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DIY: The "Magical" Science of Magnets

magnet magic

Does your child have a magnetic personality? Or maybe they just like to play with the magnets on the fridge? These little items do a lot more than hold up your grocery list—they’re a great way to show kids how magical science can be! Watch their faces light up the first time they see a magnet instantly attract an object, or when they see two magnets “dance” to avoid each other.

What’s a magnet?

A magnet is a material or object that produces a magnetic field. This magnetic field is invisible, but it creates a force that can attract (pull) or repel (push) other magnets. These forces are called magnetism.

Magnets come in all shapes, strengths and sizes. They are used to make many of the things you see every day: doorbells, microphones, televisions, microwaves, cell phones and even electric guitars.

What's a magnet made of?

Magnets are made out of materials such as ceramic compounds like strontium ferrite, metallic alloys like alnico (aluminum, nickel, and cobalt), and rare earth elements like samarium-cobalt and neodymium.

The atoms inside a magnet organize to create a magnetic field and always have two sides or opposite poles.

What are a magnet’s poles, and what do they do?

Poles are the areas of a magnet that have the magnetic strength to push or pull. Each magnet has two poles: a north pole and a south pole.

When you hold two magnets together, if you bring their matching poles together (north to north, or south to south) they will push each other away.

But when you hold two opposite poles together (a north from one magnet and a south from the other), the magnets will stick together. This is where we get the expression “opposites attract,” to describe how people who are different from each other often get along really well.

Why do magnets pick up some things, but not others?

Generally, magnets stick to ferromagnetic materials, which are made out of iron, nickel or cobalt. A magnet can change the way atoms in these materials move and line up, which attracts the object to the magnet and makes it stick.

Here are some fun activities for learning about magnets at home.

Go Fishing with Magnets

In this activity, your child will conduct a simple investigation that explores items around your home and helps them determine what will stick to a magnet.

For more information about this activity, go to PBS Learning Media: Magnetic Fishing with Nature Cat/Science Crafts for Kids

Explore the Invisible Forces of Magnets

In this activity, your child will feel the force of the magnetic field that they cannot see.

You’ll need:
• A pencil
• Two circle magnets with a hole in the center

1. Put the pencil through the hole in one of the circle magnets. Hold the bottom of the pencil so the magnet won’t fall off.

2. Ask your child to predict what will happen when you drop the second circle magnet down the pencil—will the two magnets pull together, or do they push apart?

3. Now, let them drop the second magnet on top of the other magnet. What happened?

4. If your magnets repelled each other, have your child feel the force by trying to push the magnets together. Then see what happens when you move the pencil up and down to make the magnets "dance."  (Be gentle doing this movement for rare earth magnets are brittle and can sometimes chip and break.)

5. Now, take the top magnet off, turn it upside down, and drop it back down the pencil. What happens this time? It should be the opposite of what you observed on the first try.

6. Talk to your child about how each result shows which poles were closest to each other: matching poles repel each other, but “opposites attract.”

For more information on magnets for kids, check out these links:

PBS Kids Design Squad: Inspector Detector Challenge

Explain That Stuff: Magnetism

Parents.com: 8 Irresistible Activities to Do with Magnets