Magnets and Gravity


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We’re into our ‘abstract concepts made concrete’ unit of our Family Inventors Lab. This week was magnets and gravity. The next session will be temperature and states of matter, followed by electricity. All of these are easy to explore hands-on, and AFTER the kids have had a chance to explore them, you can talk about the theory behind what they’ve observed, then give them more chances to test it.

Hands-On Exploration of Magnets

Simple magnets in action: On a table, we had magnets and metal washers where they could play with the bare bones concept of: magnets pick up metal objects.

Magnetic and non-magnetic objects: We filled water bottles with objects like beans, rice, washers, paper clips, and plastic toys. These were out on a table with magnetic wands. Kids could move the wand up the side of the bottle to see what objects it picked up.


You could also include magnetic and non-magnetic surfaces and decorative magnets to put on them. For example, a magnetized white board, a cork bulletin board, a wood plank, a steel can and a plastic bottle. (Since we had younger kids, we stuck to a simplistic idea that magnets stick to metal. If you have older kids, you might have aluminum cans and steel cans and explain that magnets only stick to some metals – iron, nickel, cobalt, etc.)

Using magnets to attract hidden objects: We filled the sensory tub with rice, then buried lots of plastic discs with metal rims, mini clothes pins and other objects that magnets would pick up. Kids could stir a magnet wand around in the rice, then lift it up to see what it had attracted.


Exploring magnetic poles: We had a container filled with mineral oil and shredded steel wool. Kids could use a bar magnet with it to observe where the metal lined up – this shows where the poles are on the ends of the magnet. This wasn’t as effective as we’d hoped. You can also buy containers filled with iron filings or with iron filings and sand that allow kids to explore how magnetic fields can move pieces of metal.

More on magnetic poles: It would also be good to have a demonstration of how magnets can either attract each other, or repel each other, depending on the polarity. We had one pair of magnets that if you held the round magnet one way, it would pull itself down onto the square magnet, but if you held it the other way, the square magnet would push it away. There are also science toys you can buy where there are disc magnets you mount on a pole, and the magnets can “float” above each other. Sample here.

Magna-tiles: These clear magnetic building blocks are lots of fun to play with. We often use them on the light table.


Art project exploring magnetic poles – Make Your Own Compass

Supplies: big paperclips, magnets, cork or foam, tape, water in a container. Compass.

Here were our directions for this project:

  1. Choose 1 open paperclip.
  2. Slowly draw the long magnet along the paperclip in ONE direction only – at least 40 or 50 times down towards the point of the paperclip. Count out loud to keep track.
  3. Tape paperclip onto a piece of foam or cork.
  4. Fill one of the plastic bowls almost full with water.
  5. Place the cork & clip in the water so that it floats evenly.
  6. With one finger, gently twirl the clip around once and then watch to see what happens!
  7. Check the store-made compass on the table. See if both compasses are pointing the same direction.


If we’d only been doing magnets for our theme, there is more we could have done: we had a kids’ magnetic poetry set that would have been fun for our readers, we have a variety of magnetic play-sets where you set up a scene on a magnet board, and we could have done crafts where they mounted pictures on magnets to give as gifts to grandmas.

Hands-On Exploration of Gravity

Slide: We set up our climber and slide. The slide is a great way to learn about gravity! It’s really easy to slide down, and sliding up just doesn’t work.

Impact craters: Next to the slide, we placed a tub full of kinetic sand. We put out a wide variety of light and heavy objects. Kids climbed to the slide platform, then dropped an object into the sand to see if it left a mark, what shape the mark was, and how deep the impact crater was. (Safety pointer: kids on the ground love to look at the craters, and lean over for close examination – it’s important that the kids on the platform know to wait for all heads to be clear before they drop the next object! None of our objects were heavy enough to injure, but they might have stung if they hit someone.)


Marble maze: These building toys offer great tinkering opportunities, to build, notice problems, re-build, test, decide to re-build to make it taller, and so on. I especially like out set, which is from Discovery Toys, because it includes a gravity well, a track where you can load 6 – 12 marbles, then dump them in all at once, and other fun details.


I did learn something important – I’d originally put this on a table top so it would be easy to build and watch the marbles roll down. But, what I hadn’t taken into account was that for small children, it was then hard to reach the top to drop a marble in. So, the kids were climbing on the furniture to reach the top! (OK, my kid was doing that… )  So, we moved it to the floor.

Magnetic ball wall: Based on that standard children’s museum activity, this marble maze is a DIY project (learn how here) using PVC pipes mounted on magnets, stuck to metal oil drip pans, and shooter marbles to run through it. Again, it’s a great tinkering toy – especially because after you finally get everything lined up just right, you’ll run three or four marbles through successfully, then marble #5 bumps something just slightly out of alignment and a marble gets stuck, or marble #6 really knocks it out of line and marbles fall and you have to re-build.


