The Science of Shadow Puppets

Curtain up, cue the lights! A puppet show is in your sights!


Key Staff

Classroom teacher

Key Skills

Making Art: Performance Skills and Techniques, Composing and Planning, Producing, Executing and Performing


Through online learning tools and the creation of shadow puppets and plays, students will learn how light interacts with matter. This lesson serves as an introduction to the properties of light and its role in creating shadows. While using puppets created by students and performing shadow plays, students will learn, first-hand, what differentiates opaque, translucent, and transparent materials. They will also learn how light travels and how an object's shadow is affected by the intensity and position of light in relation to both the object and the surface on which a shadow is cast.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Make predictions about the way light travels and determine whether the predictions are correct
  • Use online resources to learn how shadows are formed
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the terms translucent, opaque, and transparent through the creation of shadow puppets
  • Explore the way light interacts with matter by way of transmission, absorption, and reflection
  • Make observations about the properties of shadows based on online interactive activities
  • Experiment with a light source, puppet, and screen to create different shadow effects, demonstrating an understanding that the properties of a shadow are determined by the intensity and position of the light source and the distances and angles between the light, object, and surface
  • In groups, create and perform shadow plays

Teaching Approach

Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Hands-On Learning
  • Large or Small Group Instruction

Assessment Type

Informal Assessment


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • Projector
  • 1 Computer per Classroom
Required Plugins
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

For a basic guide to get your students started writing their scripts, see the ARTSEDGE resource, Playwriting Outline. This will also be available in the Resource Carousel above. 

Teachers may want to review some material before beginning the lesson.


  • Blackham, Olive. Shadow Puppets. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960.


  • NOVA on PBS: The Light Stuff
  • Sagecraft Productions: The Puppetry Home Page


Small Group Instruction


Set up computer with internet access and a projector or reserve computer lab

You will need to create a screen for the shadow plays. To create a screen, stretch a large piece of translucent fabric taut across a sturdy frame (i.e., a cardboard box, wooden stretcher strips, or a doorframe). After you make sure there are no wrinkles in the fabric, staple the fabric to the puppeteer-side of the frame so the audience does not see the edges of the fabric. Balance your screen on the L-shaped metal or wooden braces, or simply set the screen on a desk. Plug in a lamp behind the screen. Experiment with different light bulb wattages for the right effect based on the placement of the lamp in relation to the stage, and the size of your classroom and the screen.

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.

Build Knowledge


1. Students explore how to create shadows. Ask students what they think is necessary to form shadows. Explain that a shadow must have a light source, an object to block the light, and a surface on which the shadow forms.

2. Have students create shadows. Use the light from a projector and point it towards the front of the class. Next turn off the lights. Invite a student to volunteer to make a shadow by positioning his/her hands in front of the light source.

3. Point out the three things necessary to make a shadow: a shadow must have a light source, a shadow must have an object to block the light, and a shadow must have a surface on which the shadow forms.

4. Ask students to predict how they think light travels. Does it move at angles, in a straight line, or around corners?

5. Students experiment with how light travels. Break students into groups of four. Hand each group a flashlight, two playing cards (each with a hole punched in it), and a piece of string.

6. Ask students to determine how light moves by flashing light onto a surface, using one card to block the light, and using the string to follow the light that peeks through the hole in the card. Turn off the lights and tell students to write down their findings in their journals.

7. Ask students to determine if light will bend. Invite students to hold the second playing card next to the first playing card. Tell them that their goal is to make the light shine through to the surface as before. Ask students to write down how they must hold the cards to enable light to shine through to the surface.

8. As a class, have students share their findings and confirm that light does, indeed, move in a straight line. Note that, in order for light to shine through to the surface, the holes in the playing cards must be aligned. In other words, the light does not bend to move from the first hole to the second.

9. Demonstrate how if the surface onto which the light is cast is shifted at an angle, the light will still move in a straight line; however the shape of the light cast on the surface will correspond to the surface's angle, thus the shape of the light will have a different appearance.

