Magnets – Science for Kids


This week at Inventors’ Lab, we studied force, gravity, and magnets. All of these are easy to explore hands-on, and AFTER the kids have had a chance to explore them, we 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 had this really cool makeup case with clear plastic walls, which we filled with magnetic and non-magnetic items. Kids could use magnet wands up the side of the case to see which materials a magnet will pick up. If you don’t have the case, water bottles work just fine! Fill them with objects like beans, rice, washers, paper clips, and plastic toys. These were out on a table with magnetic wands.

(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.)

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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.

Sorting: We had a pie pan full of objects that they could test and then sort into magnetic or non-magnetic.

What materials can magnetic force reach through? Put out paper clips and several containers, made of paper, glass, plastic, ceramic, wood, and so on. If you put a paper clip inside that container, can the magnet still attract it?

Using magnets to attract hidden objects: We filled the sensory tub with rice or lentils, 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: Have various magnets that will attract and repel each other, and have a “push-pull” table. Challenge them to find ways to use the magnets to pull toward each other (attract) or push away (repel.) 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. You can put out two Wooden Train Cars and show that if you push them together one way, they connect… if you push them together the other way, they repel. I also like these science toys where there are disc magnets you mount on a post, and the magnets can “float” above each other. (Note: it’s fun to use the magnet balls with the posts from this toy – they’ll roll in circles around the base, or if you have two of them, they’ll chase each other in circles around the base.)

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Magnet Marbles: We had a big collection of Magnetic Marbles for them to chain together and explore.

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

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Magnetic poetry – you can put out kids’ magnetic poetry sets for some literacy play.


Art project: You could easily make any art project and mount on a magnet for them to take home and stick on fridge.

You could also make a project where you draw a picture on a paper plate, make a small drawing and put a paper clip or metal brad on it, then use a magnet wand below the plate to pull the object around…. examples of this include making a paper car to drive around a track or make paper ants to move around a plate of “food.” Or make a paper fish, put a magnet strip on it, set it on a piece of blue paper, then use a magnet underneath the paper to move it around.

Experiment exploring magnetic poles – Make Your Own Magnet and/or Compass

Although most of our class’ activity stations are intended for kids to be able to do independently; however, we often have one where we station an adult there to walk kids through a more complicated project or concept exploration. This was our process for this class to help them explore magnets and compasses.

Materials needed: a strong magnet (a weak one like the bar magnet shown in the picture below won’t work to magnetize a paperclip), paperclips, cork rafts like we made in wind week (or other floating object), compass, container of water

  1. Test your magnet: Is it magnetic—will it attract a paper clip?
  2. Test your paper clip: Is it magnetic—will it attract another paper clip?
  3. (optional: Unfold your paperclip.) Take the magnet, rub it down the length of the paperclip, always moving in the same direction, for 40 or 50 strokes. Count out loud to keep track. (This helps all the iron particles in the paper clip line up in the same direction.)
  4. Test your paper clip: Now is it magnetic—now will it attract another clip?
  5. Test your magnet as a compass. Set it on the raft, then spin the raft, and wait for it to stop spinning. Is the north end of the magnet facing north? (Check the compass to see what direction is north.)
  6. Now, test your magnetized paper clip as a compass. Set it on the small raft, then spin the raft. Wait for it to stop spinning. Is the magnetized end pointing north? If not, try rubbing the magnet on it again to recharge the magnetism.

Circle Time

Grounding in Experience: Ask “Before class today, who had used a magnet? Where? What for?” They may talk about refrigerator magnets, magnetic toys, etc. “What do magnets stick to? What won’t they stick to?”

You can also use a magnet and ask them – will it stick to the white board? Will it stick to this wooden desk? Will it stick to the lamp?

Demo: Show two bar magnets that are clearly marked with north and south poles. Show how if you put opposite ends next to each other, they attract – they pull together. If you put matching ends together, they repel, or push away. (You can also demo this with other magnets – it’s great if you have one that’s has a strong enough magnetic field that you don’t even have to touch them together… it can lift another magnet up in the air (levitate it) to pull them together. This relates to Next Generation Science Standard 3-PS2.3Emphasize that magnets can push or pull other magnets.

