Science At Home : Magnets

Science At Home For Kids

Today, I’m excited to deconstruct the science behind magnets! Magnetism feels like magic! If you’ve ever held two magnets close, they either attract or repel. It feels spooky! 

I’m going to show you a cool STEM experiment right at home. This will impress your kids! It’s easy, I promise. Plus, this skill could help you find your way out of the woods. You’ll be a bad…I mean cool,  no matter what!

Louie wasn't really lost, obviously
Abandoned fawn
Sadly, this fawn was lost


You only need three items


  1. Bowl of water
  2. Leaf
  3. Sewing needle


Use a big one so the leaf doesn’t hit the sides!

Make sure it’s floating.

Do this for a bout 30 seconds or until they run away, whichever comes first!

The magic WILL happen, be patient.

The needle will point north!


Happily, dog saliva did not affect the results!


Many of us understand that magnets have two different charges, and that opposite charges attract each other and like charges repel each other. This still does not explain how a magnet works. 

Here’s an annoying definition: A magnet is any material or object that produces a magnetic field. 

What is with the dictionary anyway? They define words with the word they are supposedly trying to define? That is NOT helpful in any way. 

The reason magnets work explained with atoms.

No, really, it is!

Magnets on fridge
Artwork above was drawn by Alex! (he wisely signed his work)


Atoms have protons (positive charge) in the nucleus

Atoms have neutrons in the nucleus too, but for magnetism, we need not concern ourselves

Atoms also have electrons (negative charge) that orbit around the nucleus.

The natural tendency of atoms to be neutral.

So what do electrons and protons have to do with magnets?

Moving electrons make a magnetic field.

They spin in the same direction!

To make our STEM activity –in the video above– work, we needed to get the electrons to jump from their nice little orbits around their nucleus. 

This is hard to do with some atoms. The electrons are snug and tight, paired up and not willing to go anywhere. 

If you look at the periodic table below, the elements on the far right (in the white boxes) have filled orbitals. Those electrons aren’t going anywhere without a fight. This makes the elements very stable. ( Noble Gases) 

Helium (He) is so stable that it’s used in nuclear reactors as a coolant. And in balloons! (I don’t need to point out the balloon pic)



Neon (Ne) glows reddish-orange and is used for lights. (Plasma ball on far right) 

This is where the misused term ‘neon light’ comes from.

Plasma Ball with Neon


Lucky for us, many metals are especially prone to electron conductivity  AKA MOVEMENT because they have unpaired electrons in their outer orbitals, spinning around their respective nucleus. 

Each orbital has room for a certain number of electrons. (Orbitals are like floors of a building. Once they’re full, a new level must be used) 

And once an orbital if full, that makes the atom more stable.  (Like our Noble Gases) They are tucked in tightly and tend not to spin off/be attracted to another atom.

If the outer orbital only has a few electrons, they aren’t packed as tightly, have more energy to move, and are more prone to hopping off to find a new home. They’re like teeny tiny explorers.

To make matters more complicated (isn’t that always the case?)  with Transition Metals, the third level doesn’t necessarily fill before the fourth begins to fill. WHAT?

Some electrons want their own orbit. (anti-social!)

I know, it stinks when I think I’ve got a rule and it gets broken. (and yes, I’m oversimplifying all this) But you get the general idea!


There are three ways to produce an electrical charge.

Friction, induction, and contact.

We’ll just concern ourselves with friction today.

Friction promotes the movement of electrons between two different substances. 

On an atomic level, essentially one atom is losing electrons. One will become positively charged (because it lost electrons). The other atom becomes negatively charged. (gained electrons)

When atoms are statically electrified, the electrons actually line up and spin in the same direction.

So what is the point, you ask? 

Iron chemical element Fe
Symbol for the element iron. It's in the top row of the purple Transition Metals in the chart above!
The property of being strongly attracted to either pole of a magnet.
Remember our electron orbitals?
Iron (obviously), cobalt, nickel, and gadolinium
Neodymium is popular for making ferromagnets.


 Our planet has a magnetic pole, created by molten lead (LEAD AGAIN) and other metals in the earth’s core.

