Light Play at Lighthouse


Digital Light Play Lighthouse

For our last visit of the semester (and our last day teaching in after school at Lighthouse), Lianna and I brought an activity called light play. Light play is a legacy activity in the Tinkering Studio and has seen many different incarnations over the years. Learners explore light, color and shadow using LED light sources, various materials, and a screen. The light shining on and through objects like reflective paper and plastic cups creates fascinating and surprising shadows.




Students created light and shadow sculptures over two class meetings. We introduced the activity using LED lights, motors, and a wide variety of materials and objects. We call this set up analog light play, as opposed to digital light play, which is a version of the activity that we brought the following week.


Day 1

We brought an analog light play set for the first week and were privileged (though surprised) to find that we had a class size that day that was three times larger than anticipated. The room was bustling with pairs and trios working inside cardboard light play boxes. Lighthouse has a classroom set of light play boxes made from cardboard and HDPE (high-density polyethylene) screens that we borrowed. We have found that 1/32" HDPE in a natural finish works best as a projection screen and we source them locally at TAP Plastics.

We structured the class by setting up each light play station with a light, a motor, and an interesting object or two. As students worked, they could walk over to the materials table and grab additional supplies to try. After groups worked on constructing their light and shadow sculptures, we gathered back together as a larger class and tasked groups to share out what they created so far and to give one another appreciations. Though it was hard for students to step away from their pieces, this was a great opportunity for others to take a break from their own work and to be inspired by their classmates.


One group was not able to use a motor in their box because we ran out of supplies. They wanted to have motion in their piece and took on the challenge of creating another type of movement. They decided to try sting and hung a piece of plexiglass from the inside of the cardboard box. The shadow of the star swayed gently and created a motion entirely different from other boxes that used motors.


Another box was entirely lined with mylar. Initially, they tried one piece of mylar, and were struck by the eery, sparkly effect that was produced on the screen. The mylar-lined box created even more bending of light.


After spending more time perfecting their pieces, we culminated class with building a light play wall, stacking the boxes on top of one another. I love to see all of the light play boxes together - seeing the similarities and differences between the boxes as well as taking in the full effect of the entire, cohesive piece.



Day 2

We had a much smaller class on the second day when the students experimented with programming the lights and motors of their light play boards. In partnership with the Scratch Team at the MIT Media Lab, we have been prototyping an app and board to incorporate into the activity to program the lights and motor. The app is designed to be an introduction into programming using blocks. Lights can fade between selected colors, and the motor can spin left and right.


And with that, we reached the end of the year at Lighthouse. A big thank you to the teachers and students at Lighthouse who made the past two years such a pleasure. I joined the team last fall, and being a teacher and collaborator in the Tinkering Club and with Lighthouse's after school team has been one of the highlights of my time with the Tinkering Studio.

Overdeck Family Foundation

This collaboration is funded by the Overdeck Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

More About Light Play

We facilitate light play in the Exploratorium within the Tinkering Studio, as well use it in professional development settings. We have introduced light play to Exploratorium High School Explainers, in the Art of Tinkering workshop, and for Maker Educator Meetups.

Recently, we have been actively working with light play, bringing the activity to LEGO headquarters in Billund, Denmark, to this year's Bay Area Maker Faire, and participating in this year's Scratch Day.

If you are interested in learning more about how to source and build the materials used for light play, check out our Instrucable.

I am really keen to implement this project at my school. Can you please share more information about scratch and the board used to program the lights and motor? Where can these boards be sourced?
Many Thanks

Hi Vanessa,

Sorry for the delayed response and thank you for your interest in this project! The Scratch app and the board that we are using here are both prototypes. Our goal with these prototypes is to help us see the potential for digital light play activities and the way it supports thinking and learning. While at this time we are not developing the hardware or software platform for use outside of the Tinkering Studio, it might be a part of future work.

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