Kids Science Lessons And Activities With Magnets

Magnets are common and simple items used in many everyday machines. Children find them fascinating, so take advantage of their interest to teach science skills.

Children can learn a lot from simple things, and these lessons form the foundation of their understanding of the world around them. Magnets are common and simple items that present an array of learning opportunities. Young scientists can explore the most basic concepts about magnetism, what kinds of materials are affected by magnets, and lines of magnetic force. Magnets are used in a large number of common items, and science students can explore the many ways we utilize them.

One of the first magnet experiments that children do almost automatically is to check what materials are attracted to magnets. Give a magnet to a young child and you'll be able to watch science happen before your very eyes. Invariably, the youngster will discover that the magnet pulls some things close and they stick together. This discovery will send the young scientist off on a quest to find other things that magnets attract.

Maximize the learning by helping the child keep track of the data from this experiment. Make a list of which items are magnetic and which are not. When the excitement dies down a bit, sort through your list and group things in various ways. Help your child choose commonalities that might help predict what kinds of things will stick to magnets. Do magnets stick only to round things? Does color make a difference? Collecting data, sorting, categorizing, and making predictions are skills that are stressed in the National Science Education Standards for younger students. Young children need these skills to move forward with science learning.

Magnets can also be used to separate mixtures of magnetic and nonmagnetic materials. Set up experiments for the young scientist to pull metal paperclips from sand or small ball bearings from a pile of salt. Predict which things could be sorted in this way. Does dirt or grit on the metal items affect the action of the magnet?

Another set of experiments can be designed around the strength of magnets. Magnets vary dramatically in their power. Have your young scientist figure out ways to measure a magnet's strength. Ideas include seeing how many items (like paper clips or washers) the magnet can hold at once or how many pieces of paper can be placed between the magnet and the item and still allow them to stick together. In addition to being fun experiments, these will allow your student to begin to learn about experimental design, the process that scientists use to answer questions and test hypotheses. These experiments will generate great information to chart on a graph, and that's another important science skill. Children need to become proficient at representing information in many different ways.

Magnets also interact with each other. Even a young experimenter will notice that magnets sometimes pull each other together and sometimes push one another apart. Have your child look for and describe patterns about how magnets interact with each other. In addition, magnets generate magnetic force. You can prove this with a paper plate, a magnet, and some iron filings. Put the iron filings on top of the paper plate and hold the magnet under the plate. The filings will scoot to arrange themselves in patterns! Your child will be able to see the magnetic lines of force and should be able to see different patterns that match up to the magnet's poles. Help the youngster relate this observation to the patterns that were noticed about which ends of the magnet attract and which repel. By making connections such as this, you will be helping the child build even more science skill.



Older students and children will be interested in doing more elaborate experiments with magnets. These experiments require slightly more specialized equipment and supplies, but everything should be readily available from hardware stores. These experiments may also require more attention to safety issues, because the young scientist will need to construct apparatus with tools. Other experiments explore the connections between magnets and electricity, and caution needs to be used whenever you are working with current. Even the batteries used in these experiments can generate enough power to cause shocks or burns if directions are not followed carefully.

Use doughnut-shaped magnets for some interesting experiments. To demonstrate magnetic levitation, gather up a collection of these round magnets with holes in the center. You'll also need a dowel rod and a way to stand it upright. The magnets' center holes must be large enough to slip over the dowel rod. Put a doughnut-shaped magnet at the bottom of the dowel rod stand. Slide another magnet onto the dowel and observe what happens. If the opposite poles are next to each other, the magnets will be drawn together. If like poles are next to each other, the magnetic force will repel them. The upper magnet will float above the lower magnet due to this force. This is the same principle used in the experimental trains in Europe and attractions in some amusement parks. Challenge your scientist to see if additional magnets can be floated at the same time on the same dowel stick. To do this, the learner will need to place two magnets together so that the poles attract. This double magnet will then both float above the lower magnet and also hold another magnet above itself. Perhaps your student can design experiments to see how magnetic strength affects this levitation demonstration.

Magnetic fields also affect moving magnets. Build a box-shaped stand that will hold three magnets on its inside walls. Suspend a fourth magnet from a string so that it hangs level with the magnets on the stand's walls. Swing the magnet on the string and the magnetic fields will interact, causing the swinging magnet to continue moving for a very long time. The student will need to experiment to discover the correct positioning of the magnets and their poles to create fields that will give the swinging magnet the pushes that it needs to continue its motion. A misplaced magnet will cause the swinging magnet to stick to one of the magnets on the walls instead. What positions cause the swinging magnet to stay in motion for the longest time?

Many learners do not understand the close connection between magnets and electricity. You can demonstrate this using a strong battery (like a lantern battery), a large iron nail, and a length of copper wire. You'll also want some small, metal objects to test the new electromagnet when it is ready. Use caution with this experiment: you will be working with electricity. The parts can get hot enough to burn skin, and the current can cause an electrical shock. Handle with care! The wire and nail can get quite warm! Attach one end of the copper wire to a battery's terminal. Wrap the wire around the nail in a coil, and attach the other end to the other battery terminal. The current running through the coiled wire will turn the nail into an electromagnet, which you can prove by watching items stick to it just like they do to a regular magnet. Add some experimental variables to this demonstration by seeing how the gauge of the wire or the number of wraps in the coil affect the magnet's strength. It's also interesting to gather data about how much energy from the battery is used in the process. You can check this by putting the battery in a lantern before making the electromagnet to see how bright the light is. Repeat the process after making the electromagnet to see how much more dimly the bulb glows. Making electromagnets uses a lot of power! The National Science Education Standards suggest that older students should be working on skills such as stating hypotheses, designing experiments with controls and variables, and developing ways to gather and present their data in an organized fashion.

Once your young scientist understands more about magnets and magnetism, you can search together for everyday items that use magnets. Try having the student list all he or she can think of before you go on your search of the household. Once the first list is complete, look around the house and garage for magnets in use. Here is a partial list of things to look for: compasses, headphones, stereo speakers, microwave, telephone receiver, doorbell, cabinet and refrigerator doors, computer floppy disk reader, video and audio cassette players, television and computer monitor screens, hard drives, and anything containing an electric motor. All of these items and many more utilize magnets! If you have old items on the list that are no longer needed, allow your student to take apart small machines that can be safely disassembled to find the magnets inside. Just be sure the item is unplugged and does not have a warning label discouraging disassembly.

From preschool through high school, your child can learn from experiments with magnets. Magnets are pervasive in our day-to-day lives, and it's important to understand how they are used and how they affect people. Most importantly, perhaps, are the scientific inquiry skills that you can encourage along the way. If you give your child the skills of posing questions, making and testing theories, observing the world, gathering data, and finding ways to share information, you present him or her with the keys to learning about nearly anything. Magnets are a fascinating, common and simple tool to use in this process.

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