Shedding Light on Shadows

Hedda SharapanEver since I started presenting workshops on Fred’s approach to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Math), I’ve kept my ears open for stories of children’s questions about the world around them – and for the way their teachers respond.

So I was especially delighted with what I heard when I was observing my scientist friend Elaine's weekly lesson for 4 year olds. As soon as she came into the room, one of the boys came up to her and asked Why was my shadow so short yesterday? She was planning to talk about magnets that day, but I could see her switch gears when she heard the question, and I loved the way she responded.

Elaine gave full attention to his question, then she asked her own questions to help him think it through. When did he notice it? What time of day was it? He thought it was just after lunch. Then she gathered the children for the day’s lesson, but told them that first she was going to answer the boy’s question about his shadow. What a great way to let children know questions are important!

As I watched her, I thought about Fred’s great respect for children’s questions – and for their interest in everyday science, like their own shadows. He often introduced them to science integrating it with art, like he did on thd video when he visited with a shadow artist.

Fred was just opening the door for STEAM concepts, but he always appreciated that teachers can take learning even further. Here are some ways you can bring STEAM learning to children’s interest in shadows:

Demonstrate the concept.

How did Elaine answer the boy’s question about his shadow? She put a toy on a piece of light construction paper. After dimming the lights, she turned on a flashlight, moving the beam of light over the toy to show how the sun moves across the sky from morning to noon to night. What’s happening to the shadow? she asked. And she waited, giving them time to think and talk about their observations.

With her demonstration, it was clear that the sun creates a different length shadow at different times of the day because of its position in the sky. I would bet that the children paid more attention to their shadows when they went outside – and maybe had even more questions, which is what scientists do!

Bring out the STEAM concepts.

Just pointing out their shadows when you’re outdoors can help children start thinking about them. What do they notice? What do they want to know about shadows (Science!)? You could help them compare the length of their shadows (Math!) at different times of the day, when they’re outdoors in the morning and later after naptime by making chalk drawings (Art!) of the outline of their shadows – or by taking photos (Technology!) of their shadows. How would they set up the room and a light for indoor shadow play (Engineering!)?

Help children notice shadows in other places.

What other shadows do children see outdoors besides their own shadows? Trees? Swings? A fence? What shadows do they see indoors? What do they think makes a shadow? Why do they think we see shadows indoors? When we ask children to look carefully, we’re encouraging their observation skills, and when we ask them why they think something happens, we’re encouraging their thinking skills. That’s STEAM learning.

Just talking and playing about science can lead children to a real interest in scientific exploration. And just your interest in what they’re doing and talking about can nurture a lifelong curiosity about all sorts of STEAM concepts in the world around us.

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