Light and Shadow


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This week, we got to play with light and shadows!


Shadow-making Screen. My co-teacher built a fabulous screen of a white sheet supported by a PVC frame. It was held up by two very heavy umbrella stands so even with a fair amount of rough-housing, it never came close to tipping over. (If you don’t have umbrella stands, you might be able to build PVC legs and duct tape them to the ground?)


Behind the screen, we had an LED shop light, which was very bright, but cool to the touch. (PLEASE don’t use an incandescent bulb or halogen shop light as they can get very hot!!) We happen to have an interior room with no windows, so it was easy to get the room dark enough to get good shadow effects – it might be harder in a window-filled room.

Challenge Activity: Experiment with shadow-making screen in Circle Room.

This was a free play station that was available for the whole class session.  We had stuffed animals and sample shadow puppets that they could use to make shadows. Or they could use their hands to form shadow puppets. (One thing I would do differently for next time is make a poster showing diagrams of hand positions for shadow puppets to inspire them to play more with that.)

Or they could just do crazy dances behind the screen! (Often kids on the “audience” side of the screen would mimic the motions of the child behind the screen.)

They could also make their own shadow puppets, or bring in other items from the classroom to see what shadows they would cast. (For example, in the photo of the shadow of the stuffed horse, you’ll notice some rainbow colors – those were the result of putting rainbow colored transparent “Legos” in front of the light source.)

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Art Project – Shadow Puppets. We had white paper, markers, scissors, tape, and popsicle sticks so they could make their own shadow puppets. Next time, we’ll instead have black paper, because really the point of a shadow puppet is the outline / silhouette. Doing marker decorations on white paper is not something that will show in a shadow. I will also put up a poster with some sample shadow puppets to give kids a better sense of what kinds of designs to make. (We had two parents who did some great TMNTurtles and a great Darth Vader mask I didn’t get a picture of.)


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Engineering Project: Sundial. Create a sundial with a paper plate, straw, tape, glue and glass globules.

If you’re with your kids / students all day on a sunny day, here’s the process: Poke a hole in the center of the plate. Tape a pencil or straw upright in the hole. On an hour mark (at 9:00 exactly or 10:00 or whatever), take the plate outside, and tape it in place in the sun. Mark a line where the shadow falls, and write the time. An hour later, come make the shadow and time again. Repeat on the hour all day long till your sundial is complete. The next day, check it again to show that it’s still working. You can pick up and move the sundial as long as every time you set it down, you orient it the same way. (More info on this project at: or

Since we only have our students for a couple hours, and since the weather forecast was gray skies and rain, my co-teacher prepped a template a few days ahead of time (on a beautiful sunny day) and we did a slightly different process. We put the pencil in the center, then slid on the paper template, which was smaller in diameter than the plates, then marked off all the times. Then we removed the templates and they decorated their sundials.

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Optional Outside Activity: Students set-up their sundials in (hopefully) the sunshine and see where the shadow is falling – and check whether it’s correct about the time.

Art Project Hands on “Negative Art”.  (Source of idea:

We filled a spray bottle with white kid-safe / easy clean-up paint mixed with water… goal was to thin it enough that it would spray easily, but not so thin that it would run. We put up on the easel a piece of black cardstock (paper isn’t sturdy enough to support this much paint.)  The child would put their hand on the black paper with fingers spread apart, and we sprayed the paper around their fingers. When they lift up their hand, they see the “shadow” of it. (Note: the back of their hand will be covered with paint, so be sure to set up a tub of soapy water and a towel right next to this project!!)  You can also put a big piece of black poster board on the ground and spray several kids’ hands.


We had planned for the kids to do the spraying themselves (good fine motor practice) but with our sprayer, if you were too close to the paper (i.e. kid’s arm-length away), the paint stream was too focused. You had to stand back a few feet to get a nice spread-out spray of paint – and no kid could stand that far back and not make a big mess!

After these are finished, you can explain to the kids that light rays are like the paint – they spread outward and continue forward till they run into something that blocks them and that makes a shadow.

