A flashlight shines through the end of a rectangular construction of colorful, translucent blocks, casting a projections of bright triangular shapes against a blank piece of paper.

Mini Art Lessons offer open-ended opportunities for caregivers of young children (under 8) to explore art concepts playfully and intentionally.

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Best for Ages: 2+
Adult Supervision: Encouraged (for flashlight safety)

Brighten up the darkness with this colorful and playful Mini Art Lesson exploring light. Discover the science of light, shadows, and reflections through artful play. Bonus: you’ll only need a few materials to set the stage for extended play.


Tell Me More

This seems like science, not art! Tell me more. 

Art and science intersect in many exciting ways. Both subjects require observation and experimentation. Art is often the expression of scientific ideas, like how light interacts with different types of objects or how colors mix.

What might kids do in this Mini Art Lesson? Kids and adults alike will enjoy making shadow compositions, building structures that interact with light, and discovering color-mixing reflections.

What might kids learn? 

  • Deepen understanding of vocabulary including shadow, opaque, and translucent
  • Explore the properties of opacity and translucency and make discoveries about how those properties interact with light to create shadows and reflections
  • Use problem solving to make three-dimensional creations that combine different parts

Get Started

Talk together: What is a shadow? 

A shadow is the dark area created when an object blocks light. Anything can create a shadow. You can even make one with your body! Look at the shadows in this picture. What do you see?

Shadows on a driveway and yard including a body and a tree’s branches. In the foreground a hand holds a colorful cube. In the body’s shadow, the cube is reflected in full color.

Go outside on a sunny day or stand in front of a lamp inside. Can you find your shadow? How do you know it’s your shadow?

You might have noticed your shadow was in your body’s shape! Your whole body is blocking the light so you see all its parts in the shadow.

Many artists make art that experiments with light. Let’s take a look at some and then make our own art!

Look at this artwork. What do you see? Describe the shapes and the colors.

Marcel Duchamp (American, b. Blainville-Crevon, France, 1887–1968), Hat Rack (Porte-chapeaux), 1917/1964, Wood hat rack, Edition: 5/8. Promised Gift of Barbara and Aaron Levine.

What do you think this is? Compare the object to its shadow. Do they look the same?

This work is Hat Rack by artist Marcel Duchamp. It features an actual hat rack, which was used for hanging up hats when they weren’t being worn. Although a hat rack is usually an everyday object people use in their home, Duchamp transformed it into art by suspending it from a string. A bright light shines on the hat rack, creating a shadow, which becomes part of the artwork.

Look closely. What do you see? Describe the objects, lines, and shapes.

Olafur Eliasson, Round Rainbow, 2005. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Gift of Janine and J. Tomilson Hill in honor of Ned Rifkin’s tenure as Director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (2002–2005), 2005

This artwork is called Round Rainbow. It was made by the artist Olafur Eliasson. A round metal disk hangs from the ceiling. A large spotlight is projected on the shiny disk. As the disk moves, the light bouncing off of it creates different reflections, which create circular rings of light in a rainbow spectrum.


Try It

Make your illumination station a place to visit and play multiple times. Begin with the basic materials invitation below, and then, over a few days or longer, try some (or all!) of the other invitations shared here. This approach of slowly changing out some materials will maintain interest in the topic and increase your child’s learning. Read on!

First, find the right space. For any illumination station, you’ll want plenty of blank wall space in a room that can easily be darkened. A windowless room will work during the daytime, or any room will work after dark.

Always begin by introducing the flashlight. Have one flashlight or light source for each child. Practice holding the flashlight with the beam pointed toward the wall and away from any faces. Turn it on! Safety note: never shine a flashlight in someone’s eyes, and never look directly at a light or the sun. Looking right at a light can damage your eyes! 

Practice making a shadow.

What happens when you put a hand or finger in front of the beam of light? What happens if you move your hand?

A light shines on a hand. The fingers are closed with the thumb slightly raised. In the background, the hand’s shadow can be seen on the wall.

BASIC SHADOW INVITATION

Set out a few opaque objects (opaque means the light cannot shine through), such as cardboard tubes, wood blocks, small toy dolls, or animal figures.