Build Knowledge

1. Guide students in exploring the “Behind the Shadows: the Screen” section of the ARTSEDGE site, Playing with Shadows: An Introduction to Shadow Puppetry, a link for which is located within the Resource Carousel. You may conduct this exploration using a computer and projector or by taking students to the computer lab. Inform students that, in shadow puppetry, the surface onto which shadows are cast is a screen. Puppets are manipulated between the screen and the light source, and the audience watches from the other side of the screen.

2. Review the terms transparent, translucent, and opaque with students as you read through that section of the site. Reinforce their understanding of the terms by inviting them to shift the slider on page one to see the difference between the materials. If students are not familiar with these vocabulary words, you may wish to provide students with more in-depth definitions of the terms as follows:

  • Transparent: describes a material that allows light to transmit; objects can be clearly seen through the material
  • Translucent: describes a material that allows some light to transmit; objects cannot be seen clearly through the material
  • Opaque: describes a material that absorbs or reflects all light; objects cannot be seen through the material

Have them write the definitions of the words in their journals. Check for understanding by asking students to provide examples of transparent, translucent, and opaque materials in everyday objects.

3. Remind students that, as they saw in the previous activity, light travels from its source and moves outwards in a straight line. An opaque screen would block the light from passing through and the audience would not be able to see the puppet show. A translucent screen would allow enough light for the audience to see the shadows, but—unlike a transparent screen—would keep the puppeteers from being seen. Be sure to reinforce the meaning and application of these terms throughout the day, as appropriate.

4. Guide students in exploring the “Behind the Shadows: the Puppet” section of the ARTSEDGE site, Playing with Shadows: An Introduction to Shadow Puppetry. Inform students that they will be making their own shadow puppets and will use this puppet to conduct further investigations into the properties of light and shadows. Read through "The Puppet" in the "Behind the Shadows" section of Playing with Shadows for instructions on how to make shadow puppets.

5. Tell students that they will have to come up with their own character for a puppet and create drawings that outline each of the puppet's parts. Inform students that they can create any puppet they wish. (You may wish to assign this as homework). Watch some of the videos in the "Video Playlist" section for inspiration. (You may wish to provide stricter puppet-making guidelines; depending on the kind of puppet show you would like your class to create. For example, you could invite students to write plays about important scientists and their discoveries or extraterrestrials from a planet in our solar system explaining the properties and features of their planet.)

6. Explain to students that the properties of shadows will change based on the intensity and position of the light source, as well as with the distance between the light and the object and between the object and the surface. Explore "The Light" section of Playing with Shadows. Have students manipulate the shadow effects by shifting the slider indicating the amount of light intensity. Tell students to write down their observations in their journals.

7. Explore "The Screen: Shaping the Shadow" (page 2 of "The Screen" section of Playing with Shadows.) Students should read this section and manipulate the shadow on the screen by dragging the puppet closer and farther away from the screen. Remind students to write down their observations in their journals.

8. Divide the class into groups of four to complete an experiment. Give each group a flashlight, a piece of translucent fabric, and measuring tape. Have students work together to find the best placement of their puppets, the flashlight, and the screen to produce the sharpest shadow effect on the screen. Students should measure the distance between the puppet and screen, and screen and light source and jot down their measurements in their journals. After each group has conducted this activity, have them recreate the following shadow effects:

  • A long shadow
  • A short shadow
  • The blurriest shadow possible

9. After each group has completed the activities, call on each group to show one type of shadow (long, short, sharp or blurry) to the class and explain how they created it.


1. Have the students use their journals to brainstorm what kind of puppet they would like to create. Make sure they give careful consideration to how they will carry out their ideas. Urge them to keep their puppets simple for their first try and have them outline how they will create their puppets in their journals. You may wish to pass out basic templates that students can embellish with their own decorations. You can make them yourself or find them on the internet. A possible source is: Martha Stewart's Shadow Puppet information. The idea is to get students excited to work with shadows and light through the creation of puppets and plays, and not get bogged down in the actual creation of the puppets.

