I have heard many people offering advice to parents of children with an interest in the night sky to go and buy a pair of binoculars first and, whilst this is sound advice for adults, I think for children, this is actually counter productive.
As a youngster, I had a passion for the night sky and my parents very kindly bought me a small telescope. I now know that it wasn’t the best of quality but I was so excited and couldn’t wait to get it pointing up at the sky, after all, I had a telescope and it was going to take me off into space! Did I think about the quality of the image, no… Did I think about the stability of the tripod, no…. It showed me stars and close-ups of the Moon, albeit I now know, in poor quality but it had turned me into an astronaut and it fueled the spark into a lifelong passion.
If my parents had bought me binoculars, I doubt that would have had the same affect. They weren’t for looking at the stars, they were for other stuff, at least as a child that was what I thought. Nope, I wanted the real deal, a pucker telescope.
So my advice if you are a parent, go and buy your son or daughter a telescope, you don’t need to worry about getting one of great quality and really shouldn’t spend much more than £100 on it. Check out the starter telescopes you can get from department stores or some camera/telescope shops.
Of course the only downside is that once you have bought them a telescope, they will want to be up at night instead of going to bed! I’m afraid I can’t help on that one, thats for you to deal with and the very best of luck.
WARNING : Beware claims of high magnification
Don’t be sucked in to claims of 500x magnification. As a rule of thumb the most useful magnification you will get out of a telescope is about 10x per cm of main mirror or lens size. So if you have a telescope with a main lens or mirror of just 5 cm diameter then you shouldn’t expect to get much more than 100x magnification. A more detailed explanation of magnification is given in the section about eyepieces. The sort of starter telescopes I am suggesting usually come with a couple of eyepieces so don’t worry about this now unless you are interested in the detail.
WARNING : Don’t use cheap filters for the Sun
Some smaller telescopes come with solar filters that will supposedly let you look at the Sun safely. If you buy a telescope with one of these in then please please throw the filter away. They can and regularly do crack under the intense light from the Sun, allowing all that harmful energy into the eye, the result can be instant blindness. To safely observe the Sun, you need to know what you are doing and at this stage, especially for your child, please don’t even think about doing it yet. The Sun isn’t going anywhere, there is plenty of time for looking at that once they are older and know what they are doing. Their eyesight is far too precious for that.