Things under a Microscope

Things Under a Microscope

Whether homeschooling or just exploring the natural world with curious children, a microscope is a fantastic way to get an up-close and personal look at things under a microscope. If you need help choosing a microscope, look at our handy guide to the best microscopes for kids. But what should you be checking out? The answer is – almost anything goes! Keep reading for suggestions of a few cool ideas to get you started, as well as advice on how to prepare your samples for viewing!

Hair Under Mircoscope
Hair under a microscope.

Prepared Slides or Blank Slides?

When looking at objects under a microscope, you can go in two basic directions. You can buy a selection of prepared slides that are already mounted and labeled, or you can purchase blank slides and make your own based on what your children are interested in observing. There are pros and cons to each approach, which we’ll briefly go over.

Prepared Slides

Prepared slides often come in a boxed set with a wide variety of different objects to view. They are frequently used as learning tools in a classroom or homeschool environment because they require very little time to prepare – you can pretty much just choose a slide from the box, put it under your microscope, and get to work. If you’re short on time, or you’d like your child to be able to view objects under a microscope independently without needing help from an adult, prepared slides might be the way to go.

A good set of prepared slides will include a variety of specimens that are well labeled, so you are always clear about what you are looking at and make it easy to introduce children to the microscopic world. However, a drawback to using them is that you’re limited to the specimens that come with your purchased kit. 

While this will likely be a wide range of specimens, creative children will surely come up with innovative ideas for items that aren’t included (“Mom, can I look at my boogers under the microscope?”). For this type of microscope, you may want to check out blank slides you can prepare yourself.

Bacteria Under Microscope
Bacteria under a microscope.

Blank Slides

When talking about blank microscope slides, there are two main types you might find. Both are typically the same size and measure approximately 1” x 3”. The first, commonly called a ‘depression slip’, has a small indentation, or depression, in the middle that will hold both your specimen and a drop of water. 

The other type, the glass slide, does not have an indentation and must be used with a cover slip. A cover slip is a thin piece of plastic or glass placed on top of the specimen when examining it under the microscope, helping to keep the specimen from moving around and allowing the user to focus more clearly. The cover slip can be very delicate and should be handled carefully.

To prepare a slide, you’ll need a blank slide, your specimen, a pipette, or a medicine dropper, and it’s also handy to have a pair of tweezers. Two types of mounts are most commonly used – dry mount and wet mount. A dry mount is the easiest to prepare – all you need to do is place the specimen on the slide and cover it with the cover slip. This type of mount is good to use with samples such as hair or feathers. These will be best viewed with a wet mount for more complex samples.

A wet mount is the most common way to prepare slides for your microscope. To prepare a wet mount slide, take your pipette or medicine dropper and place one or two drops of water or a solution such as glycerin or methylene blue in the middle of the slide. Then you will place your specimen in the middle of the water droplets. This will make it more visible under the microscope. 

Ant Under Microscope
Ant under a microscope.

For live specimens, such as microscopic bugs, the water will allow the observer to view the specimen’s movement. After placing your specimen, you can add another drop of water to ensure that it is fully covered with liquid and to reduce the risk of an air bubble forming under your cover slip. Add the coverslip gently. A bit of liquid might need to be removed from around the edges of the slide, so it’s also a good idea to keep some paper towels or tissue paper handy.

Wet mounts are very common, but it’s easy to see how preparing slides like this can go wrong – especially when kids are involved! Preparing these slides can take more time and require more careful supervision than slides that are already prepared. They’re also only a temporary mount, so if you find a cool specimen, you will not be able to save it for later observation. They can, however, make the experience of using a microscope much more interactive and make kids feel more involved in the process, especially if they did some exploring and collected the specimens themselves.

Why Not Both?

If you can, it might be good to purchase a set of prepared slides with several blanks. This way, you can have the experience of preparing your own slides when an adult is available to supervise closely, and kids will have prepared slides that they can use for more independent exploration. You can find prepared slides at academic supply stores or packages like these combined ready, and you can easily find blank slides on Amazon.

