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What are magnets?

What is a magnet?
Magnets, poles, magnetic fields and magnetism... Find out about the terminology your primary-school child will be using in the classroom and try some hands-on activities to support learning about magnets at home.

What is a magnet?

Magnetism is an invisible force, caused by the motion of electric charges in the atoms that make up everything around us.

A magnet is an object that has a magnetic field (an invisible pattern of magnetism). A magnet attracts or repels other items.

What do children learn about magnets in primary school?

Magnets come in different shapes and sizes: horseshoe magnets (the 'classic' magnets we see in pictures!), bar magnets, round magnets.

Each magnet has a south pole and a north pole.

  • Opposites attract: this means the north pole of a magnet attracts (pulls towards) the south pole of another magnet.
  • Likes repel: this means that the north pole of a magnet repels (pushes away) the north pole of another magnet and the south pole of a magnet repels (pushes away) the south pole of another magnet.

The Earth is like a giant magnet, and there is a magnetic field all around us. There are two points on the Earth’s surface, called magnetic poles, where the magnetic field is strongest. These points are close to the Earth’s North Pole and the Earth’s South Pole. A compass needle points north because it is attracted by the magnetic pole near the Earth’s North Pole.

When are children taught about magnets in primary school?

In Year 3 children will:

  • Observe that magnetic forces act at a distance
  • Investigate how magnets attract or repel each other
  • Sort materials according to whether they are magnetic or not
  • Learn to describe magnets as having two poles.

How are children taught about magnets in the classroom?

Children will learn through working scientifically to carry out a range of experiments. They might work in pairs, small groups or as a whole class. An example of an experiment would be Investigating if bigger magnets are stronger than smaller magnets

Children will explore and observe what happens with magnets, perhaps looking at how a range of different types of magnets behave (looking closely at attracting and repelling, and how the magnet doesn’t need to be touching something to attract it). Children will also be given the opportunity to play and use a range of different types of magnets so they can feel the magnetic field and observe how the magnets are behaving.

Children will work scientifically to sort and record which objects are magnetic (they will most likely be given a selection of objects and a magnet and be asked to test each object, then draw a table or diagram to show which materials or objects are magnetic). 

Books about magnets for children


Magnets activities for at-home learning:

  • Visit the library and look for information books on magnets.
  • Investigate how many paper-clips you can pick up with different magnets.
  • Explore magnets: what do they stick to? What items are magnetic? This could be around the house or outside around your local environment.
  • Do you have any magnets around the house? What are they used for? Can you investigate different uses for magnets?
  • Find out about how electricity and magnetism are linked.
  • Make your own fridge magnets and decorate them in any way you like.
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