The molten lead moves  as the earth moves! This generates electric currents, which produce magnetic fields!

(My arrows aren’t exactly straight…)

Diamagnetic means not attracted to a magnetic field.

And our metal sewing needle full of lined up electrons (because of the friction) aligns itself with the earth’s strong magnetic field.

This is why compass needles point north, no matter which way you turn the compass.

Field lines are a way to visualize the magnetic field around an object.


A lodestone is a piece magnetite, a naturally magnetized metal that attracts iron. The property of magnetism was discovered through lodestones. (FeO4

Many cultures in the ancient world found lodestones. So discovery of magnetism can’t be pinpointed to any one person.


Lodestone is one of only two minerals that is found naturally magnetized; the other, pyrrhotite, is only weakly magnetic.


Notice the formula for lodestones on the left? They have Fe…we all know which element that is!


How were lodestones formed ?

The most common theory hypothesizes that when iron ore deposits at the surface of the earth are struck by lightning, the electron spin rearranges to match the lightning’s field.

Ancient blacksmiths made magnets in a similar way. The blacksmith on the right is holding a piece of red-hot iron in a north-south direction and hammering it as it cools. The magnetic field of the Earth aligns, leaving the iron a weak magnet.

How did they figure this out?

Spotty wifi connections left them with nothing to do.

Ancient blacksmith
Wikimedia Commons


Ever wonder how birds migrate so far and find their way? Scientists do, too. The answer is still elusive but it involves MAGNETITE!

Birds, salmon, honeybees and many more animals have magnetite shavings in their brains!

Scientists hypothesize it’s more complex and there may also be a chemical reaction occurring in the eyes of birds. 

Birds are cool! They feature in my middle grade fantasy work in progress. To read more about birds, check this post out!

Robins w babies in nest
Hawk flying Devil's Lake
This hawk is not lost!

I sure don’t want you to get lost in the woods, but if you do, you’ll be able to find north with this STEM activity. And be super cool. 

For now, try it out. Impress your posse. Tell them about electrons jumping and lining up!

Then check back with me and tell me how you did!

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80 thoughts on “Science At Home : Magnets”

  1. Fantastic! I love all of this. How timely, I need some new learning ideas to share with my girls. Thank you.

  2. What a cool little experiment and a great way of explaining of magnets work. I think this will be one to share with my niece when she is a little bit older!

    Thanks fo sharing 🙂

    Aimsy xoxo
    Aimsy’s Antics

  3. I love the introduction of magnets for children! Pretty cool how the results turned out with the needle! I am all about science experiments as a kid. I wished there was more back then. Thanks for sharing!

    Nancy ♥

  4. My daughter is a massive STEM fan (yay) so I can’t wait to show her this post, I know she’ll want to try this out. I’ve always been fascinated by magnets, and this experiment is a great example of why! Brilliant post, Sue, thank you for sharing 🙂 Lisa

  5. An awesome little experiment anyone could do at home. But I had no idea that that was how magnetism worked. I guess I’d never really thought about it before. I learnt something new today

  6. I’m fascinated by the ability of birds/ducks/salmon to find their way back to their birth place, so I appreciated you explanation. Whether it’s magnetite shavings in their brains or a chemical reaction occurring in their eyes, I wish I had that capability since I can get lost in the mall.

    • HA! Lost in the mall isn’t a bad thing in my book! But yes, I find that ability endlessly interesting, too! I read that humans used to have magnetoreception, but I didn’t dig into it to find actual facts.

  7. I learned so much from this post. Science rules! I often wonder why a compass always point to the north. I wasn’t so keen with directions till I started driving. Now i know, that magnets have atoms. Cool!

  8. This sounds like such a fun experiment! Thanks for sharing, this is a really interesting post to read! 🙂

  9. Wow! Lots of information about magnets. I always found them interesting and made some cool handmade toys with magnets when my kids were younger.

  10. I seem to recall them doing something very similar to this at school when they taught us about magnets. Having something like this always makes it seem more fun and easier to remember! x


  11. I love reading posts like this they are super interesting, I remember learning about this at school!! Thank you for sharing.

    Amber – The Unpredicted Page


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Susan Berk Koch author

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