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Shadowbox Theatre

A shadowbox theater can be used with any unit of study that you are conducting in your classroom, not just with light and optics. Once students understand how the theater works and how light and shadows can be manipulated, the device can be an alternative way for students to share information with the class. Students will discover that making and using their theaters is easier if they identify a few variables and learn how to manipulate them. Some of the variables they should consider are the type of material or paper that is used as a screen for the shadowbox, how far away or close the puppet is to the screen, how carefully the puppets are cut out, how dark the room is, and what kind of light source is used.

Although you do not have to use the word "variable," the concept of manipulating parts of an experiment one at a time is consistent with how science is done in real-world situations. Part of the scientific process of asking and answering questions is learning to manipulate one variable at a time. This ensures that students will be able to analyze their data and draw viable conclusions. They will quickly discover that manipulating more than one variable at a time leads to confusion and questionable results. The more students experiment with the shadowbox and puppets, the more variables they will identify and the more questions they will have. Encourage students to write down all their questions in their science notebooks. Have them compare ideas with other students and present their ideas to one another.

Before asking your students to complete the Shadowbox Theatre activity, you may want to show them a previously made shadowbox to serve as a model. Also, keep in mind that if you wish to have your students perform for other classes, you will need to schedule classroom visits ahead of time. Older students could perform for younger students while explaining to them how the shadow puppets work. You will also need to accumulate a collection of boxes so that you will have all of your materials ready when you want to begin the activity.

Required Materials

  • Shoeboxes or other small cardboard boxes
  • Craft or Popsicle sticks
  • Scissors
  • Construction paper
  • Flashlights or other light sources
  • White paper
  • Transparent tape
  • Various art supplies to decorate the boxes

What will the students do?

Students will construct shadowboxes and demonstrate that they can perform a play by manipulating light, shadows, and puppets. After creating their shadowbox theaters, students will answer questions in their science notebooks about the science of shadow making.

To construct the shadowbox, students will cut a hole about 13 centimeters square in the bottom of a shoebox. The square hole should be close to the short end of the box. This will provide an area to conceal the hands of the puppeteer. They should then tape a piece of translucent white paper over the hole to serve as the screen. Copy paper, butcher paper, newsprint, or wax paper will work. Encourage students to try a variety of papers to determine which make the best screen. Students should also decorate their boxes using crayons, markers, paint, or paper cutouts.

Have students make up a story or choose a story that they are reading to perform, deciding on the characters for their story and cutting out silhouette puppets from construction paper. Students should tape craft sticks to the puppets to serve as handles. To perform, students will shine a flashlight into the box in a darkened room and manipulate the puppets so that their shadows are cast on the screen. They should experiment with the effects of placing the puppets at different distances from the screen and of turning the puppets at different angles to the light source.

Interactive Java Tutorial
The Shadowbox Theatre
Have fun learning about shadows with our virtual shadowbox theatre. 

Activity Extensions

Poetry - Read aloud the poem "My Shadow" by Robert Louis Stevenson. Discuss the poem with students. Encourage them to propose some scenarios as to what Stevenson was doing when he got the idea for the poem.

    I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
    And what can be the use of him is more that I can see.
    He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;
    And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.

    The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow –
    Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;
    For he sometimes shoots up taller like an india-rubber ball.
    And he sometimes goes so little that there's none of him at all.

Writing - Have students write a poem about their shadows. Students can use a word that starts with each letter of the word shadow to start each line of the poem, for example:

    Skinny is my shadow when the sun is low,
    Happy is my shadow when I run and play,
    Angry is my shadow when I go away, etc.

Narrative writing - Use the following as a narrative writing prompt: In the story of Peter Pan, Peter loses his shadow. Pretend that your shadow runs away from you. Think about the adventures that your shadow could have before you can find it. Now write a short story telling what happened to your shadow.

Mathematics - Have students measure their shadows outside at different times of the day. Students can compare differences between their heights and the lengths of their shadows. Then have students graph the data that they collect. Students should be able to explain why the type of graph that they chose was most suited to displaying their data. Also, challenge students to explain why the lengths of their shadows vary. If your students are ready for a discussion about the rotation of the Earth, have them model how the Earth's rotation affects the length of their shadows.

Interactive Java Tutorial
Measuring With Shadows
Use shadows to measure the height of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. 

Reading - Read aloud Henry in Shadowland by Laszlo Varvasovzsky (ISBN 0879237856). The story about a boy who becomes involved with the characters that he has created for a shadowbox theater could spark the imagination of students before they begin making their shadowboxes.

