Playing with Light and Shadows

Light and shadows are all around us but we rarely pay a great deal of attention to them. Light, whether natural or artificial affects the pattern of our daily lives and influences our moods and emotions and we depend on light for all of the food that we eat as it provides the energy source for photosynthesis.

Children are fascinated by the shapes and patterns made by light and shadows and are intrigued by the effects of putting different materials on a light box or overhead projector. Light and shadows are wonderful open-ended resources that can be explored in so many different ways by young children, and have the huge advantage of being free.


Activities with shadows

With the children, create a dark place in the setting. Select a variety of objects that will make interesting shadows, and provide a selection of torches of different sizes. In small groups, let the children investigate making shadows using the torches and the different objects. Encourage them to explore ways of changing the shape and size of their shadow patterns. Provide opportunities for children to make drawings of the shadows and to talk about their representations.

Old style overhead projectors (the ones that have the bulb enclosed in the base unit) are safe for children to use as they do not get hot. Provide an interesting range of resources to use with the projector – leaves, feathers, grasses, seed pods, shells and coloured acetate. Encourage the children to investigate the different effects they can produce by building and constructing, and by changing, and adding to, the materials on the projector. If possible leave this equipment set up for an extended period to allow the children to revisit and build on their ideas and discoveries. This would also work with a light box, if you have one in your setting.

With older children you could introduce a simple circuit to light up a bulb. Work with a small group of children so they can share their ideas and discoveries. For the investigation each child will need a torch bulb and a rectangular 4.5 volt battery with brass strip connections. Look carefully at the bulb and talk about what it is made of. Use a magnifier to look at the metal filament inside the glass bulb. Ask the children what they think batteries are for. Using just the bulb and the battery ask the children if they can find a way to make the bulb light up. When the first child is successful encourage them to explain exactly what they did.

Create a shadow theatre by projecting light onto a hanging white sheet, and asking the children to use their bodies to make shadow ‘characters’. This can be done with small groups of children; identifying shapes or people from one side of the sheet to the other. What happens when the child is closer to the light, or closer to the sheet?

In the darker months, there are good activities to talk about darkness artificial lights. Gather together some pictures of lights and make a collection of different light sources – torches, lamps, plug in nightlights, fairy lights, rope lights, candles and lanterns. Find a dark space and talk with the children about different sources of light – electric lights, torches, candles and fire.  Think about things that it is hard to do when there is no light. Encourage the children to talk about their feelings about light and dark; ‘How do you feel when the lights are switched off?’ Use different torches to light up the dark space and investigate whether bigger torches are always better and what happens when you use more than one torch. You could also explore the different effects produced by spotlights, coloured lights or rope lights.

On a sunny day investigate shadows outside. Encourage children to notice their shadows. Talk about what shape they are, what size they are, which way they are pointing, where they join on to their bodies. Ask them if they can think of ways to ‘capture’ their shadows; i.e., painting it with water or covering it with sand. Talk together about all the different discoveries the children have made, helping children to recall and reflect on their experiences and deepen their thinking and reasoning skills.


What are the outcomes of these activities?


  • Children learn that a shadow is made when an object blocks the light.
  • Shadows can be made with many different objects.
  • A shadow can show an object’s shape, but it can’t show colours or details.
  • Indoors, children can change the size of a shadow by moving their body or the object closer to/ further from the light.
  • Outdoors, children see that a shadow’s shape, size, and position change over the course of the day as the sun’s position changes.

Language and Literacy:

  • Children become familiar with vocabulary words such as shadow, light, bigger, smaller, closer, and further.
  • Children practice emergent writing skills by recording their shadow observations through drawing, tracing, and writing.


  • Children describe, measure, record, and compare the shapes and sizes of shadows.


First published in Montessori International, issue 93