Tinkering with Magnets

Children will tinker with magnets and solve a problem.

Lesson Objective

Children will tinker with magnets and solve a problem.


What You'll Need

  • Magnets – various shapes and sizes
  • Metallic objects such as paper clips, hair barrettes, nuts, bolts, screws, and so forth
  • Non-metallic objects such as coins, plastic toys, rocks, shells, small cardboard boxes, and so forth
  • Clear plastic cups filled with water and a paper clip in the bottom of the cup – 1 per child (save for step 9)


What To Do

Note: Before the activity, place some paint on a paper plate for each teacher who will be painting the children’s feet.

  1. Display the magnets, and ask the children what they might know about magnets (see Guiding Student Inquiry).
  2. Display the metallic and non-metallic materials, and ask the children what they notice about the materials (see Guiding Student Inquiry).
  3. Ask the children how they can find out which of the materials are magnetic.
  4. Give the children plenty of undirected time to become familiar with the materials (see Guiding Student Inquiry).
  5. Observe, ask questions, and offer suggestions as they are tinkering (see Guiding Student Inquiry).
  6. Have the children place the materials in 2 piles: things that are magnetic and things that are not magnetic.
  7. Ask the children what is the same/different about the items in the piles.
  8. Tell the children that you have a problem for them to solve.
  9. Display a cup of water with a paper clip in the bottom of the cup.
  10. Challenge the children to remove the paper clip without spilling the water or getting the magnet (or themselves) wet (see Guiding Student Inquiry).
  11. This will take some time. After a bit of trial and error, the children will figure out that they need to move the magnet along the outside of the cup to attract the paper clip, and then move the magnet up the side of the cup to remove the paper clip.

Guiding Student Inquiry

  • Explain what you think magnets do.
  • Tell me what you use magnets for at home.
  • Describe the kinds of things that magnets stick to.
  • Tell me how we can figure out which materials are magnetic.
  • Describe what we can do to remove the paper clip.
  • Explain how you removed the paper clip without getting the magnet wet.

Explore, Extend & Integrate

  • Place magnets in the discovery area for further exploration.
  • Allow the children to take the magnets outside and test them on playground equipment and outdoor objects.
  • Place small magnetic items in the sand table. Give the children magnets to use to remove items from the sand.
  • Make a fishing game for the children by tying a length of string to a dowel or yardstick and tying a ring magnet to the other end of the string. Place paper clips on construction paper fish cutouts. The children can “fish” for different colored fish. You can alter the fishing game for your literacy or math centers by writing letters, children’s names, or numbers on the fish.

Check for Children’s Understanding

  • Could children explain that magnets stick to things?
  • Could children explain that magnets stick to some metal things?
  • Could children state that they could test the materials with magnets to find out what kinds of things are magnetic?
  • Could children try removing the paper clip from the cup of water?
  • Could children explain that a magnet was needed to remove the paper clip from the cup of water?


Did You Know?

Magnets are attracted to metals—but only certain kinds of metals. In order for an item to be magnetic, it must contain a bit of certain kinds of metals such as iron, nickel, or cobalt. Some things are not attracted to magnets. Metals such as gold, aluminum, silver, copper, and others are not attracted to magnets. Other kinds of things that are not attracted to magnets are things made of plastic, glass, and wood. 

The initial exploration in this activity set the stage for introducing children to the problem that needed solving. As the children were engaged in exploring with the magnets, they were developing skills and knowledge about magnets. Building this background information is necessary to help prepare children for further challenges, such as removing the paper clip from the cup of water. 

Vocabulary: Child-Friendly Definitions

  • magnet – an object that has the power to pull things made of certain kinds of metals toward itself.
  • magnetic – being attracted to an object containing certain kinds of metals.
  • stick – to cling firmly to something.
  • problem – a question or condition to be solved.
  • solve – to find an answer to.
  • spill – to cause to overflow from a container.

Lesson Tips

  • Gather an assortment of materials from recycling bins, parts from discarded electronic items, or broken toys.
  • Take care to keep magnets away from computers, cell phones, or other wireless devices; magnets can damage them.
  • You may want the children to wear waterproof smocks while trying to remove the paper clip from the cup of water.


  • What Makes a Magnet? (Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out Science 2) by Franklyn M. Branley
  • What Can Magnets Do? (Rookie Read-About Science) by Allan Fowler
  • Magnets: Pulling Together, Pushing Apart (Amazing Science) by Natalie M. Rosinsky
  • The Magnet Book by Shar Lavine and Leslie Johnstone

Home School Resources

Home educators: use these printable lesson PDFs to teach this lesson to your home schoolers. They're available in English and Spanish.

Home/School Connections

Las Conexiones a la Casa

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Content Provided By

Common Core State Standards Initiative – These lessons are aligned with the Common Core State Standards ("CCSS"). The CCSS provide a consistent, clear understanding of the concepts and skills children are expected to learn and guide teachers to provide their students with opportunities to gain these important skills and foundational knowledge [1]. Visit the CCSS