Light and Shadow Experiments for Kids

photos of kids' science activities

I teach a STE(A)M Enrichment class for kids age 3 – 6. One of the hands-on science classes we teach is about Light and Shadows. All the activities here are also great for a Groundhog Day theme at a preschool or elementary age class.
This post includes

  • a free kids’ book you can download and print
  • a shadow play activity – you hang a sheet and shine a light – they use shadow puppets or make hand shadows or shadow dance
  • hands-on science activities including shadows from an overhead projector, a sundial craft, a laser maze game, and more
  • art projects – shadow puppets, paint shadows, silhouettes and sun prints
  • circle time activities and song
  • recommended books and videos
  • an arts extension activity – build a shadow puppet theatre and write a play

Book / Overview of the Science


I wrote a kids’ non-fiction book which covers all the key ideas about light and shadow. It includes lots of easy experiments to try. You can read it (or print a copy) here.

With our class structure, we begin with “discovery time”, where the kids have an opportunity to explore all the activities hands-on, and start discovering how things work, testing theories, and making observations. This allows questions to naturally arise, raising their curiosity about what’s happening. Then we have opening circle, where we read pages 1 – 10 and 19 – 20 of the book, which explains the phenomena they’d observed. We also do the demos included in the book during circle, and then encouraged them to try out all those same experiments during our “tinkering time” where they return to exploring all the activities, this time with a theoretical framework for what they’re seeing. In closing circle, we read pages 11 – 18 about about daytime and night-time shadows, and pages 21 – 22 which talk about shadow puppet theatre and hand shadows – this prepares us for reading Shadow Night.

Shadow Play

Shadow Play Set-Up

The surface: You could simply shine a bright light on a wall or a white board, and let your children dance between the light and the wall. But, it’s even cooler if you can see BOTH sides of the surface the shadow is cast on. My co-teacher built a fabulous screen of a white sheet supported by a PVC frame. It was held up by two very heavy patio umbrella stands so even with a fair amount of rough-housing, it never came close to tipping over. Alternatively, you could hang a white shower curtain or sheet in a doorway, either with a tension rod, or just taping it above the door frame.


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

You could also use colored lights. (Read about our multi-colored light experiment.)

The “invitations to play”:

Hand Shadows: We put up posters showing diagrams of hand positions for shadow puppets to inspire them to play with hand shadows. I made a poster showing how to do the 7 shadow puppets that appear in the book Shadow Night which we would read in closing circle. (see below)

Shadow Puppets: Stuffed animals and shadow puppets that they can use to make shadows. They could also make their own shadow puppets to test. (See below.)

What shadow does it make: Kids are encouraged to bring in other items from the classroom to see what shadows they would cast. I especially love the combinations. Photo 1 shows where they’d placed rainbow colored translucent “Duplos” in front of the light to cast rainbow light, then put a unicorn puppet close to the screen. In photo 2, a child is standing in front of the shop light, which casts his shadow, and holding a green flashlight in one hand, shining on a puppet to make its shadow. Photo 3 is a Duplo sculpture made by a dad, and a monkey puppet.


Shadow Dancing: Or kids can just do crazy dances behind the screen! (Often kids on the “audience” side of the screen mimic the motions of the child behind the screen.)


Flashlight Play: We also offer lots of flashlights, mirrors and toys, so kids could freely play with reflecting light, and with playing with how they can change the size and shape of a toy’s shadow depending on how close or far away they hold the flashlight, and what angle they hold the flashlight at related to the toy. (This is a direct echo of some experiments from our book.)

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.

Light and Shadow Science Exploration

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. We use this again in Rainbows week.

IMG_20160423_124526883  IMG_20160423_124534777

Challenge of the Week – Engineering Project: Sundial. Create a sundial with a paper plate, straw or pencil, 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 check the shadow and mark a line for the 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 in Seattle is often gray skies and rain, my co-teacher preps a template a few days ahead of time (on a beautiful sunny day) and we do a slightly different process. We put the pencil in the center of a plate, then slide on the paper template, which is smaller in diameter than the plates, then the child marks off all the times. Then we remove the templates and they decorate their sundials. We use a flashlight to illustrate how as the sun moves through the sky, the shadow shifts to indicate the time of day.