Geography - Have students research the shadow puppet theatres of Java, Bali, and Thailand. Shadow puppet theatres have been part of their folk culture for centuries. The shadow puppet theatre is considered the strongest traditional theatre form in Southeast Asia and thousands of puppeteers are still active producing elaborate shows.

Interactive Java Tutorial
Eclipse of the Moon
Control the motion of the Moon as it moves through the shadow of the Earth. 

Earth Science - During a lunar eclipse, the round shadow of the Earth slowly covers the moon. Using a light source and various sized balls, challenge students to discover and demonstrate how a lunar eclipse occurs.

Interactive Java Tutorial
Solar Eclipse
Control the motion of the Moon as it passes between the Sun and the Earth. 

Historical Vignette: Galileo Galilei & the Moon

Galileo Galilei was a very famous scientist, mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and physicist. He lived from 1564 to 1642 in Italy and is believed to be the first to use a telescope to explore and map the stars, planets, and the moon. Galileo, who kept careful notes and made beautiful drawings of his observations, was particularly fascinated by the moon. Using a telescope, he was the first to discover what the surface of the moon looks like. Here is a description of the moon in Galileo's own words:

    It is a beautiful thing and most gratifying to the sight to behold the body of the moon. The moon is not robed in a smooth and polished surface but is in fact rough and uneven covered everywhere, just like the earth's surface with huge prominences, deep valleys, and chasms.

Galileo collected all of his writings and published them in a book called The Starry Messenger. His book became the most famous and important source of information for many years to come about the moon, sun, planets, and stars.

Activity - Read aloud the Caldecott Award-winning Starry Messenger, Galileo Galilei by Peter Sís (ISBN #0374371911), a fascinating and beautifully illustrated book. Descriptions are given of the many and varied discoveries of Galileo and excerpts of his actually writing are included.

Artist Vignette: Etienne de Silhouette

A silhouette, which looks very much like a shadow, is an outline or profile drawing of a person or thing filled with a solid color. The silhouette was developed during the 1700s in Europe by a French government official named Etienne de Silhouette, who cut paper shadow portraits of his friends and family. To do this, he would cast a shadow of his subject on a piece of paper using a candle. He would then trace the shadow profile and cut it out using black paper. Soon shadow portraits became very popular and were named after him.

Silhouette portraits became popular in America during the 1800s and continued to be so until the early 1900s. Many famous people, including most of the first presidents of the United States, have had their silhouette portraits made. Because of these portraits, we are still able to see what men and women who were important to American history looked like. For instance, George Washington's granddaughter made a silhouette portrait of her grandfather that still exists. She created it by tracing his shadow cast on the wall of his home by sunlight.

Activity - After reading aloud the vignette, ask students to think about why George Washington's granddaughter made a silhouette portrait of her grandfather. The discussion will certainly touch on having something to remember him by. Ask students to think about a favorite family member, friend, or pet that they would like to always remember. Suggest that they make a silhouette portrait or an album containing portraits of several individuals. For each portrait, students could write biographical information and a story about the person or pet. You may, however, first want to give students an opportunity to practice making portraits in class in order that they will have a clear idea of what they need to do.

Grades K-2 Standards

Science: SC.B.1.1.1, SC.B.1.1.2, SC.E.1.1.1, SE.E.1.1.2, SC.H.1.1.1, SC.H.1.1.2, SC.H.1.1.3, SC.H.1.1.4, SC.H.1.1.5
Mathematics: MA.B.1.1.2, MA.E.1.1.1
Social Studies: SS.A.1.1.3, SS.A.3.1.1, SS.A.4.1.1
Language Arts: LA.B.2.1.1
Visual Arts: VA.A.1.1.1, VA.B.1.1.2, VA.C.1.1.1, VA.C.1.1.2
Theatre: TH.A.1.1.1, TH.A.1.1.2, TH.A.2.1.1, TH.A.3.1.1, TH.B.1.1.1, TH.C.1.1.2

Grades 3-5 Standards

Science: SC.A.2.2.1, SC.C.2.2.1, SC.E.1.2.1, SC.E.1.2.2, SC.E.1.2.3, SC.H.1.2.1, SC.H.1.2.2, SC.H.1.2.3, SC.H.1.2.4, SC.H.3.2.2
Mathematics: MA.B.1.1.2, MA.E.1.2.1
Social Studies: SS.A.1.2.2
Language Arts: LA.B.2.2.5, LA.B.2.2.6
Visual Arts: VA.A.1.2.1, VA.B.1.2.1, VA.B.1.2.2, VA.C.1.2.2
Theatre: TH.A.1.2.1, TH.A.2.2.1, TH.B.1.2.1, TH.C.1.2.2, TH.E.1.2.4

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