Buying an Aquarium for a Child or Teen

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Lovely little girl admiring fish in aquarium

If you are assisting a child or teenager with starting an aquarium, be sure to do your homework so they aren't set up for failure. Here's how to make the right choices.

Prior to shopping, make a checklist of things you need so you won’t miss anything or purchase unnecessary items. Print off this checklist with recommendations for aquarium gift giving; it has everything you’ll need on one list.

Tank Selection

For beginners, a 20-gallon tank or larger is ideal. If space or finances make that impossible, don’t go smaller than 10 gallons and take care to select small, hardy fish. Also, be sure you have an appropriate aquarium stand for your aquarium. Water is heavy, and larger aquariums need strong support; they weigh more than a book case or cabinet can hold – you need a stand made for aquariums.

Should you select glass or acrylic? Acrylic has many advantages for children, since it does not chip or break, weighs less than glass, and doesn’t distort the view as glass can. That’s important, as children will spend a lot of time gazing at their tank from all angles.

On the downside, acrylic scratches easily and it is more expensive than glass. If the price is not an issue, strongly consider an acrylic tank. You won't have to worry about the tank being broken by an errant baseball or other flying toy.


Children and teenagers often want brightly colored gravel and decorations. While this isn't the natural color of the habitat of the fish, it is still safe to use colored gravel. Just be sure it is specifically made to be used in aquariums. You can select decor based on the child's tastes. Mermaids, divers, dinosaurs, or castles, or more natural items like rocks and caves, or even sunken ships are available at the fish store that are made specifically for safe use in aquariums. While live plants are great for aquariums, they do take some care, and starting with vibrant plastic aquarium plants may be the easy way to add plants in your first aquarium,

Buying Fish

Now comes your biggest challenge, as new aquarium owners, young and old alike, want to get lots of fish as soon as possible. Fish should never be purchased on the same day as the tank. You want to take the aquarium home and set it up, get the filter and lights working, dechlorinate and aerate the water, and add beneficial bacteria starter before adding any fish. Install the aquarium heater and set it to the correct temperature, usually between 74-78 degrees F for tropical fish.

It’s critical to set up the tank, let it run for a day or two to stabilize the water temperature and ensure everything is functioning properly before fish are added. Note: This initial waiting period is not the startup-cycle; that doesn’t begin until fish are added. During the time you allow the tank to stabilize, sharing some basic facts about aquarium wastes will help eager children wait for their new fish.

After the aquarium is set up and running properly, then it is time to get a few fish. Adding too many fish too soon and overfeeding them are the biggest mistakes new owners make. You should only add 2-3 fish at a time into a new aquarium. Wait a week, test the water quality – or bring in a sample to your fish store to be tested – and if the water quality is good, then you can add a few more fish. You should spread out purchasing more fish for your new aquarium over the first 4-6 weeks.

Educate and Plan

Tell elementary age children that fish go to the bathroom in the water they live in, and wastes can harm the fish. Explain that special bacteria in the filter system and in the gravel get rid of those wastes, but the bacteria take several weeks to grow enough to do the job. While they are growing, it is important to only have a few fish in the tank and change the water often to get rid of the wastes.

Middle school and high school students are capable of understanding the nitrogen cycle as it occurs in an aquarium; take this opportunity to teach them about it. Too many aquarium owners are unaware of this critical process, and as a result, they lose fish by adding too many fish to soon, causing ammonia or nitrite toxicity.

Once your tank is ready for fish, talk about fish choices with your children. Avoid large or aggressive fish or those that are difficult to care for. Read aquarium books, magazines or online articles to learn about the different species of tropical fish, how big each fish gets, and which fish can live together. Decide on a few hardy starter fish to choose from before going to the store, then see what is available. Ask the store associate questions to learn more about the fish they have. Be sure to know how big each fish will get so you don’t pick that will grow too big for the size of your aquarium.

Article Sources

The Spruce Pets uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Aquarium Water Quality: Nitrogen Cycle. Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

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