Sculptural-Engineering Activity:  Kids sculpted a shape or cut a shape from aluminum foil, then taped it to a cardstock square. Then they placed it in front of a bright lamp and traced the shadow then colored in the shadow. (Source of idea:


This activity is best for the 6 – 7 year olds. The younger ones had a harder time figuring out how to make a three dimensional sculpture. If you’re working only with little ones, you might find it better to just use plastic figures and have them trace and color in their shadows on paper.

STEAM Activity: Exploring Light Refraction: Fill several different sizes and shapes of glass jars with water and seal. Put them out with paper and marker pens. Have kids draw arrows or other pictures and look at them through the water filled jars to see how the images change. Some jars will distort images, some will flip them – some have very little effect. Have kids experiment with the different size jars, with different size drawings and moving the image closer or further away. (Idea:


Building Activity: We had translucent “Duplos.” The kids built towers with them, then shone a flashlight to see the colorful shadows. Key to the success of this activity was to just leave the flashlight on, shining through whatever tower was currently there… as kids looked over and noticed that colorful shadow, it intrigued them enough to come and explore. If the flashlight wasn’t on, they were more likely to pass it by as a familiar “just Duplos” activity.


Projector Shadows: We have an overhead projector, so set it out with some opaque items (blocks, etc.) and some glass tile samples that make really cool shadows. Here’s a picture of the items on the projector surface and then their image on the wall, and then a photo of all the projected glass tile shadows (sorry that some of the tiles still have their stickers on them in this photo…)

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Light Table: We had the light table out with a variety of translucent items for free exploration.


Sensory Table: We had it filled with colorful water beads floating in water, and a couple flashlights to shine on them, to shine up through the bottom of the table, etc.


Optional Indoor Activity #1: Mural of kids’ shadows. You could tape a big piece of paper on the wall. Then shine a big light or projector at it. Have kids stand by the wall so their shadows fall on the paper. Trace their shadows.

Optional Indoor #2: Hanging shadows. You could hang a clothesline across a room and hang a lot of items on it. Hand the child a flashlight and turn off the lights – they can walk up and down the line, shining the flashlight at all angles, finding the shadow in the room.

Optional Outdoor Activity: Sunprints. You can purchase special photo-sensitive paper (called sun prints, or sun art paper.) You set it outside in the sunshine, with various items on it for a period of 15 minutes to a few hours (depending on the product and how bright the sun is), then you remove the items. and you’ve capture the image / shadow permanently. (See example here.)  They’re really VERY cool – I love them. BUT… in the Pacific Northwest, I find that they don’t tend to work most of the year – our winter sunlight just isn’t intense enough. I have gotten them to work on hot sunny summer days.

Opening Circle:

We asked the kids what makes light – what light sources could they think of. As they suggested them, we drew them up on the board to reinforce what was said.


We demonstrated a few light sources, including a flashlight that created a very diffuse light and a laser pointer which created a very focused light.

We then talked about shadows and when they see them, and what makes them, and so on. We demo’ed some hand shadow puppets on the screen. We did a little mini puppet show with some paper shadow puppets.

We talked about the difference between Opaque Shadows = No light getting through and Translucent shadows = Some light shining through, and demo’ed this with some colorful scarves and the translucent Duplos.


Song – We’re still looking for a great sing-along about light or shadows for circle. A couple options, both to the tune of Frere Jacques:  (Source 1; Source 2)

See my shadow, see my shadow
Move this way, move that way.
See it do what I do, see it do what I do,
It follows me, it follows me.

I see shadows,  I see shadows,
On the wall,  On the wall.
Some are short and scary,
Some are short and scary,
Some are tall, Some are tall.

Books (contains affiliate links)