As you can see from the third photo, sometimes we put out the supplies for one project (a sundial) and children do something completely different than we had expected… we’re OK with that. (Our only rule for projects is “Be Creative, Not Destructive”, aka “Make not Break.”) We still showed this child how the shadow would shift as the day went on, landing on different Shopkin drawings at 8 am than it did at 1 pm.

img_20170107_142142613  img_20170107_183904030

Optional Outside Activity, if the sun is shining: Students set-up their sundials in the sunshine and see where the shadow falls – and check whether it’s correct about the time.

Laser Maze. We own a great board game called Laser Maze. It’s a Think Fun game, where there are a series of puzzles of increasing difficulty. The child sets up the board as shown on the card, then turns on a laser, sees where it’s shining, and adds mirrors and obstacles to the board to re-direct the light into the goal for the puzzle. Teaches not only the idea of reflecting light, but also a good logic puzzle. Our little kids just dinked around with the pieces, but kids age 5 and up became totally absorbed in working their way through the puzzles.

Reflection – Mirror Boxes. We also built simple mirror boxes (taping together three square mirrors in a half-a-cube shape), and gave kids materials to arrange in there to make symmetrical patterns. Learn more about mirror boxes at Imagination Tree. BabbleDabbleDo has some fun templates kids con color in and check out the reflections of. I also like the flexible, cuttable mirrors, that you can bend to different angles. Or you can tape two mirrors together so they have a flexible hinge you can adjust. Learn more at:


STEAM Activity: Exploring Light Refraction: Put out glass jars and containers, some filled with water, some not. Have posters with different color stripes, and an arrow. Have kids look through an empty jar at the poster. Then pour water into the jar – the image flips.  Have them experiment with the different size jars, with different size drawings and moving the image closer or further away.   (Note: Refraction is the light bending when it hits the water. Diffraction is light spreading out around an obstacle.)  I’ll warn you – I’ve had mixed success with this activity. I’ll test it at home and it works perfectly, and I bring the exact same glass to class, and it won’t work there. I’m not sure why. 😦


Building Activity: We have translucent “Duplos”. The kids build towers with them, then shine a flashlight to see the colorful shadows. The key to the success of this activity is to just leave the flashlight on, shining through whatever tower is currently there… as kids look over and notice that colorful shadow, it intrigues them enough to come and explore. If the flashlight isn’t on, they are more likely to pass the table by as a familiar “it’s just Duplos” activity. My favorite moment this year was when a kid built a rainbow, and we put it on the projector. Check this out!


Light Table and Water Table: Some years, we have the light table out with a variety of translucent items for free exploration and, separately, the water table 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. Other years, we put the light table under the water table to shine up through there. and put all the translucent items in the water.

IMG_20160423_102248525  IMG_20160423_102306974

Art Projects

Shadow Puppets. We had cardstock, markers, scissors, tape, and popsicle sticks so they could make their own shadow puppets. The first year, we made the mistake of putting out white paper and no examples, and there were some puppets that were lovely stick puppets (first picture below). But all those marker decorations on the dragon will never show up in a shadow. What we needed to communicate better was that the point of a shadow puppet is the outline / silhouette. So, in other years, we had some sample puppets, and  a poster with more sample puppets to give kids a better sense of what kinds of designs to make. (For preschool age, you may just want to offer pre-designed shapes to cut out.)

IMG_20160423_102508993  img_20170109_162553338

IMG_20160423_140305081  IMG_20160423_140300222 

Art Project: Paint Shadows 
(Source for idea:

Basic idea: A child lays their hand on a piece of paper, with fingers spread wide, and you spray paint on to it. (Tell them this is like sunshine shining on their hand – the light rays will spread outward and continue till they run into something that blocks them, and that makes a shadow.) When they lift their hands off, a shadow is left behind. Here’s a poster to explain the idea… The poster also includes photos of several ancient cave paintings of paint shadow hands, including some from Indonesia believed to be 40,000 years old.

