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Light and Shadow

From the classroom of Pam Gonzales, Westside Baptist

The children have been deeply interested in learning more about how shadows are made. It’s always a great idea to capitalize on children’s interests, so we helped them develop some experiments to investigate and discover more.

We started our investigation by asking what children already know about light. When children think about what they already know and make connections to new information, they are able to build a stronger understanding. We encouraged children to talk about what kinds of light they could remember. We talked about the differences between artificial (or man-made) light and natural light sources.

After thinking about which were natural and which were artificial, the children came up with this list:


  • Sun
  • Star
  • Moon
  • Angels
  • Fire
  • Lightning



  • Lamp
  • Flashlight
  • Fireworks
  • Shoes
  • Cars
  • Fire trucks
  • Trains
  • Shirts
  • iPad
  • Phones
  • Projector


Sorting and classifying are critical skills for scientists of all varieties. In fact, classification is a foundation-al skill for just about every subject. Giving children lots of practice thinking about how to classify information like this helps them develop strong thinking skills.

As a side note, I found it interesting that they included "shoes" and "shirts" on the list. I don’t think I would have come up with those, but now that so many children’s shoes and even clothes have lights built in, the children thought of these immediately. I thought that was a fascinating insight into the differences between children’s more flexible minds and our adult minds. I love it when the children surprise me with their thinking!

We also encouraged children to talk about what they already knew about shadows. We heard interesting responses like, “A shadow is darkness” and, “A light makes a shadow.”

We spent the morning playing with the light and experimenting with how light and objects interact to make shadows. We talked about “opaque,” “transparent,” and “translucent” objects and the differences in the shadows each type of material makes. The children were so interested in learning, we decided to make some ARTifacts to help us in our investigations.


Children made their own “opaque puppets” by cutting out shapes and decorating them.

The children cut out shapes from card stock and figured out how to tape their shapes to a craft stick (which was *great* for developing problem-solving skills). Children chose different strategies for creating their opaque puppets. Some traced and cut out their hands, some used stencils and some cut free-form shapes. Children decorated their puppets in a variety of ways. It’s interesting to see what decisions children make when they are free to create whatever they like.

We also used whiteboard markers to create puppets that were both transparent and opaque. This produced interesting (and beautiful) effects.


The transparency paper was a wonderful medium for creating *gorgeous* artwork!  A little bit of water on top of the whiteboard markers had an amazing effect and created interesting shadows!>

Then, we looked back at our chart and asked the children to think about which light sources they’d like to investigate. They picked sunlight, flashlights, and the projector.

We experimented with our various ARTifact creations and the different light sources. The children loved turning out the lights and using the projector and flashlights to look at the shapes and pictures they made. They also loved taking their shadow puppets outside and seeing the shadows the puppets and their bodies made.



Our bodies and our ARTifacts made fascinating shadows in the bright Florida sun. 

The children noticed that the colors on their puppets did not appear in the shadows.



The children were interested to notice that the projector’s blue light still cast a black shadow when it hit the opaque puppets.


Sunlight shone through the “empty” parts of our transparency drawings, but the opaque markers made shadows that were the same colors as the drawings.  Our hands and the window frames were opaque and created shadows.  The children were transfixed by these differences, by the power of light, and by their ARTifacts!




Shining the flashlight through the beautiful transparency pictures created interesting shadows and kept the colors mostly intact.

We try to balance asking good questions with time to freely investigate and play because we believe it’s incredibly important to encourage children to think and talk about what they notice while they investigate. Play and fun are important for learning at this age and children will learn as they play. However, it is when children have opportunities to stretch their thinking and to become conscious of what they are discovering that the magic of learning happens.


Here are some of the amazing discoveries our friends made:

  • “The sun made the picture go on the table!”
  • What happened when you moved the shape closer to the light?  “It got bigger!”
  • What happened when you moved the shape farther from the light?  “My shape got smaller!”

Did you see the colors reflect more in the sun or the flashlight?  “The sunshine.  I think be-cause the sun is brighter than the flashlight.”

The effects of the blue projector light on both the colors on our transparency papers and the shadows they cast were fascinating. The light made the colors appear monochromatic (another wonderful vocabulary word we used), which was a bit of a surprise to us all.

Having a chance to talk about what they are noticing and discovering helps make the learning deeper and more permanent for the children. When we give them opportunities to think through questions and consider why things are the way they are, we give them the sense that they can learn anything, that their thinking is important, and that they have the skills, talents, and abilities to find the answers to their own questions. Thinking and learning are powerful and it’s our job as teachers to help children love to discover and to believe in their abilities as learners.

What an amazing day we had exploring light and shadow. The children loved it so much, they spent much of the day making more opaque and transparent puppets and have asked to use the light sources again and again!


Why didn't we see the transparency colors in the projector?  “Because the light was blue and we could not see the colors (we drew on the transparency pa-per).”

Shadow Box

It’s a fairly universal truth that: kids + flashlights = joy.

I’ve never had a kid look at a flashlight, pout, and whine, “Do I have to play with that?” Not once. Ever.

Flashlights are powerful learning tools for children. They offer kids the opportunity to control and manipulate their world in a simple, but dramatic way. You can hand a kid a flashlight and with absolutely no support from you, he’ll figure out something to do with it, have fun, and learn something.

However, it is when teachers help facilitate, to extend the children’s thinking, that the magic happens.

When teachers ask questions like,

  • “What do you think will happen to the shadow if we move the light farther away?” or,
  • “How could you make the shadow smaller?” or,
  • “It looks like the top comes off! What do you think we’ll see when we open the flashlight?”,

We encourage children to think, explore, discover and learn

When we ask and guide instead of tell and instruct, we open the world for children. We teach them that they can find the answers to their own questions. We teach them to wonder and to ask, and we teach them to want to know. We can give the power of learning and the ownership of knowledge to children.

Teaching science to preschoolers isn't about teaching them facts. It isn't about telling them how Edison invented the light bulb. In fact, it might shock you to find out that Edison didn't actually invent it. That honor actually goes to Nicola Tesla, but I digress. My point is that teaching science to preschoolers isn't about teaching them what the world already “knows.”  It is not about teaching them how to answer questions correctly. There will be plenty of time to memorize facts and prove their knowledge later on in life. No, in preschool, science is all about fun, excitement, thinking, exploring, asking, wondering, and figuring out how to find the answers.

To extend the usual fun with flashlights play, we put out our shadow box (you can make one out of a large cardboard box, but we built ours with three solid wood sides and a pegboard top).

Other materials:

The two most important ingredients for any learning opportunity are: a teacher to listen, ask, guide, sup-port, and encourage, and time to investigate.

As with any learning opportunity, different children investigated and learned different things. Some children worked on solving problems, like how to get more jewels on the strings and how to tie the strings to the box. Others examined the different effects of the flashlights on transparent, opaque, translucent, and reflective materials. Still others investigated how the flashlights worked by taking them apart, examining the parts, and trying to figure out how to put them back together. Some spent a great deal of time working on glorious pictures on the transparencies and projecting them on the walls of the box with the flashlights.

Regardless of what interested the children, the teacher was there to help them talk about what they noticed and about their thought process.

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