Gravity well: At many science museums and children’s museums and such, they have a donation bucket where you drop a coin in and it circles around and around and around before finally spiraling down. (The gravity pulls the ball down, but the momentum of the spin slows that fall.)

We invented a mini gravity well with a colander and a shooter marble. You could just use those two items – we added a rubber mat into the center to make it more obvious when it reached the center (because the sound stops as well as the motion). Check it out:

How much would you weigh on the moon: Kids were encouraged to weigh themselves on a bathroom scale, then look up on the chart how heavy they would be on the moon and on Mars. We also discussed this idea in circle. This was interesting to our older kids who have some grasp of what “5 pounds” feels like vs. what “60 pounds” feels like. But, too abstract for little ones, really. Though they had fun weighing themselves on the scale, and weighing toys on the table scale.

Art Project: Orbital Mechanics Wand

Supplies needed: big Styrofoam ball, small Styrofoam ball, dowel, tape, string, scissors. (Note: we were able to get decorative pencils and Christmas ornament balls at the dollar store for cheaper than the small Styrofoam balls and wood dowels at the craft store, so that’s what we actually used in the picture shown.)  Here are our directions:

  1. Poke the skewer (or pencil) into a large ball.
  2. Tie a string to the smaller ornament ball.
  3. Then tie the string firmly to the skewer. Tape in place.
  4. When you’re done, decorate your planet and moon at Creation Station!

You have created a model of a simple planetary system like Earth’s – with one planet and one satellite moon. Try twirling the small ‘Moon’ around the larger Planet on your wand. Observe how, as it draws closer, the moon travels faster around the planet. This is one of the basic principles of Gravity and Orbital Mechanics that every astronaut knows and is an example of Centripetal Force.


Art Project: Centrifugal Force Air Ship

Materials: paper bowls or plastic cups, string, scissors, hole punch, and optional materials to decorate ship with. Plus small “passengers” for the ship – could use pompoms or small plastic animals, or whatever you have.



  1. Punch holes in the cups or bowls, attach 3–4 lengths of yarn and tie them together.
  2. Fill the ‘ship’ with 5-7 objects as ‘passengers’
  3. Start swinging the ‘ship’ around until it can go over your head and see if you’re able to keep passengers in your Centrifugal Force Ship – “CFS


As always, we checked out several theme related books from the library. In opening circle, we read I Fall Down, which is a great book about gravity for this age group (3 – 7) with lots of concrete examples they can try out. In big kids’ closing circle, we read Gravity Is a Mystery by Branley.


In opening circle, we also explained the basics of how magnets work, so they could understand what they had been playing with, and then gave them ideas for what to explore more of after circle time.

Group Activities: In younger kids’ circle, we poured some items on the floor, then had kids collect them with magnet wands, then sorted and counted what they’d collected. Then we played with the DIY marble run pieces on the slide – see picture at top of post. (One of the kids had discovered that they could stick magnets to the slide, which would have never occurred to us!) This was fun for the little ones and the parents who were there, because the kids could climb up the slide and drop marbles down, and the parents could tinker and keep re-adjusting the pipes so the kids would be successful in getting a marble all the way from the top of the maze to the bottom.

With the older kids, we played a magnet game in which we would “switch their poles”. If the teacher said “south pole” they were all attracted toward her and would run toward her, but if she said “north pole” they were all repelled and moved away. It’s basically red light, green light with a twist….

Again, there’s lots more we could do to explore gravity, but this is how many activities we could fit in. We might consider separate units in the future to allow more time.

Follow-Ups: For “homework” – here are some things parents could do with their kids to reinforce the ideas learned in class.

Observe gravity in action.

  • Talk about what would happen if there was no gravity.
  • Perhaps watch videos that show astronauts floating in space, and talk about what that would be like. (Go to YouTube and search for “NASA zero gravity”).
  • Play with dropping objects to show that they fall at the same rate… if kids notice that feathers or flat pieces of paper fall slowly, then discuss that this is due to them being caught on air currents, not because gravity works differently for them.
  • Look for more gravity ideas here:

Play with magnets.

  • Have the child go around the house with a magnet or magnet wand. What does it stick to? What doesn’t it stick to? Why?
  • Sorting games: miscellaneous small items in a dish (or bury in a sensory material like rice or beans). Use a magnet wand to sort into magnetic and non-magnetic.
  • Use magnet wands and jingle bells to make jingle wands.


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