What: Drawing around our shadows to see the way the sun moves – and how silly it looks when our shadows stretch or shrink!
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.
What: Circles of “stained glass” patterns made with cellophane and cardboard, to play with winter light.
How: I cut circles from cardboard from the boxes frozen pizzas come in, and cut patterns in them with a Stanley knife or craft knife. Kid 4 and Kid 2 helped me paint the cardboard black (sitting on some layers of newspaper of course). When it was dry we took pieces of coloured cellophane and stickytaped them to the back of the cardboard, sometimes layering more than one piece to get different shades or depths of colour. Then we blu-tacked them to the window to see them in the light!
Extras: We just did very simple patterns with no particular rhyme or theme. I was picking up on the idea of “wheels” and some of the traditional circular designs (the quartered circle, a six-fold wheel, a St Leonard’s Cross) but didn’t talk to the kids about them at all. You could choose colours and shapes more carefully to fit a theme or idea, copy famous windows and patterns from around the world, do more complicated patterns and pictures inside the circles – there’s plenty of room to make beautiful art out of these. The first ones I ever saw were ones my mum made when I was perhaps 4 myself – she made angels for Christmas. I was captivated by the stained glass effect and the visceral sense of how it felt to have colours falling through the windows – I think I danced the story of the colours on my skin for the rest of the day, or just stood there soaking it in in absolute delight. As an adult I remembered the project and thought it would be a good thing to do for Midwinter when we celebrate the returning of the light. As my kids get older we might make another set of these, and let them do more of the planning and the cutting – these ones were set up beforehand ready to go and pretty heavily guided.
What: Decorating the room with “real” rainbows, made with CDs.
How: We chose a few spots by windows that get direct sunlight, and put old CDs there. The rainbows form throughout the day, moving, shrinking, appearing and disappearing with the sunbeams.
As an activity this takes no time at all, unless you do it as a discovery project (see Extras). The beauty of it is in what it does to a room that you’re spending a lot of time in. Our CDs are in our north-facing front lounge room, which is the warmest and brightest place for most of the day during winter. The rainbows brighten it even more. For us it’s purely a decorative thing, all of us love colour and find the rainbows peaceful.
Extras: And, of course, there’s heaps of things you can talk about. We went through an accidental-discovery moment, which you could set up in advance to happen if you wanted to. First we discovered one of these rainbows that had formed by accident, and had to find what was making it. That took some conversation and exploring. Then we had to get some more old CDs to try making more. When that worked, we put them in windows – but the rainbows moved! And later when we looked again one of them had disappeared! The idea that things change over time, even if we’re not watching them or even when we are, is a basic scientific idea that kids spend a bit of time learning and reinforcement never hurts. Especially the bit about how you don’t have to be afraid of change because everything *does* change.
My kids aren’t old enough for me to bother with explaining the difference between diffraction (which is how CDs make colour) and refraction (which is how rainbows make colour). It’s enough to talk about how white light is made of all the colours and if you separate them out, that’s when you see the rainbow. Kid 6 worked out for themselves that this was a bit like when they looked through Mummy’s prism. Kid 5 also happily talked about times and places they’d found rainbows. We got to talk about the colours we could see, and whether they were distinct bands or blended into each other, and how many colours we thought there were. That’s always a good conversation, because kids get drilled early on the idea that there’s seven colours in a rainbow, and there totally isn’t. ROYGBIV is just the way it was written down some three hundred years ago by an early scientist, when we named common colours differently to the way we do now (cyan, anyone?). And it’s a handy acronym for remembering the order of colours, if you want to talk about how rainbows always have their colours in the same order, but beyond that its usefulness drops off quickly. (Yes, I have opinions on colour.) Add that to how kids get all kinds of weird-coloured rainbows on their toys and clothes, especially girl clothes, and they can come up with some fascinating and funny observations. Though I still don’t have a good answer to “Why isn’t there any pink in it?”. (I tried saying that it’s just that pink is “light red”, but that didn’t wash.)
What: Suncatchers to stick on a window – one of the activity stations at our make-lots-of-art birthday party.
How: I took overhead transparencies (remember those?) and cut them in half. I also cut out two rectangles of cardboard to use as templates. The kids drew around their rectangle in black permanent marker. Then they took any of the ruler shapes (a standard math set) and drew lines and shapes across their rectangle. Then they coloured in the result with coloured permanent markers.
More detail: I saw this on the internet, done with printable overhead transparencies and highlighters. The instructions were specific about using printable transparencies, because the print-side coating would allow the highlighter ink to stick. Problem is, who the heck uses transparencies any more? I finally tracked down one pack – one lone pack – in the whole of our big-box office supplies store, and they weren’t cheap but I bought them so I could use them for other craft projects in the future as well. I figured they’re not likely to become *more* available. However, when I tried this activity the night before, transparency manufacture has moved on and the “special coating” on these ones wouldn’t take the highlighter ink. Luckily I got a big pack of coloured permanent markers for Christmas, so I quickly removed those from all the art stations I’d already set up (they were for writing names etc) and put them on the suncatcher table. They gave much more vivid colours than highlighters, which I think was a plus. In future I’d just use those plastic sheets that go in files, because you can get a pack of 20 of them for under $3. Or anything else clear plastic!
Party setup: It happened that we had a white-topped desk sitting in the patio outside, waiting for Kid 5 and I to fix it up so it can be his desk. A white surface does make things easier. I made one suncatcher and taped it to the middle of the desk so the kids had an example right in front of them of what those permanent markers were meant to be used for. I explained the activity to the first couple of kid 5s who came over, and they shared the instructions on (with occasional parent help). We easily had six kids or more working on this at a time, and being very cooperative about sharing the markers (it helped that there were about 16). This was the longest of the activities, the kids were quite focused about it, so each kid spent quite a bit of time at the desk. It helped that this was close to the balloon painting which kids could do a little bit of and come back to as suited, so that waiting wasn’t an issue for anyone. The other great thing about this was no paint, so no drying time, the kids could put them in their party bags as soon as they’d finished.
What: a two-layer picture on a clear plastic box, stuck to a window or screen door.
How: I had some clear plastic packets from some gift or other. We took permanent markers and drew on each side of the packet. The pictures layer against each other when seen through the box. Kid 6 could see how this worked when done but couldn’t imagine it beforehand, Kid 4 was oblivious to the idea of planning anything, and I myself didn’t spot how it would work until the first time we held it up to the light while drawing – I’d just been looking for something to draw on that wasn’t paper to keep them distracted on a hot holiday afternoon. We did need to work to get colour patches broad enough – thin lines weren’t very visible. Once it was “done”, I taped the hang-fold to a screen door so we could see it lit up by the sunlight outside. (This turned out to be impossible to photograph.)
Extras: Next time I may go for wider-tip markers to make that bit easier, and I’ll make more of a point (at least with the older child/ren) of thinking and talking about what parts of the picture are background and what are foreground. We can also talk about flipping an image, seeing as when you turn the box around you’re drawing the foreground against a reversed background or vice-versa. This project gives the potential to look at colour combining / transmission – e.g. seeing red through green or orange through yellow. You could also insert another piece of plastic inside the box to get a three-layer picture if you wanted to be really complicated. A related activity would be to try something similar but with shadows and varying degrees of translucency, so layers of tissue paper and card and similar, but that’s starting to get a bit past the age where my kids are now.