Shadow Stage



Introduction: Shadow Stage

About: The Lesley STEAM Learning Lab is a center designed to research new opportunities for learning through engagement and inquiry-based exploration. In addition to his work with Lesley, Dr. Goldowsky is principal…

A shadow screen or shadow stage can be used to tell stories, set up mysterious or beautiful scenes, pose shadow puzzles, and learn about how light works.

Shadow Stage was developed as part of the Light and Shadow Workshop, using basic tools -- mirrors, lenses, and flashlights -- as the basis for explorations that can help build an intuitive understanding of how light works. Designed for out-of-school-time educators, the workshop is easily adaptable to other educational settings. The activities also work well for remote learning, since most materials are readily available or can be supplied in a teaching kit.


  • Flashlight (The best flashlight to use is one with a single LED, see Step 4)
  • A sheet of paper (tracing paper is ideal, but any paper or translucent material can work)
  • Tape
  • Scissors
  • 2 cereal boxes (or a cardboard box larger than the sheet of paper, or recycled cardboard)
  • Small household objects, toys, etc. as available
  • Recycle cardboard and other materials as available
  • Optional: paper fasteners (for articulated shadow puppets)

Be Safe: Do not look directly into the flashlight. Household LED flashlights can cause temporary vision spots. Do not use high-power or “tactical” flashlights, or laser pointers, for these activities.

Step 1: Build a Shadow Stage

There are many simple ways to build a shadow theater (search Instructables or on the web). Below is one fast and simple approach. Any of the materials can be substituted. The approach here uses a “rear projection screen” -- the light and shapes are behind a translucent screen (a sheet of paper), and the shadows are viewed from the “front” side of the screen. This approach is used in most traditional shadow puppet theaters, but most of the activities below also work if you just project the shadows on a wall or other surface.

There are three components to our simple shadow theater: supports, a screen, and a light source.

Step 2: Supports

Two cereal boxes can be used as ready-made supports to hold up your screen.

Of course, you can also make supports out of recycled cardboard, or any number of other materials.

Alternatively, you can use a cardboard box. This approach is a little more work, but it will help block excess light if you cannot darken your room. Cut a hole in one side of the box, a bit smaller than a sheet of paper. Latter you will tape your screen over the hole and put your flashlight in the box, or cut a second hole for the flashlight if the box is too short.

Step 3: The Screen

Use a sheet of tracing paper, and tape it to the cereal boxes (or other supports).

Tracing paper is very translucent so it works well, especially if your flashlight is not very strong. Regular printer paper will also work. You can also use any other translucent fabric or material. A bigger screen may be better for puppet shows.

Step 4: Light Source

There are a few considerations in choosing a flashlight:

  • Ideally use a flashlight with a single LED. This will produce a single shadow. Flashlights with many LEDs will produce many overlapping shadows -- this can be fun to experiment with, but they will not produce clear shadows.
  • Choose a flashlight with a switch that will keep it on.
  • Most flashlights have lenses and/or reflectors designed to form a focused beam. But the best light source for shadows is a “point source” (a single small light source without mirrors or lenses that complicate the path of the light). If you can do it safely, unscrew the front of the flashlight and take out any reflectors or lenses, then reattach the front.

Be Safe: If you are thinking about disassembling part of the flashlight make sure you/participants can do it safely and can resist putting fingers or other objects into the front of the flashlight when the lens is removed. Do not work with any light with high voltage, that plugs in, or where you do not understand how it works. Do not touch the LED or wires inside the flashlight. If you have any questions about its safety, do not disassemble the flashlight -- most flashlights will still work adequately for these activities.

Set up the flashlight so it shines onto the screen and you see a shadow on the screen when you place your hand between the flashlight and the screen.

You may want to make a stand out of cardboard to keep your flashlight in place.

You could also try experimenting with some other battery-powered light sources, for example, the LED lights sold for Halloween jack-o-lanterns, or LED candles.

Step 5: Using Your Shadow Theater

There are many ways to use your shadow theater, and all of them can let you experience different aspects of how light works. The steps that follow outline some ideas and the resources section has links to more.

A good starting point is to create a scene: experiment with placing small objects between the flashlight and screen to create an interesting shadow picture. It could be realistic or abstract.

Some materials to try: small food cans, any sorts of recycling materials, cut-up toilet paper tubes, pasta, yarn, building toys, figurines, action figures, hairbrushes, clay creations, pompoms, you name it!

An opaque object will make a complete shadow stopping all the light coming from the flashlight before it reaches the screen. (See the glossary in the Light and Shadow workshop for definitions of italicized terms.)

What happens if you use translucent or transparent materials? Experiment with partial shadows from objects that only block some of the light.

Objects that refract light can make interesting patterns of bright lines (where light is concentrated) and darker areas where the light has been partially blocked or refracted away from the area.

Step 6: Shadow Puzzles

A shadow strips away all the information we get from color, texture, and distance perception, leaving only the basic shape. What is more, we see the object from only one perspective. This can lead to some good shadow mysteries.

  • Find an everyday object and place it between the flashlight and screen. Have someone else try to guess what it is just from the shadow. Can you find objects that are hard to guess? If the person can’t guess, you can give them a clue by turning the object and giving them a different perspective.
  • Try using two objects -- by combining their shapes on the shadow screen you can make harder puzzles.
  • What happens if you move one object closer to the light than the other? Can you position two different-sized objects so their shadows are the same size? Can you explain why the shadow changes size? (Remember, light rays travel in straight lines, starting at the flashlight and spreading out from there.)
  • You can also experiment with leaving the object still and moving the light. What happens to the shadow? Can you explain why the shadow changes? Similar things happen to our shadows as the sun moves across the sky. (See resources for outdoor shadow activities.)

Step 7: Shadow Puppets

There are shadow puppet traditions from around the world. You can search for Shadow Puppet on Instructables for basic designs, and you can research on the web for traditions from specific cultures relevant to your group. (There is lots of information on Wikipedia and many other sites.)

Any simple cutout can work as a shadow puppet -- cut your puppet shape from thin cardboard (a cut-up cereal box for example). You can leave a cardboard “handle”, or attach another way to hold it and make it move, for example, a coffee stir stick, chopstick or paper straw.

You can also use paper fasteners to make articulated shadow puppets.

Some traditional shadow puppets have translucent colored sections that allow some light through and create a color image as opposed to a solid shadow.

You don’t need to make a realistic puppet. You can take any small item and make interesting shadows with it -- do they suggest a personality or a character? Arther Ganson, a kinetic sculptor, talks about bringing objects alive through motion. Can you bring an inanimate object “to life” on your shadow screen?

You may want to build a larger shadow theater to do puppet shows.

Step 8: Resources

Research shadow puppet traditions from specific cultures relevant to your group. There is lots of information in Wikipedia and in many other sites.

Exploratorium shadow activities:

Outdoor shadow activities:

Many artists have used shadows to create amazing and surprising artwork. Search for Shadow Sculpture or Shadow Art in Instructables or on the web. Many photographers have also found inspiring shadows to photograph.

If you are creating a drawing, painting, or animation, adding shadows can help add dimensionality, information about where the light is coming from, and even the time of day and the quality of the light. Looking at shadows in art:

This work is made possible by support from STAR, a Biogen Foundation Initiative. The team at Lesley supporting this initiative includes faculty and staff in the Lesley STEAM Learning Lab, Science in Education, the Center for Mathematics Achievement, and other related Lesley University departments and programs.

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