Sand Under Microscope
Sand under a microscope.

List of Things Under a Microscope

So what should you put on your slides to look at under the microscope? Almost any small object will fascinate kids with an up-close look, but here are a few ideas to get you started!

  • Onion skin. Looking at onion cells under a microscope is a popular choice as it’s a great example of plant cells. The outer layer of skin is transparent and easy to peel off, and the cells found within are well organized and uniform in shape. This is a great way for kids to view the cell wall found around plant cells. If you purchase a set of prepared slides, you’re almost certain to find one that includes onion skin, but if you’re working with blank slides, it’s easy to tear off a small piece from an onion in your pantry too.
  • Mold. Don’t throw out that piece of moldy fruit you found in the back of the fridge! Stick it under the microscope instead. Mold is a fungus that produces spores and can be found turning old food in your fridge green, white, or black. Use a toothpick or tweezers to remove a small mold sample and place it on your blank slide. As some molds can be harmful to inhale, it’s recommended to wear a mask while handling mold spores.
  • Pond water. What looks like a drop of water to the naked eye will come alive under a microscope! One small sample of pond water can contain thousands of microorganisms. Green algae are often observed, but there is much more to see up close. See if you can distinguish between the two main groups of microorganisms, protozoa (animal-like) and protophyta (plant-like organisms). If you don’t live near a pond, you can also try a water sample from a puddle right after the rain. It might surprise you what microscopic life you can see in there!
  • Salt and pepper. This one is easy to track down in just about every kitchen. Kids will be amazed to see what grains of salt and pepper flakes look like under the microscope. If you have it, try different types of salt as well – table salt, rock salt, and Himalayan salt all look very different magnified a hundred times!
  • Pollen. Everyone’s springtime nemesis, pollen, is another great specimen to observe up close! Pollen is found on the stamens of flowering plants and is carried by animals (bees, butterflies, etc.). Use a Q-tip or toothpick to collect some pollen grains from the stamen and place them on a blank slide, add a drop of water and a cover slip, and check it out! Try different types of flowers and see if you notice any differences between species.
  • Cheek cells. Looking at cheek cells under a microscope is an easy choice if you want to look at part of your body. Cheek cells are an easy sample to collect as our bodies constantly replace them. All you need to do is take a clean cotton swab, gently scrape the inside of your mouth, and then wipe the swab on a slide. Add a drop of methylene blue solution so the cells will show up clearly. You can also use water, but it may not be as clear. Carefully slide on your coverslip, and you’re ready to view!
  • Bugs. To be ethical, try and find bugs that have died to examine under the microscope (hint: check your car’s front grill and you should find some), then use a wet mount to view more clearly. If you find multiple bugs, you can separate their body parts and make one slide with wings, one with legs, etc. If you can, compare different insect wings types – house fly, moth, etc.
  • Hair – Animal and Human. Kids love seeing their body parts under the microscope, and hair is quick and easy to find! Try different types of hair, too. If you have family members or friends with different colored hair, see what brown looks like versus blonde or what dyed versus undyed hair looks like up close. It’s also worth comparing natural to synthetic hair (i.e., a wig) if you’ve got one handy. If you have any pets in the family, try looking at dog or cat hair and comparing it to humans, too. You can use a dry mount for this specimen.
  • Leaves. Another great way to observe plant cells is by looking at leaves close up under the microscope. Collect various leaves of different shapes and sizes, and check them out! Try looking at both an intact leaf and one torn in half. In the fall, compare a green leaf still on a tree with a leaf that had already changed color and fallen to the ground.
  • Earwax and Boogers. It’s gross but sure to be a crowd-pleaser with kids! Use a cotton swab to extract wax from your child’s ear, or gently swab the inside of a nostril and smear on a blank microscope slide before adding water droplets and a cover slip. These bodily substances look so cool magnified a hundred times, and while the gross factor might be a deterrent for adults, it’s likely to inspire the opposite in kids!
Worm Under Microscope
Worm under a microscope.
Written by
Caitlin McLaughlin
Join the discussion