Shadow outlines

What: Drawing around our shadows to see the way the sun moves – and how silly it looks when our shadows stretch or shrink!

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Long Midwinter’s Day shadows, parallel like sunbeams.

How: You need a space long enough to do the shadows, that gets some direct sun. Our driveway is our preferred spot. Also, chalk. Then, it’s just a matter of when you do it. This week’s drawing was in honour of the winter solstice, done not long after dawn, so the shadows are at their longest for the year. On other occasions we’ve repeated the activity at noon or in the afternoon, so that you can see how the shadows point the same direction at a given time (they’re parallel) but point the other way later, or how they are much shorter at noon than they are early or late.

Extras: There’s so much to play with here, in the themes of astronomy, seasons, time and change. Winter and summer shadows are quite different in direction and size. If you do this activity every couple of months the kids may remember what it was like the last time (mine didn’t!) – or take photos to assist the comparison. You could stand on one spot and repeat the outline every hour or two to overlay a series of shadows for that day (older kids could talk more specifically about angles or measure lengths). There’s plenty to talk about how the sun moves, how it’s lower in the sky or higher with the seasons, how dawn is late in winter but very early in summer (if you’re getting up to do a dawn drawing!). My preference is to not talk much about it, but to try and do the exercise often enough that the kids themselves realise that something is changing and start the conversation themselves. Though more often they’ve gotten distracted by the presence of chalk and begun colouring in their own pictures and adding details – and that’s just fine too. At some point I will probably use this activity as a foundation exercise before we play with sundials – both the normal fixed kind and the kind where you use yourself as the gnomon. I’d love to build one of these in the garden with stepping stones! And of course there’s the survival skill of using the movement of shadows to find north, which is easier understood if you’ve spent time thinking about the idea that your shadow isn’t fixed or constant.

Tesselation with blocks

What: Tesselating and making pictures or patterns with blocks.

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Several of the resulting creations, including some that come from putting blocks on top of each other. Note the flower stem is a two-layer pattern. 

How: I have no idea where we got these blocks – I played with them as a child, and it’s possible that my mum played with them as a child too. They are good manipulatives for starting to think about angles – many of the shapes fit together, in fact most – but not quite all. So you can easily spread a tesselating pattern out across floor space, working out from the centre. Or, you can just use them to make simple pictures, tangram-style. We did a bit of both. It held Kid 5’s attention longer than Kid 3, and I’ve played the blocks at younger ages too but this was the first time they really actively got into it and started manipulating the shapes themselves.

Extras: I think this is all in whether or not you want to start talking about the angles, how some corners are pointier than others, whether you want to look at the number of sides shapes have before and after you put them together, surface area, breaking up 360 degrees into equal parts, which shapes tessellate (and do you even want to say “tessellate” or do you want to say “fit together without spaces”, which I think is how it’s been put to Kid 6 in school).