Magnetic Loose Parts

After some exploration of the prepackaged kid magnets at school, I brought in the big guns:  big tomato cans, strong magnets, and metal things.  Sculpture ensued.


I had an "A-HA" moment a few days before the Robot Play Lab when I originally thought of the magnetic provocation.  When I noticed a more traditional magnet provocation in the classroom that I share with another teacher, I saw the opportunity to explore magnets in a real, authentic way.  After watching children explore the magnets at Play Lab, I brought the same materials into the classroom.

The provocation itself was created with some haste:  there were magna-tiles on the table, and I was interested to see if the items would remain separated, or if the powerful lure of the magna-tiles would remain.  Some children gravitated towards the magna-tiles, some towards the new materials; some combined the two sets.

There are many "kid friendly" magnets on the market, and I admit that the magnets I used are quite strong.  I scaffolded that learning by bringing the materials to our meeting to explore together, showing the group how the magnets feel like they are glued together, and how the magnets pull towards each other.  I often bring new loose parts to the group to explore first, so I can get a feel for how the children may engage, and how much I may need to support them.

There are so many kinds of magnets to choose from, and I found that the most important aspects for engagement were the strength of the magnet and the size of the magnet.  The black magnets in the images are about the size of an adult thumb, and strong, so multiple items can "stick" to each magnet.  These ceramic magnets are quite similar.  

This magnetic provocation is something that will look different in every setting because we can all find different loose parts to combine with the magnets, depending on what is available to us.  A search through my things and the materials at school created a collection of metallic items that begged to become original sculptures.  These are my favorite loose parts:  the ones that draw children in to play and interact, but without having any suggested outcome.  The spaceships, houses, and "locked elevators" that emerged over this exploration were inventive and unique.  Because this group is comfortable with the temporary aspect of loose parts, they arranged and rearranged materials with focus and excitement.

This provocation felt successful in the classroom because children engaged with the materials in a focused way, and they truly explored to learn more about how the materials worked as they attempted to make and play.  Many provocations don't have the unknown elements that this one does, and it is always a joy to see real wonder on children's faces as they experience something they never have before.  Magnets feel a little magical, and magic is engaging.


Expanding and Extending

  • Engage families in the process of collecting metal things as a launching point for exploration.
  • Use a vertical magnetic surface, such as a sheet of metal, for a different sculpting experience.
  • Provide clipboards, white paper, and black pens for children to plan their work or reflect on their work through drawing.
  • Add non-magnetic loose parts to the provocation (fabric, paper, figurines for storytelling).
  • Support group exploration and interaction with a large (clean) metal garbage can as a base.