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Weekend Science Fun: Attracted to Magnets

We have been attracted to magnets lately.

Studying magnets and magnetism appeals to a wide range of age groups. Youngsters can start out exploring their environment with magnets; older children can investigate compasses and how motors work. High school students might research the Earth's magnetic field or how animals use internal magnetic compasses to navigate.

Where do you find magnets?

Often you can find magnets around the house, such as refrigerator magnets, magnetic letters, and even in wooden toy train sets. Toy stores sell magnetic building kits. Educational supply stores carry stand alone horseshoe magnets. Office supply stores sell magnets in different shapes, often brightly colored. It is relatively easy to find inexpensive ones.

Neodymium or not?

Neodymium are small, extra-powerful magnets. Because they are so small and so powerful, they can be hard to work with. Neodymium magnets can pinch small fingers and attach to certain surfaces so strongly that they are difficult to remove. These are definitely more appropriate for older, stronger, more mature children.

1. Free exploration with magnets

Gather:

  • A few magnets of different shapes
  • Paper clips (made of different materials if available- plastic versus metal)
  • Coins
  • Pebbles
  • Metal washers
  • Steel nails (if age appropriate)
  • Small cars made of different materials
  • Chenille or pipe cleaners
  • Bowl of water or sink (optional)

Let the children free explore with magnets to test the materials provided, as well as any surfaces around the room or area. Try the walls, which may have metal support structures inside (especially around the windows).

Once the children have found some waterproof items that are attracted to the magnet, like steel paper clips, add to the bowl of water or water in a sink. Ask if the magnets will work in water. If you use a clear plastic container, see if the magnets will work from the outside the container, too.

Find out what happens if you try to put two magnets together. Can you feel the "push" or "pull" of the magnets?

2. Magnets and sand play

Sand often contains bits of iron.

Cover a magnet with a plastic sandwich bag and tie shut with a sturdy piece of string. Leave enough string to allow the children to pull the magnet through the sand. Note:  You can do this without the bag, but the bag makes clean up much easier.

See the iron bits accumulate on the outside of the bag.

This is after only a few passes through a small amount of sand.

3. Magnets in space

Do magnets work in space? Check this video to see.

4. Magnetic fields

A classic experiment is to place a magnet under a piece of paper and sprinkle some iron powder on top. Our iron powder came in a science kit.

The idea is that the pieces of iron powder will arrange along the magnetic fields.

The results show that the fields are three dimensional.

It is fun to see the powder change shape as we moved the magnet around underneath. If you are careful, you can return the powder to its package to use again another day.

5. Compasses

One way to learn more about magnetism is to use a compass.

A compass is a small, lightweight magnet that pivots freely in a case. The magnet aligns with the Earth's magnetic field and can be used to find direction.

The following simulation that helps show how a compass aligns with a magnet and the Earth. If you click on the simulation it will download to your computer. If you would prefer to download from the original website, go to PhET (they also have a free downloadable teacher's guide).

The instructions explain, as did the video of magnets in space, that what we call the south pole of a magnet is at the North Pole of the Earth. Thus the north pole of a magnet is attracted to the North Pole of Earth (opposites attract, like repel).

Are you interested in learning more about magnets? Stay tuned!

Please let me know in the comments if you have any problems with the simulation download.

3 thoughts on “Weekend Science Fun: Attracted to Magnets

  1. Tom

    We are learning about magnets in my 4th grade science class. We will be using the FOSS kits to discover their properties and conduct experiments.

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