Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Focused Exploration: Light and Shadows

Focused Exploration

  • Focused Exploration focuses on a specific task or challenge.
  • Science Talks are used to share experiences and ideas, and to introduce a challenge.
  • Exploration becomes more teacher-focused and more teacher-directed, while still validating students' ideas and theories.

Transitioning from Open Exploration to Focused Exploration

During Open Exploration you introduced materials for students to explore light and shadows, and offered them ample time to have undirected play with those materials. As you spend this time observing the students, you will begin to notice a few changes.

  • Some or all of your students will have gained confidence and familiarity with using the flashlights and objects to create shadows and with identifying and manipulating shadows.
  • Some or all of your students may have specific questions about light and shadows that reveal their understanding. How do I change this shadow? How do I make it move? 
  • Some or all of your students will start to explore new ideas about the shadows on their own.

Begin the transition when you notice these deliberate changes in your students' play. Notice what your students are interested in and let their interests guide your Focused Exploration. For example:

  • If your students are becoming interested in imaginative play, begin Focused Exploration with a Shadow Puppet Theater Challenge.
  • If your students are becoming interested in shadows in nature, begin Focused Exploration with a Sundial Challenge.

Sample Conversation between Teacher and Student

Shadow of Student and BallStudent: "Look my shadow is walking with me."
Teacher: "Where is your shadow?"
Student: "Right here" (points to shadow)
Teacher: "Why is your shadow next to you?"
Student: " 'Cause I'm walking."

Challenge 1: Shadow Puppet Theater

Shadow Puppet Theater provides ways to link literacy and science, much like building structures linked easily with math.

Science Goals:

After the explorations, students will be able to demonstrate:

  • Shadows show the shape or outline of an object.
  • Shadows can change size.
  • A shadow moves when its object moves.

Making a Shadow Puppet Theater

  • Use a sheet to turn walls, shelves, tables, or cubbies into a Shadow Puppet Theater. Students can hide behind, or just stand in front of the sheet.
  • Cardboard boxes, big and small, can make great theaters.
  • If you already have a puppet area, you may use that for Shadow Puppet Theater by adding white paper to the opening.

Making Shadow Puppets

  • Give students opportunities to experiment and create their own shadow puppets.
  • Students can take note of which details of the puppet show on the shadow and which do not.
  • Talk to the art teacher and see what interesting materials you can provide.
  • Consider providing Pre-cut shapes to glue together or simple shapes on cardstock for students to cut out and decorate.


  • You can have puppet-making materials out as a center, or make puppets as a whole-group activity.
  • Some children may be able to make their own shadow puppets; others may have more success exploring pre-made shadow puppets.

Choosing a Story

First, choose a familiar and simple story for students to retell. Consider:

  • Nursery rhymes
  • Fairy tales or folk tales
  • A story used for literacy instruction

Then, share the story as a read-aloud and also as a shadow puppet story. Place puppets in the shadow puppet center and let students explore! Encourage re-telling the story, but students may want to make up new stories as well.

After setting up the shadow puppet theatre, give students time to play and explore. Try different objects to inspire creativity: 

  • Stuffed animals or bought puppets
  • Child-made puppets
  • Body/hand shadows
  • 2D and 3D shadow puppets

Science Talk Ideas for Shadow Puppet Theater 

  • Encourage students to draw pictures of the stories they are telling and of the shadows they are creating.
  • Use drawings, photographs and videos to guide your science talks.
  • Create an exhibition to share with another class or with families
  • Put on a show for parents or another class.

Challenge 2: Outdoor Sundial

This is an example of a stationary object on the playground that can make the perfect sundial.

Creating an outdoor, or indoor sundial, helps students understand how shadows can change in nature.

Science goals

After the explorations, students will understand:

  • Shadows change in a regular pattern over the day.
  • The sun is a light source.
  • One object can have different sizes of shadows.

First, Your Turn!

Make a gnomon with clay and a marker. The Gnomon is the part of the sundial that casts the shadow. Now, with your flashlight, can you make short and long shadows?

Think about:

Do you think these shadows are similar to or different from the shadows you and your students will explore outside?

Shadows can change not only over the day, but over the year as well. How do you think shadows change from summer to winter? See the post "The Science of the Seasons" for more information about Shadows and the Seasons.

Getting Started:

  • Start with shadow time outside in the morning, at noon, and in the afternoon.
  • Use the camera, chalk, stones, butcher paper, etc., to help students see how shadows are changing.
  • Chart questions, ideas, and observations students have.
  • Set aside 30-45 minutes each day to observe outside, replicate inside, and discuss with a science talk each day.

Keep in Mind…

This challenge requires outdoor space that can keep a semi-permanent record of shadow length and position.

Recording Observations

  • Take a picture of the sundial’s shadow.
  • Be sure to mark where you are taking the picture! This way you can have a reliable record.
  • Get the whole shadow in the picture.
  • Encourage students to observe their own shadows. Compare and contrast their shadows with the sundial shadow.

Science Talk Ideas for Creating a Sundial

Before going outside…

  • Look at photographs from previous days and have the students make a prediction about what they will see today.
  • Add the most recent photograph and discuss with your students what patterns they see in the shadows.

After coming inside…

  • Discuss what your students observed outside.
  • Let students recreate the shadows with flashlights.
  • Encourage students to draw what they observed.
  • Discuss the Sun as a light source. Why is the Sun so important? 

Science Talk Ideas for Both Focused Exploration Challenges

  • Have students sketch or take a photos of their shadows and share with the group.
  • Discuss with them what their greatest challenge was. 
  • Neighborhood walkabouts — look specifically for changes in shadows over time. 
  • Share books, pictures, photographs, or posters of light and shadows.
  • Invite visiting experts. Invite family or other staff from your building that work with lighting.
  • Create artwork that represents shadows and light.

A Teacher's Role

  • Give students ample opportunities to explore and ask questions.
  • Offer them guidance throughout the inquiry process. Perhaps they have questions but have trouble articulating their questions. Help them observe what they are doing, and work together with other students.
  • Encourage students to try ideas again and again, especially students who become frustrated. "Back to the drawing board!" becomes positive.
  • Continue to offer students small challenges to deepen their inquiry. You may offer "What if" questions such as "What if we place one object in front of another object?" "What if" scenarios are an excellent way to open the door for students to reflect and explore.