So you decided you want to buy a telescope!
Childhood is a period of life where we are curious about everything, where we marvel at everything and are easily convinced things are the way we are told they are by adults…. You could say this is the ideal moment to offer a child a telescope, perhaps you would like to share your interest in astronomy with them. This stage in life could also be seen as the same for people just starting out in a new hobby where they have the curiosity and passion but perhaps not the knowledge. Whichever it is, it is a moment of great importance, because it could be the birth of something fantastic, the planting of a seed that will grow and flourish into something magnificent, however, it could also the death of one if done wrong! That is why we have to be very careful about what we do and how we move forward from this point.
As we probably know from our own experiences as a child, children get tired of things very quickly and I would say that in today’s instant gratification world of the internet, that they get tired/bored very quickly especially if things are not what they seem. I have seen toy telescopes that boast 180 x magnification with a 50mm telescope and they have wonderful colour images of Saturn and its ring system and the giant Jupiter with cloud bands and a great red spot with fantastic detail. Most astronomers will tell you that those images were taken with the Hubble space telescope and that a 180 x magnification of an image through a 4mm eyepiece with a 2 x Barlow lens on a 50mm telescope will look something like this:
Artistic impression of the view through the toy telescope at 180 x magnification with a 4mm eyepiece with a 3 x Barlow lens (left) compared to the view through a 102mm telescope with 35mm eyepiece and 2 x Barlow (right). This is false.
In addition it says “This toy is suitable for children over the age of 7 years”! To be honest, it would be wiser to put “Not suitable for children over the age of 3 years”, with the only interest for this telescope then being the little children can do what their parents or their big brother or sister is doing. You do have to ask yourself many questions before you offer a telescope to a child, in fact you have to ask yourself as many questions as if you were buying a car. It is a long term project and not just renting for the weekend trip to the seaside.
Forget the telescopes that can be found in Toys ‘r’ us, and other supermarkets, which are, of course, cheap (in principle), but to offer a scientific instrument which could be the potential building block of a child’s future, is disastrous, to say the least. At the same time do not go from one extreme directly into the other! A child is not an adult and does not need a big motorised telescope set-up for £1000. Unless you are an experienced astronomer yourself, chances are you will not be able to set it up or use it to its full potential causing frustration all round.
Indeed buying a telescope is probably not the best way to start out with astronomy for children. We have found when doing outreach with children, that it is quite a developed skill to look through a scope with one eye whilst keeping the other closed. Few children will have the patience to look through a scope for more than a few moments and don’t forget, having taken some time to locate and focus on an object, it will move quite rapidly out of view.
My advice would always be you are better off getting an astronomy magazine subscription, a really good book and a pair of binoculars, preferably small enough that they can carry them but not too small that we end up back at the supermarket level again. The articles in the magazine combined with the sky charts and diagrams will encourage scientific work as well as play. Rewards such as the Galilean Moons of Jupiter are just one of many things they can follow and learn. The simple fact that Ganymede is the largest Moon in the solar system, and that it looks so small compared to ours which is only the 5 largest, introduces discussion and drawing sessions on size and distance. Get to know the night sky and enjoy naked eye observing. Learn your constellations, planets and the astronomical calendar – enjoy meteor showers without any specialist equipment.
However, if you are at the stage of buying a first scope then there are some great small telescopes on the market today but you will not find them on the shelves of a toy shop or supermarket. This is a link to a website that also offers advice on the best scopes for beginners. Look up the nearest telescope shop to you, and local astronomy club/group/society. Most have got websites and can be found here .This site breaks down into counties so you can look for your whole area.
If I am asked who would I go to? There are a few in the UK and here in France too, but my first port of call would be to someone I know and can trust. Neil and Jane at Tring Astronomy Centre have been great supporters of our festival and they would always be my first port of call for sound advice.
There are many ways in which to engage young children, some easy simple and some requiring slightly more planning but they are all doable. One thing we should always remember though is that if they lit the candle of interest in the first place; then let them decide when to blow it out and not you, all you can do is guide and support and join in. It’s a great hobby and you never know….there may just be the next Brian Cox or Tim Peak in your back garden.