*Editor's Note: While you're looking for telescopes and other space gifts, check out our picks for the Best Space Gifts and Best Kids' Space Gifts and Toys for more ideas. See our full Best Telescopes Guide, too.*
Looking at the night sky can be inspiring for kids, and the right telescope can drive interest in science for a lifetime. But most telescopes sold in toy stores and department stores are of very poor quality. We have looked for those that will stand up to enthusiastic use!
A child's age may determine the appropriate telescope for exploring the sky. We've rounded up what we think are the best scopes for kids in different age groups, from relatively simple telescopes for preschoolers and kindergartners, to more advanced instruments for young stargazers in middle school and up.
Note: Parental supervision is suggested for small children playing with telescopes. To avoid serious eye injuries and to prevent fires, NEVER allow children to point any telescope or binoculars at the sun.
Age 6 and Under:
Educational Insights GeoSafari Jr. Talking Telescope
Perfect for the youngest stargazers you know, the Talking Telescope from Educational Insights GeoSafari Jr. is a combination telescope and slide viewer, with an audio function that delivers facts and questions about the objects on the slides (including things like animals and planets). Its talking function features the voice of Emily Dawn Calandrelli, host of the "Xploration Outer Space" science TV show.
The 4x-magnification telescope has a wide binocular eyepiece and doesn't need to be focused to magnify nearby objects, so it's easy for youngsters to use. The telescope attaches magnetically to a wide, sturdy base that includes the slide viewer.
This telescope toy comes with 24 slides, but unfortunately, there are no additional slides available for purchase. It takes three AA batteries that are not included. The toy is stable and fairly durable. The maker's website recommends the toy for ages 5 to 8, but we think kids as young as 3 will enjoy it.
Age 6 and Up:
Celestron FirstScope Apollo 11 50th Anniversary
Extremely easy operation and remarkably good optical quality at a very low price make Celestron's FirstScope a surprisingly great choice to help kids bond with the night sky. If you have patience and a dark location, then planets, nebulas, star clusters, several galaxies and occasional comets are in range of this telescope. And the optional dark, anti-glare filter provides a spectacular view of the moon!
To operate this telescope, just insert one of two eyepieces (20mm or 4mm) for wide and close-up views. FirstScope's 3-inch (76mm) aperture is small, but the telescope's fast focal ratio (3.95) gives kids a view of objects in the deep sky on dark (moonless) nights. The scope can pull in nearly 120x more light than a child's eye, so he or she can catch the photons of the Andromeda galaxy if the sky is dark enough.
- 76 mm Newtonian reflector
- Apollo 11 50th anniversary commemorative coin
- Includes "50 Things to See On The Moon" book
The telescope reaches a maximum useful magnification of 180x; a young observer can resolve the rings of Saturn and prospect the canyons of the moon. Note that, for terrestrial viewing, objects will appear upside down, which can be fun for kids (and teach them a lesson about how optics work).
The scope weighs less than 5 lbs. (2.3 kilograms), so it can easily be taken along on trips to remote stargazing locations. (It does not include a tripod, so a stable outdoor table is needed.) This telescope also comes with a red-dot "StarPointer" that makes it easier to find and focus on targets (battery included, easy to calibrate).
The Apollo 11 50th anniversary edition's optical is decorated with an attractive moon wrap with an image of the moon by astrophotographer Robert Reeves, while the standard FirstScope sports the names of noteworthy astronomers throughout history, inspiring kids even when the instrument is sitting on their desks or shelves indoors.
This optional accessory kit for $19.95 adds a true finder-scope, anti-glare moon filter, two more eyepieces and an included download of useful astronomy software ("Starry Night Basic Edition") for PC and Mac, although that software is also included with the FirstScope itself.
Levenhuk LabZZ MTB3 Combo
MTB3 stands for microscope, telescope and binoculars. You get kid-size versions of all three, plus many helpful accessories, with this LabZZ MTB3 combo kit from Levenhuk. The components are plastic and won't stand up to very rough treatment, but you get a lot of science excitement for the price.
The refractor telescope's 2-inch aperture is small. But Galileo invented the science of astronomy with something not much larger. While this telescope won't haul in the dim photons of galaxies, it will offer your child a captivating view of the moon and reveal the colors of Mars, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn. The included mirror diagonal lets your young observer watch animals, sports and other terrestrial phenomena "right-side-up."
- 3-in-1 science set includes telescope, binoculars, microscope
- Up to 120x telescope magnification for night sky/terrestrial viewing
- Microscope handling accessories included
The microscope kit provides a field biologist experience in miniature. It's portable, with a battery-powered light-source. Young scientists can rotate among three objective lenses: 150x, 450x and 900x. To help kids make their own transparent nature slides, Levenhuk includes blank glass with covers, labels, a flask, a spatula and forceps. There are some potential eye-pokers among the parts. Younger kids will need supervision to handle the scalpel, dissecting needle and pipette.
