This explainer on magnets and magnetism is intended for our elementary and middle-school readers. If you’re feeling magnetically drawn to read more on this topic, check out our long-form article How Magnets Work.
Magnets are fun to play with. It feels like you have a magic wand! Magnets are pieces of metal or rock with an invisible power to attract special kinds of metal. That power is called a force. In nature, a force is something that causes a push or a pull. Gravity is the force that keeps you from floating off the ground. Magnetism is the force that makes a magnet stick to your refrigerator.
The Earth Is a Magnet
Magnetism is at work all around you. Almost everything that uses electricity or runs with a motor has magnets in it. The magnetic force helps your car run, your microwave cook and your computer work. Even the Earth we live on is a giant magnet!
The middle of our planet is made of two metals called iron and nickel. Both metals are attracted to magnets. These special metals can also become magnets. Our planet is always turning around in space, and Earth’s metal core is turning, too. These movements make a magnetic force that surrounds the Earth called a magnetic field.
A magnetic field is the area around a magnet that has magnetic force. All magnets have a magnetic field, no matter how big they are. Things that are attracted to magnets are called magnetic objects. All magnetic objects are made of metal, but not all metals are magnetic. The only metals that are attracted by magnets are iron, cobalt and nickel. You can turn one of these metals into a magnet by rubbing it with a magnet!
If a magnetic object like a paper clip enters a magnetic field, it is pulled toward the magnet. Magnetic fields even work under water. A strong magnet can even attract a magnetic object through a table.
Magnets Have Two Poles: North and South
A magnet has two ends, called poles. One end is the north pole, and the other is the south pole. Can you think of another magnet that has a north pole and a south pole? That’s right — Earth! If you suspend a magnet by a string, the north pole of the magnet will point toward the North Pole of Earth.
If you hold two magnets in your hands, it is easy to tell which pole is which, because the north pole of one magnet will always attract the south pole of another. Opposite poles push each other away.
Because our planet is a big magnet, it also has a magnetic field. Earth’s magnetic field protects us from the sun’s radiation. The North and South poles have natural colorful light shows called northern and southern lights. These lights are caused by sprays of energy coming off the sun bumping into the magnetic field of Earth.