Magnetic sorting

When the small boy had a cold and was thoroughly miserable, I had an idea for an activity that might cheer him up by distracting him a little from his runny nose and sore throat. I got out a big horseshoe magnet he hadn't seen before (it's from Learning Resources, although obtained second hand) and quickly compiled a box of assorted household items, some magnetic, some not.  I told him that I needed the things sorting into two boxes, one of things that stuck to the magnet, and the other of things that didn't, and I needed help with it. He rarely turns down opportunities to help, even when he's ill, and was immediately keen!

He set about testing the objects, holding them next to the magnet, and then putting them into two boxes, one for items that were magnetic and one for those that weren't.  The toilet roll core, cloth wipes (we use these to save on disposable ones), wooden lolly stick, duplo and plastic cutlery (obviously!) weren't magnetic. More interesting were the two pan lids; his toy one (steel) stuck to the magnet but the slightly bigger one of mine didn't (which I told him was made of aluminium as he's heard of it before, I don't think it actually is...). We had a chat about how they were both metal, but although they looked the same colour they were actually different metals and only one contained iron which sticks to the magnet. He then discovered the steel cutlery was also magnetic, but the aluminium foil wasn't (he checked several times!). The metal spring in the middle of some clothes pegs was also magnetic, so they went in the box of magnetic items.

Checking whether aluminium foil is magnetic

On discovering a bar magnet in the box, he tried to push the North end against the North end of the horseshoe magnet; it pushed back (repelled). He turned the magnet around and it stuck. I reminded him of when we made a compass, and he remembered that the magnet showed us the way to the Earth's magnetic poles.  We discussed how the horseshoe magnet must have two poles too and figured out which was North and South as the bar magnet is labelled. He also reminded me that polar bears live at the North Pole and penguins at the South Pole!  On the subject of animals, we then talked about the shape of the magnet being like a horse's shoe, hence we call it a horseshoe magnet. 

At the end of his sorting, he proudly presented me with two boxes, one of magnetic things (including the horseshoe magnet) and the other of things that weren't magnetic.  He also seemed a bit happier than before we started, so I counted this as a successful activity!

We've done this again since at his request; he asked me if I needed anything sorting with the horseshoe magnet and when I unthinkingly replied that I didn't, he looked crestfallen, so I rapidly 'remembered' that I did indeed need help sorting some things and jumbled them up again and added a few other bits to the box!  His baby brother also briefly enjoyed playing with the pan lids and the magnet (looking somewhat puzzled by why it stuck to one of them) before deciding the most fun was to be found in bashing the pan lids together like cymbals!