science experiment

November 16, 2009

Light & Shadow Play

Now that it is Fall and the sun is much lower in the sky, the shadows that our little ones cast are very long and noticeable—a wonderful time for light and shadow play!

Light & Shadow as "baby science"

Light & Shadow play as "baby science"

As a toddler, Whitney was fascinated by her shadow, the big black dark thing she could not seem to shake or run away from. It was always there. Whitney would try to run right and then run left but that shadow thing was still there. Then she did discover that if she stood next to dad and his shadow that hers would seem to disappear as it was engulfed by dad’s bigger shadow. She also noticed that on the driveway it was long but when she walked near a wall it would magically transform into a tall person-like thing. (see www.RaisingWhit.com or http://bit.ly/44WMnA) This is classic light and shadow exploration and it is really important as it is our babies’ concrete way into the behavior of “fields” such as light that are not solid discrete objects but instead are continuous rays (like light) or a spectrum from source to end point. Causality underpins all of physical science, yet we are not born knowing how it works. We have to figure it out. Does a ball rolling in front of a light cause the shadow to move or does the moving shadow cause the ball to roll? Light and shadow are the perfect medium for children to explore unique causality and properties and personality of “fields”–  baby physics in the electromagnetic spectrum.

The youngest babies notice when focused light shines on an object it becomes animated with life and calls out to observed, touched, and moved. When a shadow looms up on a wall it will give your child pause.  Light entices the child to explore, and shadows play tricks that heighten curiosity.   Even young children expect solid objects to maintain their basic size when moved, but shadows exhibit a different logic of expanding, contracting, and disappearing altogether.

Toddlers frequently start out believing that shadows act like objects.  A spot of light might look like something running across the floor.  Children first treat light spots and shadows as if they are objects themselves and can be moved or stopped by touching.  Even when children know that they cannot move the spots by direct contact, they still have to learn what sort of things are light and shadow. A two-year old child might try to cover a shadow with a cloth to hide the shadow.  A young two might place his hands directly under a flashlight, not realizing that the light is everywhere between the flashlight and the floor and he can still “catch” the light farther away from the flashlight.  It takes a while to learn that the light spot or the shadow can occur at any point between the light source and the floor, as long as there is a physical surface at that point to reflect the beam of light.

Our little ones eventually learn that light is not a hard and graspable object.  Light radiates from a point and travels through all points out from that source, unless blocked by a surface.  When children learn how light and shadows work they are beginning to experience and understand the properties of fields.  A field is everywhere at once, yet can be shaped by objects in the field. (e.g. the light shines everywhere but can be blocked by a wall, reducing its field).  Fields are different from straight lines of force or a linear action/reaction, such as a ball rolling down a ramp.  Believe it or not by experiencing it, babies are beginning to figure this out.

Our role in all this light exploration is to carefully observe what our little ones are still trying to figure out and muck around with them. Where is the source of light? Where do I have to stand to make my shadow really big?  Once you spot what your child is thinking about, don’t tell him the answers.  Wonder out loud with him.  “Hmm, now how can you make your shadow taller?”  or “I wonder where the spot will go if you shine the flashlight into the mirror rather than on the wall?”  Don’t expect a clean experimental test, but do trust that your questions will generate play with more purpose.

eebee’s adventures has a bunch of great light & shadow play ideas for you and your child in its Figuring Things Out DVD currently available in stores like giggle or at www.eebee.com.