An arrangement of materials on a piece of black paper and a tray. The materials include paper cutouts, wood blocks, LEGO bricks, and a toy dinosaur. The paper reads “opaque.”

Experiment with different object arrangements and light angles. Talk about each shadow’s shape and color.

A red dinosaur toy stands atop a rectangular wood block. A flashlight points at the dinosaur, casting a large dark shadow on the wall behind it.

SHADOW TOWER BUILDING INVITATION

Go big! Set out multiples of one opaque stackable material such as wood blocks, cardboard tubes or cereal boxes. How tall can you build? Then, shine a light on your tower. How tall can you make the shadow tower? Can you make the shadow tower the same size as the real one? Can you make it smaller?

A tower of blocks casts a shadow on a wall. To the left, a hand points a flashlight at the tower. The shadow cast on the wall is much larger than the actual tower.

MULTIPLE LIGHTS INVITATION

For this invitation, use multiple flashlights or lamps. Shine the lights on your tower from different directions, heights, and angles. How many different shadows can you give your structure? In our model, we made two different shadows. Can you find them?

A tower of wood blocks casts two shadows on two adjacent white panels.

COLORFUL TRANSLUCENT OBJECTS INVITATION

Set out colorful translucent objects. Translucent means some light shines through. You might try magnetic building blocks, colored cellophane, plastic wrap colored with permanent markers, or a clear glass filled with dyed water.

An arrangement of materials on a piece of black paper. The materials are yellow cellophane, flat square-shaped blocks and a clear glass filled with yellow water. The paper reads “translucent.”

Talk about whether you can see through the object or not. Hold it up to your face. Does it block your face or can you still see the other person’s features? Make a prediction. What will happen when you shine the light through? Then, try it! Make a composition or build a tower and test out the shadows!

WATERCOLOR MIXING INVITATION

Set out clear cups filled halfway with water. Add color by mixing in dyes (we recommend using only primary colors: red, yellow, blue). Note: An adult may want to supervise color mixing, as some dyes may stain. A little goes a long way!

Two clear glasses on a piece of white paper. One glass has blue liquid, the other has yellow. To the left a shadow of the glass is cast, with yellow, blue and green reflections inside.

Place the cups in front of each other, and then shine a light through. Notice where the light is blocked, resulting in a dark shadow. Notice where the light shines through and reflects the colors. Can you find where the yellow and blue mixed in our picture?

MIXED MATERIALS INVITATION

Experiment with combining and altering materials in new ways. We covered an opaque cardboard tube with a reflective piece of aluminum foil. Then we poked holes in the foil. Look at the interesting shadow it made! Experiment with mixing opaque, translucent, and reflective/ shiny materials together. What can you make?

A hand holds a cardboard tube with a flashlight inside. The far end of the tube is covered in aluminum foil. On the wall behind the tube, a speckled pattern of light and shadow is cast.

SHADOW MESSAGES

Practice spelling and making shadows inspired by Invisible by Giovanni Anselmo. Try projecting your shadow message on different surfaces (walls, posterboard).

Note: Use play-doh for tough to balance letters! 

An arrangement of letter tiles spells the word “STILL.” On a wall behind it, the words are enlarged in a shadow.

MOVING SHADOWS INVITATION

Make your shadows move! If you have one, a lazy susan can be a great staging area, allowing you to make your shadow composition move and change shape. You might experiment with creating your own turntable using recyclables like oatmeal containers, round pieces of cardboard, or old pie plates. You might also explore using toy cars or a record player to make shadows move.

STORY SCENE INVITATION

A shoebox shadowbox features a screen of translucent blue with black tree silhouette cutouts. Inside the box are small figures and a triangular structure. Shadows are cast on the back of the shoebox.

Put all your learning together with a theatrical production! Create scenery and props and make a shadow play. We created a mini shadowbox by cutting open one side of a shoebox. We attached a screen made of blue cellophane sky, yellow cellophane sun, and black paper tree cutouts. For our props, we placed blocks and figures inside the box. What can you make?