Friday, April 2, 2010

A Kids' Telescope

One of the most popular reasons to buy a telescope is to advance a youngster's interest in science and the world around them. Unfortunately, this is also one of the things that leads to the sales of department store junk scopes. Junk scopes convince kids that they can't handle science, that it's hard and frustrating and not worth the effort. If you want to drive them right back to video games, get them a junk scope.

There are some decent scopes out there, though, and some things you can do to increase their interest in using and having a telescope.

Meet the Astronomers: Star Parties

Find a local star party and take your favorite youngsters to it. There they can meet amateur astronomers, and sometimes professionals as well. They can also see the different types of telescopes around, and get a chance to talk to their users and possibly even try one out.

Don't think that all the astronomers at star parties are some sort of hard-core astronomers with expensive equipment, either. At the star parties I take my scopes to, the astronomers range from beginners who've just got their first scope to those of us who make our own and have been showing the sky to the public for decades. The equipment varies from hand-me-downs to high end commercial equipment. But the hand-me-downs and inexpensive scopes are represented there alongside all the rest.

Preparing for a Telescope

There are few things as frustrating as having a telescope and not being able to see something through it. No matter how fancy the electronics are, the user still has to know something to get the scope to point at things.

For a first scope, I recommend going without electronics.

Next, the kid should have a resource to help them learn they way around the sky. I recommend both software and something in writing they can take out in the backyard at night. For software, check out the free programs like Celestia, Stellarium, or KStars for Linux.

For written resources, a good start is one of the annual specials from the major astronomy magazines like Astronomy or Sky & Telescope. Both also have web sites with a variety of resources, like star charts that can be printed out. Another good resource would be a beginner's star chart, or a book like The Stars by H.A. Rey, or his other book Find the Constellations.

With some basic information, kids can make use of a good telescope once they have one.

Not a Telescope

One thing to consider is getting something useful for astronomy that isn't a telescope. I usually recommend binoculars for beginners. Not only are they useful for astronomy, they can be used for a range of other purposes, like bird watching or sports events. They don't take much skill to use well, and they are still useful even when a telescope is obtained later. I use mine to help find things with my telescope that I can't see directly with my eyes.

A Telescope

If you still feel a telescope is the best way to go, there are some things you'll want to look for in a scope for kids:
  • Steady Mount: If you can't keep the scope on it, you can't see it.

  • Rugged: Because kids aren't always careful.

  • Small: If they have to ask for help to lift it or move it, it doesn't feel like it's theirs.

  • Simple: They should be able to use it and understand it without help.

A great way to get a scope is to ask around at an astronomy club or star party. There are usually more telescopes than astronomers, as we astronomers tend to end up as "rescue homes" for other people's "closet scopes."

Here are a few commercial scopes I think can work as first scopes for kids, if you end up buying one:

The Orion Starblast and Funscope models are fun and easy to use. They come the closest of anything on the market to what I consider a good kid's scope. A friend's son gets good use out of one.

Orion Funscope

Orion Starblast 6"

Orion Starblast 4.5"

The following are more along the lines of traditional starter scopes, and will work well for a kid at about 12 years old and above. They are similar to the ones my daughters built.

Orion Skyquest 6"

Galileo 5"

Skywatcher 5"

Ongoing Support

Remember those star parties? Well, if you're not an astronomer or not in a position to be around while the kid is learning to use the scope, you might get them a year's membership to the local astronomy club and make sure they can get to meetings. You will also want to check out the Astronomical League. They have observing programs, a quarterly magazine, and scholarships.

A lasting connection to others with an interest in the sky is the most important astronomical tool a kid can have.
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