Linda Thornton and Pat Brunton discuss the benefits of playing with light and dark with early years children, offering thinking skills activity ideas.

Playing with light and dark creates magical experiences that both adults and children will enjoy. Light and darkness hold fascination and intrigue, as well as an element of risk and challenge and the opportunity for young children to experience what early years consultant Marion Dowling terms ‘gratuitous fear’. Experiences involving light and shadow enable children to appreciate the awe and wonder of the world around them and provide a rich environment in which to develop their natural curiosity. Such opportunities allow adults and children to engage in sustained shared thinking and to develop relationships where joys and fears are open for discussion.

Exploring natural light

  • Winter is a wonderful time of year for exploring the magic of light and dark. On bright sunny days children will enjoy being outside exploring shadows – their own and those created by trees, bushes and buildings. At this time of year these shadows will appear particularly striking as the sun is low in the sky so the shadows will be very elongated.
  • Draw the children’s attention to what the sky looks like on a cloudy day, a misty day and a sunny day. Talk about where the sun is and why we can’t see it on a dull day. (This is a good opportunity to remind children about the importance of never looking directly at the sun.)
  • Bright sunny winter days often end in spectacular sunsets. Draw the children’s attention to the dramatic outlines of buildings and trees and talk about the different colors they can see in the sky. Encourage the children to watch how the colors in the sky change over a short period of time as the sun sets. Take a series of pictures of the sunset, print these out and challenge the children to arrange them in the correct order. This can lead to much discussion and critical thinking as individual children explain why they have arranged the photos in a particular sequence.
  • Look round your setting and make a note of where the sun shines in at different times of day. Use this as an opportunity to explore sunbeams and shadows indoors. Notice how the position of the sunlight changes during the day. You could try tracking this movement on a large sheet of paper fixed to the wall. Does the sun always appear to move in the same direction every day?
  • Encourage the children to explore what happens when they stand in front of a window when the sun is shining in. Help them to notice the shadows that are created on the wall opposite. What happens when they move backwards and forwards between the window and the wall? Do their shadows change in size?

Playing with light

  • Light can only really be explored properly if the surrounding environment is dark. You can create special places to explore light in your setting by adjusting the light levels where light boxes and overhead projectors are used. For example, a small room could be darkened using blinds or you could use a naturally dark place such as a cupboard space under the stairs or a den under a table made out of blankets and blackout materials.
  • Light boxes add interest to any setting, creating a place for careful observation or for exploring pattern, shape, form, color, opacity and color mixing. The calming influence of a light box invites sensory exploration and engages children’s attention for long periods of time.
  • By their nature the materials that are used to explore light promote aesthetic awareness and an appreciation of beauty. It is equally important that these interesting materials and resources are presented to the children so that they invite exploration and investigation.

Use divided trays or attractive boxes to display resources for the children to use on an overhead projector or light box. These could include:

– translucent materials such as plastic shapes and sheets, buttons, cocktail stirrers,

– Christmas decorations, small plastic and glass containers and bottles

– opaque materials, including plastic and metal washers, discs, nuts and bolts, lolly sticks, paper clips and coins

– things with holes in them, such as tea strainers, mesh lids and small strainers

– fabrics, scarves, ribbons and lace – these behave in interesting ways when used with an overhead projector providing opportunities for discussion and language development

– natural materials such as cones, leaves and skeleton leaves, twigs, pods, shells and pebbles – the outline, shape and texture of these materials are brought into sharp focus on the light box or overhead projector.

Making the Most of Light and Mirrors, Linda Thornton & Pat Brunton (2009) Featherstone Education
Young Children’s Personal, Social and Emotional Development, 3rd Edition, Marion Dowling (2009) SAGE.

  • Links with EYPS Standards: S8, S10, S11, S12, S15, S16
  • Links with Ofsted SEF: Section 3, 4b, 4d, 4f

This e-bulletin issue was first published in January 2010

About the author: Linda Thornton and Pat Brunton are early years consultants, trainers and authors and edit Early Years Update