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What is a material?

This week we will focus on the topic of materials and their properties, and some common misconceptions that children might have related to this topic. But first, we’ll consider what we mean by ‘material’.

Materials are all around us. They can be natural or manufactured and make up the substance of everything in the Universe. The Oxford Dictionary defines material as “the matter from which a thing is or can be made.” Materials have mass, take up space and can be shaped or modified to make something.

However, ask a child what a material is and you’re likely to be told that it is something you would make clothes out of. Cloth or fabric. Later this week we will discuss how the everyday use of a word can cause misconceptions in science, and material is a perfect example of this.

Classifying materials

Materials are often classified as natural or man-made, and this can be a good way to get children thinking about where materials have come from. Natural materials occur in the natural environment and have been modified very little. Man-made materials either do not occur in the natural environment, or may have been manufactured or processed from a natural material. It is helpful to think of this as more of a continuum, rather than an either/or classification, as discussed in this article about the properties of natural and man-made materials. This is because it is not always easy to pinpoint when a material ceases to be natural material and becomes a man-made material. Thinking about why a natural material might have been modified can raise their awareness of the properties of materials.

Some common materials which children can look for are:

  • Wood
  • Rock
  • Plastic
  • Metals
  • Glass
  • Ceramic - which includes bricks and tiles
  • Paper
  • Rubber
  • Fabric


Sorting materials into ‘man-made’ and ‘natural’ can be a challenging activity for children. Providing them with a wide selection of materials to classify can provide you with a wealth of information about their thinking.

In this activity you will use Padlet, which is a virtual pin board, to classify materials. You can also upload photos or videos. You do not need to register an account to post to Padlet, but please do add your name to anything you post. Guidance on how to use Padlet.

Add ONE example of a man-made material, and ONE example of a natural material to the Classifying Materials Padlet. If you are unsure about a material, you can add this to the ‘don’t know’ column. Feel free to add photos of things you might use to illustrate that material.

Share in the comments below any materials which were difficult to classify, and why.

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This article is from the free online course:

Teaching Primary Science: Chemistry

National STEM Learning Centre