Non-Fiction Books on Light and Shadow

  • Oscar and the Moth: A Book About Light and Dark by Waring. This book is a conversation between a cat and a moth that explains how the earth rotates and that causes day and night, explains that light can come from the sun, the stars, electric light, and animals that emit light. It also explains that shadows happen when something blocks the light. A nice overview of lots of scientific ideas, told in a way that not only makes sense to preschool age children, but is engaging as well.
  • Follow It!: Learn About Shadows by Hall. Non-fiction, covers all the basic ideas about shadows. Does a great job of gathering the key ideas about shadows, but the writing isn’t very engaging. Good resource for ages 4 – 6.
  • Guess Whose Shadow? by Swinburne. Pros – the book includes a basic introduction to the idea of shadows, with photos to illustrate the text, then it has a guessing game, where you see the shadow on one page and it asks you to guess whose shadow it is, then reveals the answer on the next page. The kids in our class (age 3 – 7) were definitely engaged in the guessing game during circle. Cons: the photos are a little dated, and not that great, and there’s just a grammatical incorrectness to showing a picture of a shadow of a swing-set and saying “guess whose shadow.” It’s almost tempting to write / photograph our own version of this guessing game.
  • Shadows and Reflections by Hoban. Like all Tana Hoban books, this is a wordless collection of photographs on a theme. Like all Tana Hoban books, I think this one is fine, and I get it to put on the bookshelf for kids to look at it, but I can’t say I love it.
  • What Makes a Shadow? by Bulla and Otani. A really nice non-fiction overview of everything having to do with shadows. Great for 5 – 7 year olds, or to read one-on-one to a younger child, but too long for a group time with preschoolers.
  • Day Light, Night Light: Where Light Comes From by Branley and Schuett. Branley worked at the Hayden planetarium and has written many kids’ science books. Like his other books, this is a really good summary of the scientific facts, for kids 5 – 8. We don’t read his books in class because they’re too long and over the heads of half our kids, but they’re quite good.
  • Science Chapters: All About Light by Halpern. The description says it’s for ages 6 – 9. I think it’s most appropriate for the older edge of that – it’s over the head of the kids in our class (age 3 – 7.)

Stories about Shadows

  • Shadow Night by Chorao. This book hadn’t yet arrived from the library when we had class… but oh, I’m looking forward to reading it in class next year! A boy sees shadows on his wall and is afraid that they are monsters. He yells for his parents, who come to reassure him, and end up showing him how to make shadow puppets with their hands, and then they tell a story with shadow puppets. The great part is that the book is also a tutorial in how to make those hand shadows yourself!! So, I think one teacher could be reading the book where the kids could see it, and the other could be creating the shadows on the screen for everyone to see. The book ends with the boy making shadows on the wall, including a shadow monster. Ages 3 – 7. Although it’s long for a read-aloud, I think it will work, when used in conjunction with the shadow screen.

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  • Moonbear’s Shadow by Asch. When Bear is fishing, his shadow scares away the fish. So, he tries to run away from his shadow and tries to trap his shadow, but with no success. At noontime his shadow disappears so he takes a nap, but in the late afternoon, it’s back! But when he goes fishing, his shadow no longer falls over the water. So, he catches a fish – and so does his shadow! A cute story for ages 3 – 5 that also discusses how shadows change as the sun moves through the daytime sky.
  • The Dark, Dark Night by Butler and Chapman. Frog is headed home to his pond after dark and borrows a lantern. When he gets to the pond, he sees a huge black Pond Monster! (The kids in our class were delighted that they all knew this was Frog’s shadow, even though Frog didn’t know that.) He goes and gets friend after friend. They see bigger and scarier Pond Monsters and get more and more worked up. Then at the end, they realize that it’s just their shadows and laugh and laugh. A nice story about shadows and also about how sometimes a misunderstanding can lead to fear and then when we learn more it becomes less scary. Fun for ages 3 – 6.
  • Lights Out by Medearis and Tadgell. Part of the Just for You series featuring African American families. Nice illustrations, good rhythm and rhyme to the text. “‘Good night, sleep tight!’ Daddy tucks me in. Out go the lights. Now the fun begins!” Sweet story of a daddy tucking a child in to bed, then her sneaking out to look at the city lights and make hand shadow puppets and then sneak back into bed. Nice preschool read-aloud or easy read for a new reader.
  • Nothing Sticks Like a Shadow by Tompert and Munsinger. Age 5 – 7 – a much longer book than I would read at story-time, but might work well one on one at home or as a naptime read at a preschool. Fun, silly story about a rabbit who tries lots of ways to escape his shadow – leaping away, sweeping it away, pulling it off, cutting it off….
  • My Shadow by Stevenson. This is a poem from the late 1800’s by Robert Louis Stevenson, and many illustrated versions exist. Some of the words are dated: “he stays so close beside me, he’s a coward you can see. I’d think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me!” but overall, still appealing to modern preschool-aged children if the illustrations appeal.

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