Magnetism and Learning About Magnets

Magnetism is mysterious and cool. Kids love playing with magnets so these activities should get their attention. First explain what magnetism is. This is tougher than it sounds. Most definitions you read on magnets and magnetism say something like: A magnet is something that creates a magnetic field. That’s hardly helpful. And when it is explained more thoroughly, the explanation usually involves lots of four and five syllable words.

4 different experiments with magnets to do at home.

But it’s not really so difficult to understand. What happens is that on an atomic level, the electrons are all lining up and facing the same direction. So that one end of the magnet is positive and the other negative (also known as the North and South poles).

This picture shows a magnetic field, which also flows. It is not static. Image shared under CC licence, Wikimedia.

Sometimes as in electricity, the electrons are flowing from one material to another, but not always. When the electrons are flowing, we call this an electromagnet.

Some common places you can find magnets:

  • your refrigerator
  • speakers
  • doorbell ringers
  • the bottom of your shower curtain
  • in the tubes of a microwave oven
  • motors, like in your garbage disposal and the exhaust fan in your kitchen
  • the earth, the entire earth is one big magnet, that’s why compasses work
  • In the junkyard, to lift scrap metal

To introduce magnets to your kids have them go around the house finding things that a magnet will stick to. Discuss which things are magnetic and which are not. You might want to explain that magnets will ruin TV and computer screens, CD’s, and other electronic equipment. That’s because all those things use carefully lined up metal stuff to work and the magnet messes that up. (I know, a terribly technical and accurate explanation, but it will have to do.)

Make a Magnet Boat (or car)

  1. Get a small block piece of clay and shape it into a boat.
  2. Let it dry or bake it according to instructions on the package.
  3. Glue a small round magnet to the bottom.
  4. Place your boat on a table and using a second magnet and holding it under the table, make your boat race around without touching it.

Magnetic Towermagnet-experiments-3

  1. Use a magnet to hold up one paper clip, suspended underneath
  2. Keep adding paper clips, one at a time, until the magnet will hold no more.
  3. Have a contest with your siblings to see how many paper clips you can suspend from the magnet.

Make a Magnet

  1. You need a straight pin or a needle and a magnet.
  2. Rub the magnet along the pin, in one direction, over and over, about 30 times
  3. Now your pin is a magnet. Use it to pick up other pins.

By rubbing the pin over and over with a magnet, you make all the electrons line up just the way you want them. But this is a temporary magnet, it won’t last too long before the electrons go back to their old positions.

MacGyver Moment

In case you don’t recall, MacGyver was a TV show from a few decades ago. It was probably the coolest TV show ever. MacGyver continually got into hot spots and had to use his ingenuity and duct tape to get out of them. In one episode, the bad guys had poisoned MacGyver, then thrown the antidote, in a small metal vial, down into a gutter beneath the street. There was no way MacGyver could reach it, and the poison was working fast. So MacGyver, being MacGyver, found a long steel bar and banging one end hard and repeatedly on the ground he made a magnet, retrieved the metal vial, and lived for another episode.

You too can make a steel bar into a magnet. Try it. Bang it hard on the ground, preferable concrete, over and over until it will pick up nails and other metal objects. Like in other magnets, you’re lining up those electrons, but this too is a temporary magnet and the electrons will return to their natural position in a few minutes.

Additional Layers

  • Compasses are related to magnetism, they use the earth’s magnetic field to work. A small piece of metal, floating freely will line up with the earth’s magnetic field. Learn more about compasses and how to use one.
  • If you have an old motor, from a broken vacuum or something, let your kids take it apart and make a mess, before you throw it out.
  • Learn about the history of magnets. They were discovered by the ancient Greeks (as far as we know).


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