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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


  • 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.

Are you prepared for some hands-on science at home? Summer is a great time for informal science and now is the time to get ready.

From experience, I recommend that you gather items and put together a box for children to use to explore physical sciences whenever the mood strikes. The items you supply don't have to be big or expensive. but if you have it on hand and gathered together, it won't take a minute to get started.

Here are some tried-and-true suggestions that will be sure to ignite your child's inner investigator. Have multiples of each item, and a set for each child you are working with. (Note:  These suggestions are for ages 3+ and always keep safety in mind.)

1. Paper and scissors - for paper airplanes, helicopters, bridges, drawing designs, recording data, etc., etc.

2. Plastic drinking straws to make into kazoos, atomizers, droppers, bridges, you name it

3. Paper towel tubes to make marble towers, airplanes

4. Manila file folders to make ramps, airplanes, etc.

5. Plastic garbage bags or cloth, bits of yarn or string, and action figures to make parachutes (parachute activity)

6. Wheels to make cars and/or toy cars to roll down ramps (inclined planes)

7. Marbles and small balls for marble towers, study what happens when two objects collide by playing marbles (relationships of mass and force)

8. Balloons to make cars, hover craft, drums, etc. (Suggestions for activities with balloons)

9. Magnets, a variety of kinds plus items to test, such as paper clips of different types, coins, the rocks below (Edit: magnet science activities)

10. Stop watch, watch with second hand, or other timing device

11. Flashlight - important tool for investigating shadows, light, how batteries work, etc.

12. Thermometer- alcohol or electronic/digital (for safety, do not use a mercury-based one)

13. Magnifying lenses to study surfaces of rocks, magnets

14. Prisms to investigate light (we got a very inexpensive crystal pendent that works to separate visible light into rainbows)

15. Aluminum foil - great for building boats or make a Leyden jar to study static electricity

16. Building blocks

17. Ruler - both for measuring and to use as a ramp (inclined plane), support, etc.

18. Toy boats to study buoyancy

19. Modeling clay to study floating and sinking, make fossils

20. Clean tin cans with all sharp edges removed (for tin can science)

21. Tape - all kinds, glue

22. Plastic soda or water bottles to make boats, cover with balloon and place in very warm water

23. Pencils, chop sticks, wooden skewers, dowels and/or craft sticks

24. Spools, pulleys

25. Some cool rocks or pebbles can become loads for cars and boats or be an introduction to geology

Pennies make good weights for the front of file-folder airplanes.

More advanced items to make or buy pre-made:

  • Inexpensive kites (often available in grocery stores for just a dollar or two), or balsa wood, string, tape and paper to make kites
  • Electrical circuit kits (may be available used or at discount stores that sell returned/discontinued items)
  • Inexpensive kitchen scale (garage sales) or materials to make a homemade scale
  • Plastic tubing (an aquarium supply) to learn about siphons, investigate propulsion
  • Make a trebuchet or catapult

If you have any other ideas for items to include for physical science activities, please let us know. Also, if you need further suggestions or instructions, my "engineer" and I would be glad to help.

Stay tuned for suggestions for a chemistry activity box and a biology activity box.

Last week we met with some fellow science enthusiasts and had a quite literal blast. The idea was to do as much science as possible with a simple resource:  balloons!

Note:  Some balloons are likely to pop loudly during these activities. Keep balloon bits away from small children and pets.


  • large balloons (12" party size)
  • bamboo skewers
  • metal hexnuts (as smooth as possible - see photograph)
  • dish detergent and/or vegetable oil
  • paper plate

Activity 1. Can you insert a bamboo skewer through an inflated balloon without popping it?

The answer is yes, but it requires a bit of knowledge. First, it helps to lubricate the skewer with a bit of dish detergent or vegetable oil. Place the soap or oil in a paper plate and roll the skewer in it.

Inflate the balloon and tie it. The idea is to insert the skewer in the areas of least tension, which is where the latex is darkest, typically where the balloon is tied and directly opposite at the tip of the balloon. Gently work the balloon into the area near the knot and pass it through the center of the balloon. Using a brisk motion, slide it back out through the balloon at the top.

Now you have an inflated balloon on a skewer!

If you used soap, experiment and try oil. What happens if you try to put the skewer in where the latex is thin (nearly clear)?

Activity 2. Making a balloon sing.

Have you ever let air out of an inflated balloon and had it screech?

You can also make a balloon "sing" by inserting a metal hexnut into the un-inflated balloon. Once the hexnut is inside, inflate the balloon as usual and tie it. Now rhythmically shake the balloon. The idea is the get the hextnut to whirl around, creating a vibration. Once you get the hang of it, experiment. Does how fast you whirl it change the pitch? How about the size of the balloon? What happens when you add two or more hexnuts? Make a prediction and then test it.


Activity 3. Decorate a balloon with cups.

For this one you'll need:

  • rigid plastic cups- 6 oz size
  • water supply
  • balloons

Lightly wet from four to six plastic cups. Begin to inflate the balloon until it is about the size of two fists. Press one cup on the balloon surface and continue to inflate slowly. The cup should be held in place by air pressure. Press another cup. See how many cups your balloon will hold before it is fully inflated. If you are having difficulty, try pressing the sides off the cup in a little bit prior to applying. This one takes a little practice, but it does work.

Activity 4. Fast flying balloon.

Have you ever let go of a balloon that is blown up fully, but before you tie it. Did it fly around the room? You can harness that thrust to study it.

This is easier with at least two people.


  • long, narrow balloons (work best for this)
  • kite string at least 15 feet long
  • tape
  • straw (preferably wide and not the bendy kind)

Tie one end of the kite string to a doorknob, chair or stair rail, below the height you can reach. Feed the other end of the string through the straw and back up to hold the string tightly. Test if the straw will travel freely down the string to the other end. Bring the straw back and either have someone hold the end or tie it to another surface that is at the same height or higher than the first. Inflate the balloon, but don't tie it. Tape the straw to the inflated balloon so that the open end of the balloon faces back. Release and let the balloon shoot along the string.

See if you can modify your set up to make the balloon travel faster.

Additional resources:

A classic activity is to inflate a balloon using vinegar and baking soda.

Steve Spangler has some ideas using balloons as well. Can you keep a balloon from catching fire?

He also has a balloon in a bottle.

The Book of Totally Irresponsible Science: 64 Daring Experiments for Young Scientists by Sean Connolly contains versions of these experiments.