The 10 Best Magnetic Toys
10. Mudpuppy Robots
9. Thames & Kosmos Science Kit
8. Woodlev Levitron
7. Rainbow Mags Igloo Set
6. Original Magnetic Poetry Kit
5. Holy Stone Doodle Sketch
4. Newisland Building Tiles
3. Magna-Tiles Clear Colors
2. LittleBits Rule Your Room Kit
1. Magformers Building Set
Single People Make Good Magnets
In the 21st century, more and more of the toys our children acquire are, in one way or another, electric. From handheld gaming devices to smartphones, all of these electric devices are inherently also magnetic. That's because magnetism and electricity are largely two sides of the same coin. When a magnet attracts a piece of metal to it, it does so by inducing an electrical current at the atomic level that causes the metal to experience a force pulling it toward the magnet.
When we talk about magnetic toys, however, we're referring to much more obvious magnets, to permanently magnetic pieces of iron composite that conveniently snap together to create an educational, and often architectural experience for children. There are a few magnetic toys on our list that are a little more adult-oriented, of course, but who ever said toys were just for kids?
Magnetic force is directional, which is why those traditional bar magnets have an N and an S for north and south respectively printed on their opposite poles. To understand how natural or mechanical forces can establish that direction, we have to look at the atoms that make up the bar.
An atom has a certain number of electrons in orbitals around a nucleus. These electrons, rather like planets orbiting a star, have each their own spin. In some elements, each of those spinning electrons has a partner that opposes it in the direction of its spin. One electron spinning clockwise has a partner spinning counterclockwise to complement it.
Other elements, however, have one or more rogue electrons who come stag to the prom, without a partner in tow. If a force acts on these electrons to influence the direction of their spin, the electromagnetic current gains directional specificity, and a magnetic field generates around the atom, flowing south to north in the direction of the spin.
That atom has essentially become a magnet, and a material like iron (which has four such rogue electrons per atom), when magnetized, will maintain its induced magnetic direction. That allows north to stay north and south to stay south, allowing one piece of a magnetic children's toy set to attract and stick to another.
Attractive To Everybody
Given the endlessly variegated uses for even the most common magnets, it makes sense that there are equally variegated options among magnetic toys on the market. Figuring out which of those toys will make a proper gift (even if you give that gift to yourself) will depend largely on the person receiving the magnets.
Some of the magnetic toys sets on our list are clearly intended to stimulate a young person's architectural curiosity. They use magnetic edges in much the way that Lego sets use snapping plastic fittings to create cohesion between and among building blocks. These sets are great for kids from the lowest recommended age groups on up, as they provide meaningful lessons in spacial relations to the youngest kids, and opportunities for more nuanced artistic expression among the older boys and girls.
The magnetic toys on our list that are less centered around the act of building usually have some scientific bent to them, as they give children an opportunity to explore the practical truths about magnetic interactions. While these sets might not go very far to explain why magnetism works, they will build a fundamental understanding of the science's tenets in whomever uses them.
Among the sets on our list that would make better toys for slightly older demographics, you'll find sets that utilize neodymium and other highly magnetic elements to create elaborate and often artistic shapes. These magnets are extremely powerful, however, and they're very easy to accidentally ingest if left in the presence of a very small child or an animal. More than one of these magnets in a mammalian digestive tract usually spells surgery or death, so beware.
Across The Magnetic Field
If Max Eisenhardt, better known to many as Magneto, wants to get in touch with his mutant roots, he's going to have to take a trip to Turkey. In Turkey, in a town currently called Mansia, but known in antiquity as Magnesia, magnetic lodestone was discovered and used by the people of the Middle East and Europe, giving the magnet its name.
Even before those days, however, the ancient Chinese had already begun to utilize the powers of magnets to guide the organization of their living spaces toward an ultimate harmony. That practice, which has been co-opted by endless Western interior decorators, is known as Feng Shui.
In the 13th century, navigators began to use magnetic compasses to determine their routes of transit, and more scientific studies of magnetism continued, leading eventually to a comprehensive theory of electromagnetism posited by James Clerk Maxwell in the 19th century.
Our atomic understanding of magnetism wouldn't develop until the 20th century, and the specifics of that science continue to evolve as quantum physicists study the complex reactions of magnetic structures at a sub-atomic level. Will their studies have much of an impact on the world of toys? Probably not one that you can see in toys as simple as these, but those more highly complex electrical devices will benefit from an ever-deepening understanding of those forces.