Logistics: We filled a spray bottle with white kid-safe / easy clean-up paint mixed with water… the goal was to thin it enough that it would spray easily and not clog the sprayer, but not so thin that it would run. You can either put a piece of paper on the easel, and this is a take-home project OR you can cover a whole table with paper and do a group artwork. The first year, we’d 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! So, we now just have an adult do the spraying. Have a tub of soapy water and a towel right next to this project so they can wash their hands right away.

You could also try this experiment with  Body Spray paint. It’s fun because you can tell the kids to imagine sun shine is shining on their hand, and then when you’re done, their hand it still all sparkly. (Note, this stuff is hard to wash off, so their hands (and yours) may be sparkly for a few days!)

IMG_20160423_113828010 img_20170107_142151653

Shine a Flashlight Craft

We found this idea at Gilbert House Children’s Museum in Salem, OR. To prep: cut the beam shape out of black paper. Fasten the black paper to the yellow paper with a brad paper fastener. Then add the flashlight to the black paper. Children turn the top paper to “shine the flashlight” somewhere, and add a sticker or a drawing to show what the flashlight revealed. Turn the beam again and add more pictures.

Here is an alternate method from First draw pictures on a ziplock bag. Then, put black paper inside the bag. Make a paper flashlight with a white beam. slip it between the black paper and the drawings on the bag and move it around to illuminate the drawings.

Animated GIF

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


This activity is best for 6 – 7 year olds. The younger ones have 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 toys / action figures and have them trace and color in their shadows on paper. I prefer the sculpture activity where they go home with BOTH the shadow tracing AND the sculpture it’s based on, but for little ones, it was just too tricky.  If you use toys, be sure to choose ones that make fun shadows!

img_20170107_142101523_hdr  img_20170107_142118997_hdr

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.

Silhouettes. Put paper on wall. Have the child sit sideways in front of the table. Shine a bright light on them and trace their silhouette. I recently had a conversation with someone about how this was a “thing” in the 60’s or 70’s, so all of us who were kids back then remember having a silhouette of ourselves.

Projection Tubes: I love this easy idea from Moon Child Adventures. Cover one end of a TP tube with saran wrap. Rubber band it. Put a foam sticker on. Now shine a light through it at the wall. It projects the image.

shadow tubes

Summer 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 captured 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 very sunny summer days.

Opening Circle:

This is how we did it last year, before I wrote the book we used this year.

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), and my variant. Have the kids mimic the shadow shapes as you sing about them..

I see shadows,  I see shadows,
On the wall,  In the hall.
Some are short and scary,
Some are round and hairy,
Some are small, Some are tall.

Closing Circle

One teacher read the book Shadow Night (see below) while the other acted out the puppet show with hand puppets at the shadow screen. One of my favorite circle times of the year! (Note: one year we didn’t have the book, because we failed to pick it up at the library the day before. So I scribbled out a similar Shadow Story that we could use.)

Books (contains affiliate links)

Stories about Shadows

  • Shadow Night by Chorao. 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, one teacher read the book where the kids could see it, and the other made 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, it works, when used in conjunction with the shadow screen.

IMG_20160513_162453401  IMG_20160513_162517308

  • 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.

Non-Fiction Books on Light and Shadow

  • What Makes a Shadow by Bulla, illus by Otani. (Video of read-aloud.) This is an engaging, clear overview of the science of shadows for kids age 4 – 6. Highly recommended. It’s a little long to read straight through for a preschool level, but could be broken up into two group times.
  • 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.)
  • More ideas for demos and activities here:


Optional Arts Extension – Shadow Puppet Theatre



  1. Hello! For one of my classes, I am teaching a group of students about light and shadows and love the building activity:) Where did you get the translucent duplos?


  2. […] shadow screen – build a simple PVC frame to hang thin white cotton fabric, put a bright shop light behind it and chairs for an audience in front of it, and children can perform shadow dances, do shadow puppet shows, and make hand shadows on it. You can also place an old style overhead projector behind it (or where it can shine on a wall) and children can place items on it that create interesting shadows […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s