed left to right.
The scope is capable of showing you everything a decent 4” should – Mercury and Venus’ phases, lots of lunar craters and other features, some details on Mars, Jupiter’s bands and Great Red Spot as well as its moons, Saturn’s rings and the division within them (as well as some moons), and Uranus and Neptune as tiny bluish dots. In addition, there are numerous star clusters, galaxies, and nebulae to be seen.
The Inspire 100 has some unique features that I’ve never seen on any other scope:
- The lens cap doubles as an unwieldy, but functional, smartphone adapter, so you can take pictures of the Moon and planets with your smartphone through the eyepiece.
- The accessory tray is built into the telescope and thus there’s no fumbling with attaching it.
- The accessory tray comes with a built-in red flashlight which can be taken out and used as a red flashlight.
- The focuser has markings so you can easily return to the same focus point if you remember it for different eyepieces – though this is difficult when you can’t see the markings in the dark.
The Inspire also comes with a very nice “StarPointer Pro” finderscope which more or less mimics a Telrad, projecting a “bullseye” reticle onto the sky rather than just a dot.
But as we all know, neat gadgets and gizmos don’t make or break a telescope.
The Inspire 100AZ’s main drawback is the simplicity of the mount. It’s actually perfectly steady, but it lacks the smoothness of a Dobsonian or the slow motion adjustments of most good alz-azimuth mounts. But considering the scope’s features, I think it’s acceptable.
5. Sky-Watcher 6” Traditional Dobsonian
If you’re looking for a serious telescope that you (or your child) won’t grow out of, this is it.
The 6” Traditional’s aperture means it has twice the light-gathering ability of a 4” scope, and 1.5 times the angular resolution. It’s also made to a higher standard of optical quality, boosting the performance even further.
The 6” Traditional comes on a full-sized Dobsonian mount – there’s no tripod to level and no need to worry about a table; it just sits on the ground. Moving it is extremely easy. The eyepiece height is between about 2 and 4 feet, so it’s just fine for a child to reach.
The 6” Traditional’s f/8 focal ratio means it doesn’t require the precision collimation that a shorter, faster scope needs, and the primary mirror is easier to manufacture well, so you can expect really crisp and sharp images out of this scope.
A 6” telescope beats a smaller one in the Solar System in a number of aspects:
- When Mars is close to Earth, up to a dozen dark markings may be seen on the Martian surface – as opposed to maybe two or three with a 4” or 4.5”
- Jupiter’s moons are disks, instead of pinpoints – a smaller telescope lacks the resolution to perceive this
- Saturn’s cloud belts are visible, as well as several moons
- Uranus and Neptune are obviously disks, and Neptune’s moon Triton may be seen
A 6” will also show many galaxies (some even with detail instead of as mere smudges), can begin to resolve some of the bright globular clusters into stars, and many open clusters are visible. The Orion Nebula is truly spectacular on a winter night.
The 6” Traditional comes with decent 25mm and 10mm Plossl eyepieces for low and medium power respectively, and a usable 6×30 finder – through a Telrad or Rigel Quickfinder may be preferable, especially for a child.
Drawbacks? Other than needing the occasional tweak to collimation, the scope is heavy and may be troublesome for smaller children to pick up and move on their own.
Criteria For Selection
If you are curious about how I picked which makes it to the elite list, let me discuss them one by one below:
This is probably what most people think is the gauge to know if something is right for kids – if it’s cheaper. I know it might sound unfair to these innocent ones, but I would like to believe it’s more of being on the practical side than just wanting to spend less for a kid.
Let’s face it. Are we sure kids have that long attention span that we expect them to go gaga over it for a long period of time? That’s next to impossible. Kids’ interest shifts as quickly and as often as they switch channels from Disney Channel to Nickelodeon.
That’s a reality. And it would be impractical to buy them something a bit expensive that we expect to be in the storage room after a few weeks or even days. Unless we can use it ourselves, we would rather be called frugal than spend on something that won’t be used after a first few try.
We should ensure that the telescope’s features can be appreciated by kids that they’ll likely enjoy it for a span of time.
Surely, there would be kids who would enjoy tinkering things. But you cannot expect everyone to have the same interest and attention. So, the simpler the setup, the more kids would likely give it more time.
Kids would likely enjoy any gadget as long as they can carry them around or at least they can move it from one place to another by themselves.
All of these taken into consideration, I am pretty sure you will never go wrong with any of these choices. Unless, of course, you mess up the process by including your own “adult” expectations.
Buying Tips For Kid Telescopes
How to know if your kids like telescopes?
Test the waters first. It’s easy to gauge children’s interests; if they talk about it all the time, if they ask questions, and when they directly ask you to buy them one.
That being said, before buying your kids a telescope, make sure they are really interested. Don’t just assume that because you love the hobby, they do as well. This costly assumption will just potentially add junk to your attic.
Trust me! No matter how other people tell you that fruits don’t fall far from the tree, they sometimes do!