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Exploring Shadows! Activities for Early Learning Classrooms & Programs

Dec 06, 2023    |   Outdoor & Sensory Play

Spending time outdoors with young children presents early learning providers with endless opportunities to engage little ones in playful learning activities. When children play outside, they notice details about their environment – from the leaves on the trees to the shadows on the ground. Shadows are particularly fascinating for young children, inviting them to wonder about scientific concepts like light and darkness, the sun, and our planet’s rotation. This article describes some fun shadow exploration activities to enjoy with children during outdoor play.

Activities for Exploring Shadows with Young Children

As a note, each of the activities listed below should be set up in the morning or afternoon when the sun is not directly overhead, so a nice shadow will be cast. You’ll want to avoid the hour before and after noontime, because at that time you are less likely to see shadows that are large enough for activities.

Animal Shadow Tracing

For this simple activity, all you will need is paper, pencils (or other writing utensils like crayons or fine markers), small toy animals (such as dinosaurs, lego animals, farm animals, or other small figurines), and a sunny day!

Simply place the papers on a flat surface, put the animals on top of the paper, and encourage children to trace the animals’ shadows! As they trace the shadows to form outlines of the animals, ask the children to compare the size and shape of the toy to the size and shape of its shadow. Invite them to think about what causes shadows to appear in ways that are similar to, yet different from the original object. Do they see other shadows being cast around them? To add an element of creativity to the activity, encourage the children to color in their outlines using a variety of colors and art utensils.

Body Shadow Dancing

The only materials needed for this activity are children’s bodies and some sunshine! While playing outside, have children stand in a line and move their bodies, noticing how their shadows move along with them. Sing movement songs, such as Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes or The Chicken Dance to encourage children to make different shapes with their bodies.

Pause during the songs and talk with the children about the different shapes they can make with their shadows! Challenge them to make their shadows as big as they can and then as small as they can. Take a few steps together and notice how your shadows walk with you. Bring the children to a shady area, and watch your shadows disappear! 

Shadow Castles

This activity combines building with blocks, shadow observation, tracing, and shape identification. To set up the shadow castle activity, lay out large pieces of butcher paper and tape them to a table or the ground. 

Offer children blocks in a variety of shapes, and encourage them to build a tower. As the children stack their blocks, talk with them about the shapes that the blocks’ shadows are casting onto the paper. Once they have created a castle design that they are satisfied with, ask them to trace the outline of the castle on butcher paper. When the castle outline is complete, children can fill it in with colors and add other drawings to create a scene around the castle.

Video & Children’s Books for Further Exploration

To build upon these activities and help children learn more about the formation of shadows, you might enjoy checking out the following video and children’s books: 

Cat in the Hat’s How Shadows are Made: A Video from PBS


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