Magnetic fields play a hugely important part in our everyday lives. The Earth's magnetic field is generated by the rotation of the planet's fluid outer core around the solid inner core. The field makes human life possible as it helps shield the planet from potentially harmful solar radiation. On a smaller scale, magnets are often used in a variety of everyday objects, including cars, computers, vacuum cleaners and refrigerators. One of the best ways to teach young kids about magnetic fields is to explain the basics then demonstrate some of the properties of a magnetic field using simple experiments.
Explain the basics
Before starting to play around with magnets and conducting simple experiments it can be useful to explain the basics. When teaching younger children you don't need to get too in-depth about how and why magnetic fields form and function but if they ask questions you should answer to the best of your ability. Curiosity in kids should always be rewarded. You could explain that magnetism is an invisible force that can either pull magnetic objects towards it or force them away. Explain that only certain substances are affected by magnets. It's also important to understand that individual magnets, just like the Earth, have a north and south pole. Differing magnetic poles attract each other while like poles repel.
Play with magnets
Horseshoe magnets, bar magnets and refrigerator magnets are all readily available and ideal for simple experiments. You can use a refrigerator magnet to let the kids find out whether various surfaces are magnetic or not. It will stick to the surface of objects that contain iron, such as radiators and fridges, but will not stick to wooden doors or brick walls. Make sure they do not try to use a refrigerator magnet on computers or other electrical items that can be damaged by magnets. Horseshoe and bar magnets can similarly be used to find out if small objects are magnetic. Two bar magnets can be used to demonstrate polarity. If differing poles are placed close to each other they will attract while similar poles will repel.
Use iron filings
Iron filings can be used to show the shape of a magnetic field. Place a magnet under a sheet of paper on a non-metallic surface and gently pour iron filings on top of the paper. The iron filings will move to show the direction and shape of the magnetic field. You may need to gently tap the paper to get the iron filings to spread out correctly. The paper is used to prevent the filings from being pulled into contact with the magnet itself, as they can be difficult to remove. Iron filings should not be swallowed or come into contact with the eyes. Depending on the age of the children being taught, this activity should be closely supervised or demonstrated by an adult.
Make a basic compass
A simple compass can be made to show the effect of the Earth's magnetic field. Take a needle and stroke a magnet along it about 30 times in the same direction. Try picking up a light pin with the needle to see if it has magnetised. This can also be used to demonstrate how some objects can be temporarily turned into magnets. Next place the needle on a small piece of paper and float it on some still water. The needle should turn to point along the North-South line. Test it with a shop-bought compass or repeat the experiment with another needle to check that it points the same way.
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