Magnets are fascinating, to adults as well as to children, and it’s not hard to wonder why. Repulsing one another when turned one way, and attracting when turned the other way, magnets have a multitude of play-learning opportunities.
My father is a manufacturing engineer and he somehow came into the possession of a box full of small industrial strength magnets that he thought I might be able to use for one of my programs. I was more than happy to take the box off of his hands. In addition to the extra-powerful magnets, I also had the standard large stick magnets that have become a staple of preschool programs.
I had intended to read the book The Shivers in the Fridge, which is a cute story about fridge magnets, but someone wanted to check it out, and I decided that we had enough activities that we could skip the story just this once. That meant we jumped right into the discussion. I brought out the stick magnets and the magnet exploration dishes I had left over from my Magnet Exploration Station. I held up each dish and talked about what it was made of, then we observed whether the magnet would move the material. The children picked up very quickly that metallic objects moved, and were able to start making predictions based on that information. (I purposefully did not take out the coins, since I did not want to confuse the issue so soon.) After the group discussion, I gave the magnets to the children and let them explore on their own.
While they did that, I brought out my super magnets. They were quite small, only about half an inch wide and an inch or so long. I made it very clear to the parents that these were choking hazards, and needed to be monitored at all times. I then gave the powerful magnets to the parents and let them choose to share them with their children how they wished. Luckily, this particular group of children skewed a bit older, true preschoolers without the usual toddlers running around in the background, so I was not truly worried about someone swallowing the magnets. The powerful magnets got quite the reaction from both parents and children. They would stick together from either side of a hand, which was a favorite activity, and were powerful enough that once they were touching one another it was difficult to impossible to simply pull them apart. They had to be twisted and maneuvered off each other, and even then it was only the adults who could just barely remove them.
After we had all experimented with the magnets, I brought out an art-related activity. We put paint on a paper plate, then one of the small supermagnets on the plate. We put a stick magnet under the plate and moved it around, dragging the smaller magnet through the paint to create swirls of color.