Toddler Physics: A Magnet Sorting Tray

Monday September 26, 2016

Bean has gotten into this odd routine of packing everything she has available into a container, then carrying the container around the apartment. That appears to be the end in itself — dumping out a container of crayons, shoving in a base layer of jigsaw puzzle, topped with Legos, sprinkled with pom poms, discarded stickers, and dollhouse paraphernalia. Then carry it around. Repeat.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to staunch this flow of junk piles around the apartment. Are her toys too boring? Is she over this stuff and repurposing it to something cooler? I’d switch out toys just to see them later in a bag, embedded with seashells and wooden letters.

As always, the solution is: join it, don’t fight it. A preschooler’s got her business, as mysterious as it is. There is no getting around it. So yesterday, I put together a magnetic junk sorting tray.




Magnets are very fun and interesting for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. They are natural scientists, and one of the most fascinating parts of parenting is watching them learn and develop understanding of the world around them.

As a baby, I would offer Bean just the magnet and a few paper clips for her to explore. Babies are wowed that two things are sticking together, and they can experience the force in their finger tips (why there are so many refrigerator magnet toys). Even at this age, she’d test the paper clips around the curve of the magnet, trying to figure out exactly which part was “sticky.”

Toddlers can start to perform simple experiments — I remember watching Bean excitedly sense a paper clip sticking to a magnet, then run off to see if the paper clip stuck to the refrigerator (It didn’t. Confusion. Bafflement. New hypothesis needed. She tested whether one paper clip stuck to another. Still no. Fascinating.)

Now that Bean is a preschooler, I put together this slightly more complicated tray. I pulled objects from around her room and apartment and let her sort them into containers — one for objects that are magnetic and one for objects that are not. The compass really threw her for a spin.

Once she was finished with the objects in her tray, I offered that she could walk around and find other magnetic or non-magnetic things around the apartment too.

It was one of those perfectly symbiotic activities — satiating her desire to put objects into containers and carry them around, while also performing experiments in magnetism. I love when it all comes together.





Source list:

Wood tray came with a Melissa & Doug toy set

Magnet is by Areaware, but I might actually prefer this simpler metal one especially for little kids (magnets aren’t made out of wood).

Tin buckets from the $1 section at Target





More reading:

Finally, a toy storage solution

The laws of mechanics, for the toddler set

My SF fall uniform


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