So, Your Kid Wants a Fish Tank

Posted by Augusta Hosmer on

Read Time: 5 mins

"LOOK a fish tank!" "Can we go see the fish?!" "IT'S NEMO!"

Haven't met a kid yet who saw an aquarium and didn't immediately run over to press their face against the glass and ask me what all the fish's names were. If you're looking for a fun family project, a first pet, a healthy outlet/hobby, a classroom pet, or cool ways to teach and entertain your kids, aquariums are an epic option. We've got some tips and tricks to make it easier. 

Freshwater or Saltwater Aquarium?

For most families, freshwater is the easiest, most readily available, and least expensive to set up, so it's a great choice. But if you have experience with saltwater setups or an older kid, saltwater is still a viable option!

Size Matters

Most beginner aquarists think they need to start small and get bigger tanks as they gain more experience, but the opposite holds true. For kids, it makes sense you're looking at smaller setups, but when it comes to easy maintenance, bigger is better.

We have another post explaining in more detail, but to sum up: the more water you have, the harder it is to change. So if a child accidentally dumps in too much fish food or pours something harmful into the tank, a larger aquarium is more forgiving because the chemicals are less concentrated in the bigger volume of water. 

This obviously comes with its own set of cons, though: larger aquariums are a bigger investment for a hobby your kids might get bored with, and they also take up more space. So if you're looking to buy a kids' tank, figure out the balance between how much you're willing to spend, how much space you have, and how much margin of error you're comfortable giving yourself.

And one more important note on tank size: it's a common aquarium myth that fish grow to the size of their tank. They absolutely do not. 

If you do go for a smaller tank, check out our blog on keeping nano tanks to make your life a little easier! 

Location, Location, Location

One of the biggest considerations is where you want to put the tank. On one hand, you want it to be easy to see and interact with for your kids; on the other, you have to make sure the tank won't be knocked over or easily tampered with. You need a shelf or stand that supports all corners/sides of the tank to prevent structural damage, and you need a place that is a) close enough to a water source to make water changes easier and b) has an electrical outlet. 

With kids, it's also great if you have a tall shelf or other hard-to-reach storage area nearby for fish food/chemicals. 

Accessories to Help You Out (and Keep the Tank Secure)

  1.  Light timers - We recommend these for all tanks. You can set the timer to turn your tank lights off/on at specific times, and they're cheap and easy to find at hardware stores. One less thing for you and your kids to remember. 
  2. Command strips/adhesive strips - great for multiple uses. One is an extra layer of security if you're worried about a tank getting knocked over. If you get a thin kind, you can put them between the tank bottom and the stand to make it stick in place/harder to knock around. They're also useful to secure power strips and wires out of reach. 
  3. Zip ties/twist ties- one of the biggest concerns with kids and fish tanks is electrical safety. Aquariums are one of the leading causes of house fires, so you want to manage your wires/cords well to keep your family safe. They should be secured and bundled if possible, and in a place they're least likely to get splashed during water changes. Zip ties are a cheap and easy way to bundle long cords and hold them where they need to be. 
  4. Lids/lid locks - Kids know how to live, and that unfortunately often comes with mess from all directions. A tank lid will keep stray glitter, flying toys, etc. from turning your fish into accidental victims. There are also locking lids or lid locks to keep kids from opening the tank without supervision. 
  5. Child-proof Outlet Covers - These are great for keeping your kids safe from electrical shock, and for keeping your fish safe by preventing kids from unplugging needed accessories like heaters, filters, etc. 

How to Keep from Breaking the Bank

One of the biggest barriers to a good kids' aquarium is cost. Many parents (justifiably) don't want to drop a lot of time and money on a setup their children might like for a week and never touch again.  

Check out one of our recent blogs on Ways to Make Your Aquarium Cheaper! 

Pick Easy Species (AKA How Goldfish Need More Than You Think)

Good First Fish Species

There are plenty of cheap, easy fish species that still look cool, are very active, and are fun to watch - perfect for a kids' first tank or classroom aquarium. Schooling fish like tetras, rasboras, and danios are easy and zoom all over your tank. Guppies also come in a huge range of colors and types, and are beginner-friendly. 

Bettas are another awesome choice. They're tough, eye-catching fish with great personalities, and they got many an aquarium nerd started. 

You can also go a different route and stock with easy invertebrates or fully aquatic amphibian species like African Dwarf Frogs. All of the species I mentioned are fantastic with live plants, too. 

An African Dwarf Frog Looking Up at the Camera in a Fish Tank

Are Goldfish Good for Beginners?

The quintessential first fish has somehow become the goldfish. Though they are pretty easy to take care of (depending on what kind you get), they also often turn into a lot more than beginners bargain for. To begin with, they're messy. They are beautiful fish poop machines because they eat nonstop. So if you want a planted tank, they might actually eat your plants.

Many common species sold in pet stores often grow much larger or live longer than beginners expect, too. And no, they can't live in a bowl their whole lives. No hate to the goldfish - I love them - but make sure you know what kind you're getting and what you're in for. 

Easy Plants

If you want to help your child set up a planted tank, you also want cheap/easy aquarium plants. Java Fern (Microsorum) and Anubias varieties are always top of the list for being as close to unkillable as you can get. We also like Banana Plants (Nymphoides aquatica; AKA banana lilies) for their easy care and propagation and because of how cool they look. Floating plant species like duckweed (Lemna minor) and water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) are also easy to get going - just double check your agriculture laws if you go that route, though, because some are illegal/invasive in certain areas (we're looking at you, Florida).

A banana plant
Banana Plant (Nymphoides aquatica)

A Lesson in Science...and Patience

You can use fish tanks as teaching tools! As mini ecosystems, aquariums are a great way to teach a huge range of biology/ecology topics like:

  • The nitrogen cycle
  • Fish/invertebrate/amphibian life cycles
  • Water chemistry
  • Botany
  • ...and countless others

Fish tanks are also great lessons in patience - both for you and your kids. ;)  Because necessary beneficial bacteria takes time to build up in your tank while it cycles, you can't add fish right away. It's a good way to teach kids about science and delayed gratification in one move. 

Aquarium Conventions and Kids' Aquascaping Contests

Most folks don't realize there are aquarium conventions and contests around the world where you can meet other fish tank people; enter competitions for designing/scaping tanks; and buy crazy cool fish, tanks, and accessories from local vendors.

But even those who do know about the conventions often don't realize there are aquascaping contests specifically for kids. 

Many of these contests are free to enter, and your kids will learn a lot and have a blast. Definitely something to consider for a beginning aquarist! 

A collage of three images showing kids working on designing aquariums and a completed kids' aquascape

Decided you're ready to set up a freshwater planted tank? Here's a guide to get you started! 

Tank on!

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