2. Allow students to construct their own shadow puppets. As you pass out the materials, ask students to point out which materials are translucent, opaque, and transparent. Remind students to pick their materials wisely. They may wish to use a combination of opaque and translucent materials for different shadow effects. Encourage students to use these terms when referring to their puppets. Remind students that they can create patterns on an opaque material by poking tiny holes in their material with a sharp pencil (i.e., stripes, ties, flowers, etc.) Like in Indonesian shadow puppets, these holes will allow light to shine through and the patterns will be visible during the shadow play. Point out to students that any patterns they paint, paste, or draw on an opaque puppet will not be visible on the screen. Once students have completed their puppets, set them aside.

3. Divide students into groups of four to create the plots of their shadow plays. Inform them that each group must create a short, five-minute shadow play using all four of the students' puppets. Before students work with their puppets on their puppet shows, you may wish to give each group time to practice manipulating puppets online in the "Puppet Studio" in Playing with Shadows. Tell students that their plays should have a beginning, middle, and end. You may wish to give students a theme based on topics you have recently studied (i.e., plays based on scientists' discoveries). Or, you might provide the class with possible topics based on everyday life that students can write fairly easily. Possible topics include: riding the bus to school, a family dinner, a day at the ball game, a holiday celebration, etc. Have each group agree on the basic plot of their play.

4. Have students assign leadership roles. Pass out the worksheet, Your Shadow Theater Roles located within the Resource Carousel. Then tell students that one person in each group must take on one of the following roles: Director, Script Writer, Prop Maker, and Set Maker. While everyone should work as a team and can collaborate on ideas, each person will be responsible for completing their own assignment. Tell students that the director is the team leader and should be able to work with each person in the group to make decisions. Each student must also be involved in performing the play and should decide who will manipulate which puppets, who will provide the voice, etc.

5. Have students rehearse their plays. Pass out the worksheet, Creating Your Shadow Play located within the Resource Carousel. Review the worksheet with students and allow them class time to work on their plays. After students have rehearsed their plays, have each group perform their shadow plays for the rest of the class.


1. Ask students to answer questions in their journals. Write the following questions on the board for students to answer:

  • What did you learn about shadows and light while working on this project?
  • What was the easiest part of creating the shadow play?
  • What was the hardest?
  • After watching everyone else's plays, what might you change about your own play?


Use the Assessment Rubric to evaluate students' work. Add the following criteria to the rubric:

  • Did each play have a clear beginning, middle, and end?
  • Is there evidence of effort and creativity in the creation and production of the shadow puppets and performance?

Extend the Learning

1. If you are interested in inviting students to create more elaborate plays, students could write plays inspired by the videos of folktales in ARTSEDGE's Playing with Shadows. For step-by-step instructions on writing tales with your students, see the ARTSEDGE lessons Writing an Original Fable and Folktale Theatre. You might also want to team-teach this lesson with a theater and/or English teacher in a unit on folktales (see the ARTSEDGE lesson Elements of Folktales).

2. Delve deeper into the properties of light, including colored light, with the Science NetLinks lesson plan, .


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

Common Core/State Standards

Select state and grade(s) below, then click "Find" to display Common Core and state standards.

National Standards For Arts Education

Grade 5-8 Theater Standard 1: Script writing by the creation of improvisations and scripted scenes based on personal experience and heritage, imagination, literature, and history

Grade 5-8 Theater Standard 3: Designing by developing environments for improvised and scripted scenes

Grade 5-8 Theater Standard 4: Directing by organizing rehearsals for improvised and scripted scenes

Visual Art

Grade 5-8 Visual Arts Standard 1: Understanding and applying media, techniques, and processes

Grade 5-8 Visual Arts Standard 3: Choosing and evaluating a range of subject matter, symbols, and ideas

National Standards in Other Subjects

Science Standard 9: Understands the sources and properties of energy

Language Arts

Language Arts Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process

Language Arts

Language Arts Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes



Amy Heathcott

Theresa Sotto
Original Writer

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