Fun with Magnets and Electricity

Magnetism and electricity are strange and amazing forces. How can one object act on another object at a distance without any apparent intermediary contact? If I blow a piece of paper, I act on the paper via the breeze I create. But magnets do surprising and nonintuitive things. Although young children are not ready for the full theoretical basis of electromagnetism (I’m not even ready for the full basis), with some basic supplies they can explore how magnets and electricity operate in the world.

This is one of these projects that just costs some money. You can’t print off magnets, find them in the back yard (usually), or cut them out of paper or other cheap supplies. Perhaps you can borrow supplies from a school, friend, or coop. Here I offer some Amazon links for people interested in buying supplies.

A word of warning: The items discussed here contain small parts and should not be used with children who put things into their mouths. Also, I use the supplies with my five-year-old, below the “official” age, and provide adult supervision. I’m not recommending that; use these things at your own risk!

The cheapest magnets useful for young kids are magnetic letters and numbers (paid link), which do duel-duty for spelling.

A “magnet stick” available in basic kits (paid link) is useful to explore polarity (magnets can both attract and repel). Although I don’t have this particular kit it appears to me to be a good one.

Unfortunately my favorite kit is no longer readily available (it’s the “Electricity & Magnetic Combination Kit” by Popular Playthings.) But there’s a kit very much like the one I have (although more expensive), the Thames & Kosmos Electricity & Magnetism Science Kit (paid link). What I really like about kits such as these is that you can power an electromagnet and hence illustrate the connection between electricity and magnetism. Also, these kits are really good for illustrating serial versus parallel connections.

My kit has a hand-crank generator; the Thames kit does not. A generator is great for showing that mechanical energy can be converted into electrical energy. You can buy a hand-crank generator (paid link) independently. Just be sure, if you use this with other kits, not to crank too fast or you might burn out components.

My second-favorite kit is the beginner Snap Circuits (paid link). What I like about this set is it’s well-made and it illustrates some basic electronics. My son loves the fan, which pops off and flies on its own (although that’s not especially educational). What I don’t like about the set is that various plastic boxes that contain complex electronics are not see-through, so in effect these are mysterious “black boxes.” Still, it’s a great set especially for the money.