Last in the pack, you'll find a set of truly useful, if low-magnification, binoculars. They're sized to fit younger hands and faces. The optical glass lenses are anti-glare coated and will produce 6x magnification.
Age 10 and Up:
Kids 10 and older are likely ready for a telescope that is a bit more advanced than a tabletop instrument. With proper instruction on safety and instrument care, older kids should be able to operate these scopes independently. Adults may want to stick around to enjoy the view.
Levenhuk Skyline Travel 80
Levenhuk's Skyline Travel 80 gives you a spotting scope-style refractor at a fraction of the cost of the typical spotting scope. Such instruments are commonly used by birders, target shooters and other outdoor sports-folk; less often, by amateur astronomers. But it's nice to have one telescope that serves a lot of different uses. Tuck it, along with its aluminum tripod, in its (provided) nylon transport bag and get out there — all for less than $150.
- Travel spotting scope for skywatching/birdwatching
- Tripod mount and carrying case included
- Multi-coated optics for sharp, clear images
Under the canopy of night, this Skyline is well-suited to view the moon at any phase except the four or so nights around the full moon (when the amount of sunlight reflected off the lunar surface makes it just too bright).
You can see color on the brightest planets, but not a whole lot of surface details or cloud-forms. Under very dark skies — away from artificial lights and on moonless nights — the Skyline will pick up the brightest (nearest) few galaxies and star clusters. But it's neither optically fast enough nor powerful enough in magnification to look very far into deep space.
Meade Polaris 130 EQ
Certain telescope configurations lend themselves to learning; Meade's Polaris 130 is a perfect example. You'll obtain excellent views of objects, but for you to get them, the Polaris will gently compel you to understand some key celestial mechanics and a fair bit about how telescopes work. It's a completely manual telescope. Meade's instruction manual (included) is a good read all by itself. If you knew nothing when you started, you'd be well versed in basic astronomy by page 21.
- Large German mount for stability
- Three eyepieces: Low (26mm), medium (9mm) & high (6. 3mm) mag.
- 2x Barlow lens doubles the magnifying power of eyepieces
- Astronomy software and DVD guide included
Meade one-ups the competition by including three eyepieces: a low-power 26 mm (1 inch), a higher-power 9 mm (0.35 inches) and a very-high-power 6.3 mm (0.25 inch). That last one is best used to see surface detail on bright planets, but it has a very small aperture and exit pupil (the diameter of the image formed by the ocular). Some folks will find it hard to get their eye aligned on it.
Celestron Astro Fi 90 WiFi Telescope
If there's one thing kids today know how to handle, it's a smartphone app. Wouldn't it be great if someone built a telescope to leverage all that app-driving skill? May we introduce your kids to Celestron's Astro Fi 90mm WiFi Refractor and it's sibling, the Astro Fi 102mm Maksutov-Cassegrain Hybrid. If you have an older child who's serious about the sky — and you can afford to spend a little more on supporting her or his learning — Celestron's superb optics and solid machining could mean decades of observing. Under control of the Navigator app running on iOS and Android devices, this telescope makes finding rewarding targets easy and inspiring.
- Wi-Fi enabled Go-To functions for object finding
- 90 mm refractor telescope with tripod
- SkyPortal App for Smartphone Control
Both come with eyepieces that allow for magnifications of 36x and 91x, with a highest useful magnification of 213x. The scopes are operated using the Celestron Navigator app (versions available for iPad, iPhone and Android devices), which can automatically locate more than 120,000 night-sky objects. It's a celestial encyclopedia at your fingertips. Users can pick a target from the app, and the telescope will slew itself to bring the target into view.
Because of the price investment needed, this telescope requires careful treatment and is too fragile for very young children.
Note: Each Astro Fi telescope is designed to create its own wireless connection to link up with your device, even in remote skywatching areas. Setup may require an external power source for the telescope. The refractor weighs a little more than 14 lbs. (6.3 kg); the Mak-Cas hybrid weighs 12.3 lbs (5.6 kg).
Telescopes, binoculars and astronomy gear
Once you've found the right telescope for your budding astronomer, you may want to begin planning for the next stage in his or her skywatching journey. You can see our recommendations for more advanced telescopes, astronomy binoculars and accessories in the links below:
We searched for telescopes that were durable enough to withstand playtime, could keep youngsters entertained and would ignite curiosity about the cosmos.
When testing the telescopes, we looked at each instrument's basic specifications, like magnification and the number of accessories. We also looked at the ease of setup and of use, the quality of the product's construction and design, and whether the telescope could withstand young children playing with it.
We found that the telescopes tended to fall into two categories: those made primarily for observing and those geared more toward science and learning. So we picked our favorites in both of those categories and divided our final choices by age group.
