How Do Magnets Work?

Eliza Clark
July 22, 2011

The funny thing about preschoolers and all of their questions is that often they are not really looking for the kinds of answers we think we are supposed to give. They're not so keen on long explanations and complicated terminology. What they really are asking is for us to engage with them, express interest, and contemplate the problem with them.

Take magnets. Most kids have been playing with magnets of one kind or another since their very earliest toddlerhood. Magnets on the fridge are great fun in and of themselves. And then, there are also a number of excellent magnetic toys available. (We are especially devoted to Magna Tiles and the Magneatos Construction sets.)

In response to your little one's query, though, what you'll really need are a couple of simple horseshoe magnets, an assortment of small objects made of different materials, and some time set aside for experiments.

By testing out which kinds of things magnets attract (and which they do not), your child will already begin to understand something important about how magnets work. Then you can throw in a big word, and let her know that objects that are strongly drawn to magnets are called "ferromagnetic." Won't that sound irresistible from the lips of a lisping three-year-old!

Another concept to play with is the magnetic field. How close does a paper clip have to be to the magnet for its force to be felt? How far away before it escapes the magnetic field?

And then you can have fun testing out magnetic poles. Your preschooler thought magnets pulled things toward them? Watch this! He thought the North Pole is where Santa and Rudolph live? Well, sure, but it is also one end of a magnet! (And you can save the lesson on how those two ideas relate for a few years down the line.)

In short, you don't have to have all of the answers about magnets. And if you did, your kid would stop listening to you after about thirty seconds. Instead, explore the invisible mysteries of magnetism together.

From the Parents

  • Parent # 1

    Parents-please be aware of the dangers of magnets if they are swallowed! Do not leave children unattended with magnets as there have been many deaths of children from swallowed magnets.

    over a year ago


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