Introduction: Light Play Studios in the Classroom

About: We're the spectrUM Discovery Area, a hands-on science museum in Missoula, MT. We have a physical museum located within the Missoula Public Library, but also create science kits, lead teacher professional devel…

This is part of a series of Instructables intended for teachers about educating students in the classroom around making and tinkering. For more about the details of this project, check out this video on YouTube.

Making and Tinkering can sometimes be pigeonholed into describing doing stuff with circuits or 3D printing or designing small craft projects. But sharing stories and engaging in our the whimsical and playful nature is also important! In this activity, participants can create imaginative scenes using various props and also explore the properties of light and shadow.

Step 1: Materials and Tools Needed

This activity does take some preparation in terms of making the studios, but once those are finished almost anything can work as a prop.

I was impressed by this activity as it was presented at a conference by some members of The Exploratorium in San Fransisco. Here are some links to further information and instructions on how to create the studios and lights:

For facilitation, all that is needed is the following:

  • Light Play studio and 1-2 lights - one studio works well for a group of 4-5 students.
  • Cloth or ribbon - mesh with a pattern looks cool.
  • Transparencies and dry erase markers - these work great for creating slides or drawing pictures
  • Masking tape
  • Solid objects or card stock to create solid silhouettes
  • Dichroic film - this is a really dynamic iridescent film that changes color based on the angle if incident light. It's used in making jewelry and cheap small kits of colors are available through places like Etsy or on Amazon.

Step 2: Make a Story or Scene

Have the students work in groups of 3-6 and spend at least 30 minutes developing a story or scene. It's helpful to have them prepare this with presenting it to the rest of the class in mind at the end. Give them 1-2 minutes of time for their presentation.

Keep the lights on for the first 10-15 minutes, then turn them off so the kids can explore what the scenes will look like when it is dark. Alternatively, have 10 minutes on to work, 5 off to see how your studio will look in the dark, 10 more minutes of light, 5 of dark, etc.

The most important idea to get across in preparing students for this activity is to encourage them to create a scene that tells a story or expresses an idea. For reticent students or those that get stuck, a prompt can be helpful. Something like, "What do the northern lights look like?", "Tell us about how your route to school looks during a certain season.", "What do you think the desert looks like?"

When each group is ready to present, gather the class together and have them visit each studio to hear the story and see the studio presentation of their classmates. This part should be done with the lights off entirely!

Step 3: Explain, Expand and Evaluate

Explain and Expand:

Here are a few questions and concepts to explore during introduction/facilitation of this activity:

  • What is a shadow? How are shadows created? How is this different indoors vs outdoors? What about when the lights are off in the classroom?
  • How many shadows are made on the screen when you add a second light into your studio? What would happen if you added a third?
  • Explain the difference between opaque (light doesn't really travel through - your hand or a block of wood), translucent (some of the light travels through it - example is the light studio screen), and transparent (most/all the light goes through, like a transparency sheet!). Reflection (how light bounces off something) and refraction (how light bends when traveling through something) are also good concepts to explore here.
  • How can you make shadows larger and smaller on the screen? Why does this work?
  • What makes the dichroic film change colors of light so much just by being flexed and bent?


Here are a few things to think about during reflection:

  • Could you make something like these light studios at home? What would you need to do this?
  • What are some cool things you can think of that would cast an interesting shadow?
  • Can you tell what something is just by looking at its silhouette? What about if it changes profile/orientation or proximity to the screen?
  • How do our eyes see light? What other kinds of light are there besides visible light?