Our top selections for kids age 6 and under are colorful and fun, but they can also introduce very young children to telescope viewing. The choices for kids age 6 and up offer more complex technology and more challenging science tasks. The selections for age 10 and up can serve as transitions into high-grade telescopes, and are suitable for casual stargazers of all ages.
We worked hard to find the best telescopes for kids, and we hope you find one that works for the young astronomer in your life.
Celestron: A veteran in the telescope optics business, Celestron has been offering skywatchers quality instruments since the 1960s and, in 1987, developed the first computerized observatory-class telescope (a battery-operated version followed in 1996). Celestron telescopes have flown on a NASA space shuttle, and the company's NexStar SE appeared on the CBS comedy "The Big Bang Theory." In 2014, Celestron unveiled the Cosmos 90GT WiFi Telescope, the first Wi-Fi–operated telescope for amateur astronomy that can be controlled via the Cosmos Celestron Navigator app for iPhone, iPad and Android devices. For more information on Celestron's telescopes, visit: http://www.celestron.com/.
Educational Insights: Educational Insights is a Southern California-based company that has focused on developing educational play opportunities for kids for more than 50 years. The company's Nancy B's Science Club Moonscope is part of a wider Nancy B's Science Club line that includes binoculars, a microscope, a chemistry set, a tree diary and even an "aqua scope" for peering underwater to see inside lakes, rivers or other bodies of water. Educational Insights also offers a range of high-quality telescopes under its GeoSafari line. We liked the sheer range of magnification that came with the GeoSafari Omega Reflector Telescope, but several other models are available. For more information on Educational Insights, visit: http://www.educationalinsights.com/.
Galileoscope LLC: An alternative option for our Age 6 and Up category, the Galileoscopes offered by Galileoscope LLC are refracting telescopes that allow kids to build instruments similar to the one used by famed Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei. Kids will build scopes literally from the ground up, with no tools needed (except maybe scissors). We built ours in 30 minutes. Astronomers, science educators and optical engineers developed the Galileoscope as an affordable telescope to spur interest in astronomy during the International Year of Light, in 2009. The Galileoscope team offers free online observing guides (updated by year), as well as tips and activity guides. For more information on the Galileoscope, visit: http://galileoscope.org/.
Levenhuk: Founded in 2002 to reach underserved students in Central and Eastern Europe, Levenhuk designs and markets microscopes, telescopes, binoculars, sports optics, magnifiers and digital cameras. Supplementary educational materials accompany most Levenhuk products. The company demonstrates its commitment to kids in the quality-to-price ratios of the optics products, and in the depth of experience facilitated by the accessory kits made for fun learning. To see the complete list of Levenhuk's offerings, visit: https://www.levenhuk.com/company/main/#.
Learning Resources: Learning Resources makes hardy, kid-oriented science gear, including the Primary Science Big View Telescope, which we listed as an alternative option for kids under age 6. Big View is a no-frills scope for young children that can be used for moon gazing or daytime terrestrial viewing. (Adult supervision is required to keep kids from pointing the telescope at the sun.) Other than a small, tabletop tripod, this colorful and lightweight scope comes with no additional pieces, and no assembly is required. Its 20x magnification is impressive for a telescope designed for kids in this age range, and the large focus-knob is easy to grab and turn. The eyepiece is lined with soft rubber, but the viewing hole is smaller than that on the Talking Telescope. The piece is fairly durable, but watch out for the viewing knob, which can break off. We think this little scope is ideal for studying the moon and terrestrial objects. For more on Learning Resources' products, visit: http://www.learningresources.com/.
Meade Instruments: Meade Instruments has been building high-quality optics for telescopes, binoculars and solar telescopes since 1972, and offers a wide variety of instruments. These range from simple refractors like the Infinity 50mm Altazimuty Refractor for beginner skywatchers to ultra-advanced tools like the LX850-ACF Telescope with StarLock ($9,999) for expert astrophotographers. To learn more about Meade telescopes, visit: http://www.meade.com/.
Orion: Orion Telescopes & Binoculars has offered a varied selection of optics, observing tools and accessories for amateur astronomers, sports observers and astrophotographers since 1975. The company's instruments range from the beginner level to high-end tools like the Orion SkyQuest XT8i IntelliScope Dobsonian for more advanced observers. For more information on Orion telescopes, visit: http://www.telescope.com/.
Thames & Kosmos: Founded in 2001, Thames & Kosmos provides a wide variety of science- and education-themed kits for kids of all ages. The company offers more than 120 science and experiment kits across 13 different subjects, ranging from astronomy and physics to construction, ignition and alternative energy. While the TK1 Telescope and Astronomy Kit is new for 2015, Thames & Kosmos also has an in-depth Scope Constructor Science Kit that offers a multitude of ways for kids to build their own binoculars, spotting scopes and telescopes. For more on Thames & Kosmos, visit: http://thameskosmos.com/index.html.