Song: From To the tune of Did you ever see a Lassie? Have them lean side to side when singing “this way and that”

  1. Did you ever see a magnet, a magnet, a magnet? Did you ever see a magnet pull this way and that?
    Chorus: Pull this way and that way, and this way and that way. Did you ever see a magnet pull this way and that?
  2. On iron and steel, its pull is unreal! Did you ever see a magnet pull this way and that? Chorus
  3. A magnet has action, it’s called an attraction! Did you ever see a magnet pull this way and that? Chorus

Alternate song:

Magnets push, magnets pull
Magnets stick to certain metals – like iron
Magnets can stick to each other
And push each other away
Push and pull, push and pull
That’s what magnets do
Push and pull, push and pull
That’s what magnets do

Also, check out this video for another song:;


  • Magnets by Nelson. An easy read-aloud non-fiction book appropriate for preschool kids, age 3 – 5. Clear photographs of items that would be familiar to a young child.
  • Magnets by Royston and Magnets Push, Magnets Pull by Weakland. Nice basic non-fiction overviews, with nice photos and clear examples, appropriate for ages 5 – 7. I prefer Royston, just because Weakland gives some examples (like motors, speakers, and MRI machines) that would be hard for young kids to grasp how they relate to the basics of magnetism we’re talking about in class.
  • What Makes a Magnet? by Branley. For ages 6 – 8. Nice overview, but if you read it, the kids will want to do all the activities described, so be prepared. They include: making a box of miscellaneous items, then tying a magnet on a string and going “fishing”, magnetizing a needle, building a floating compass with the needle and two corks, and a magnetic technology scavenger hunt checklist.
  • Science Experiments With Magnets by Kuskowski, Experiments with Magnets and Metals by Taylor-Butler, and Step-by-Step Experiments with Magnets by Hagler are all aimed at 1st-3rd graders, and all include a good collection of experiment ideas with clear photographic instructions. Any would be fine supplements to class. Kuskowski is my favorite and includes a few experiments that I have not described here.

Demo: If you have recently studied Gravity, this is a fun demo to do, from Buggy and Buddy. Prep: Tie a paper clip to a string, then tie the string to a wood dowel. Make two towers of Duplos as tall as the string is long. Stick a strong magnet to a metal ruler and “bridge” it between the Duplo towers.

Then, in class: hold up the dowel. Ask “where does the paper clip hang?” (Straight down.) “Why?” (Gravity.) Tilt the dowel – “which way does the clip hang?” (Down.) “Can anything pull it back up? I can pull it up with my fingers – that’s using force. Could another force lift it? Magnets can.” Use a magnet to catch the clip and lift it up. Then set the dowel under the Duplo towers. Lift the clip up and hold it under the magnet. The trick here is to make sure your string is exactly long enough that you can hold the clip at a place where the magnet will help it levitate… float in the air without touching the magnet. Explain that magnetic force is holding it up, because when we move the magnet close enough to the clip, its pull is stronger than the pull of gravity.

Optional Group Activities: 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. IMG_20151212_160029689

(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.

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, if she said “north pole” they were repelled and moved away. It’s basically red light, green light with a twist….

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

  • 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.


Community Resources for Science has a nice lesson plan on magnets, which includes tie-ins to the Next Generation Science Standards for third graders.

Magnets first appear in the Next Generation Science Standards in third grade:

3-PS2-3. Ask questions to determine cause and effect relationships of electric or magnetic interactions between two objects not in contact with each other. [… examples of a magnetic force could include the force between two permanent magnets, the force between an electromagnet and steel paperclips, and the force exerted by one magnet versus the force exerted by two magnets. …. how the orientation of magnets affects the direction of the magnetic force.]
3-PS2-4. Define a simple design problem that can be solved by applying scientific ideas about magnets. [… examples include constructing a latch to keep a door shut and creating a device to keep two moving objects from touching each other.]

In my mind, the key ideas I hope my 5 – 7 year old students will leave class with are: Magnetism is an invisible force. We can’t see it, but we can see how it affects other things. Magnets attract ferrous materials (materials containing iron.) Magnets have two poles (north-seeking pole and south); opposite poles attract, same poles repel (push away). A magnetic field can reach beyond a magnet, so a magnet can affect things that are nearby but not touching the magnet.

Safety notes:

Magnets can be hazardous if swallowed. If a child has swallowed multiple magnets, they may need surgery to prevent internal damage. If you are working with young children who might put things in their mouths, use only large magnets, like magnet wands – nothing that could possibly be swallowed.

Very strong magnets can snap together suddenly and pinch skin between them, which is quite painful.


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