Balancing Forces - A Magnetic Chess Brain Break

Balancing Forces - A Magnetic Chess Brain Break preview image. Red background with gray magnets

I enjoy incorporating quick brain break games into my chemistry classes to keep things exciting. Recently, while brainstorming ways to spice up a lecture on potential energy versus interparticle distance graphs, I stumbled upon a great idea for a brain break: magnetic chess!

I've noticed students often struggle with understanding the balance of attractive and repulsive forces on potential energy versus interparticle distance graphs (see figure 1). Magnetic chess turned out to be a perfect fit to introduce these graphs. Not only did it break the monotony of the routine, but it also provided a hands-on experience that helped students grasp graph comprehension better. Its success prompted me to share this game in detail.

Figure 1: Potential energy versus interparticle distance graph


How to Play Magnetic Chess:

Materials Needed Per Pair:

40-50 cm piece of string tied into a loop
20 ceramic magnets (120 magnets for about $15 on Amazon LINK)
Alternatively, a magnetic chess game can be purchased for each pair (Amazon LINK)


  1. Pair up students. I like to take this opportunity to have the students share an answer to a “Would You Rather Question” to continue learning more about their classmates, improving classroom culture. Since we are playing with magnets in this game, I enjoy the question, “Would you rather have everything magnetically attracted to you or have everything magnetically repelled from you?”
  2. Place a loop of string between each pair to define their playing area.
  3. Provide each student with ten round ceramic magnets as playing pieces.
  4. Determine the starting player. To help students learn more about each other, I tell the class the student who __________ (has a birthday closest to today, ran the most miles this week, likes the spiciest food, sings the best, plays the most video games, etc.) goes first. If a tie, they do rock-paper-scissors to determine the person that goes first.
  5. Set a timer for 2 minutes.
  6. Players take turns placing one magnet at a time inside the loop, ensuring the magnets are placed on their short side so they can roll. See Video 1 showing gameplay.
  7. If magnets attach to each other during a turn due to their magnetic properties, the player must collect them and add them to their hand.
  8. Play continues until the timer runs out.
  9. The player with the fewest magnets in their hand or the first to run out of magnets is declared the winner.

Optional Modifications:

  • Students can change the shape of their string loop at the start of their turn.
  • Introduce different strength magnets to explore concepts like Coulomb’s law.


Magnetic Chess Gameplay

Video 1: Magnetic Chess Gameplay, ChemEd X Vimeo Channel, May 2024.


Educational Connection:

After playing magnetic chess, I have a full-class discussion about gameplay strategies. For students to be successful during this game, they have to place their magnet in locations where the attractive and repulsive forces from neighboring magnets are balanced. I help them connect this to the lowest potential energy area on a potential energy versus interparticle distance graph where the attractive and repulsive forces are also balanced. Further exploration can be done using simulations like PhET Atomic Interactions.


Benefits of Brain Breaks:

Brain breaks combat information loss, enhance focus, and encourage social interaction, creating an environment conducive to learning. Students enjoy the suspense and excitement of the gameplay. The suspense created as magnets rotated and twisted when a new magnet was introduced added excitement to the gameplay. There were moments of cheers and groans as the magnets would slowly roll and then snap together. Sometimes, to one student's dismay, all the magnets would snap together into one big cluster, leaving them to collect all the magnets and add them to their hand. Brain breaks like this one also combat the "forgetting curve" by allowing students to recharge their focus and motivation. Additionally, they encourage movement and social interaction, ultimately improving retention and application of knowledge. For more information about the research behind brain breaks, check out the blog post: Refresh and Reinforce: The Water Maze Challenge Brain Break Activity


This magnetic chess brain break was a success in my classroom. It introduced a topic in a memorable way, improved classroom culture, and combated the “forgetting curve.” It was quick, cheap, and fun! Next time you are covering potential energy versus interparticle distance graphs, give it a try!