Layering shadow play elements with Scratch

Combining digital and analogue projections


We have been exploring ways to add programming and computation to our light play tinkering activity during the last couple of months. Our experiments have mainly been focused on controlling lights and motors through programming, but we always allow for plenty of time to follow different paths within a theme and explore tangential ideas.

One of my recent prototyping adventures was inspired by the idea to directly mesh computer sprites with the beautiful light patterns that we see visitors create with light play. I had learned a little about overlay projection techniques due to my interest in the beautiful artwork of Miwa Matreyeck, and knew that a combination of front and back projection might work to combine light play and Scratch on the same screen.

A first prototype came to life 10 days ago as part of our Scratch day event in the Tinkering Studio. We improvised a front/back projection set-up with a projector connected to a laptop and a white fabric sheet in a PVC tube frame as a screen. After we figured out alignment and blocked the unwanted part of the computer screen with a cardboard template, digital and analogue projection merged almost seamless.

the set-up: a fabric screen with lights in front and projection from the back side

combining sprites and shadows - a first test

visitor adding a flying manta ray to the lightplay landscape


visitors experimenting with different backdrops for a Scratch programmed rocket and butterfly

I am encouraged by this first experiment and feel like there is a lot of potential for this type of set-up. The combined projection amounts to much more than the sum of its parts and it feels really satisfying to create light and shadow worlds with moving Scratch sprites, I discovered that often what is hard to achieve with Scratch code is easy to do in the analogue world and vice versa. One of the more compelling ideas so far is to prompt visitors to create inspiring and aesthetically beautiful static environments with lights and shadows and bring the environments to life with movement and stories via programmed scratch sprites.

To be continued….


Maker Faire 2017

Maker Faire 2017

Maker Faire 2017

Last weekend once again (for the 11th time in a row!) we brought tinkering to Maker Faire, creating a whole environment where visitors were able to enjoy many ways of engaging with lights, shadows, reflections, and colors. For the first time ever we requested a dark room, which would allow us to continue our recent experiments with Light Play. We were adjacent to the big dark space in Fiesta Hall, in one of the side rooms that have a little less foot traffic, which allowed for quieter and more thoughtful interactions between visitors, exhibits, and activities.

Maker Faire 2017

Maker Faire 2017The main corral was dedicated to Light Play. We sectioned out a large portion of the space with tube wall, and had six stations going on at the same time, two of which dedicated to the digital version of Light Play we have been experimenting with. We went big in many ways, constructing a collective wall of light with 24 boxes, which made for a very nice display!

Maker Faire 2017

It was equally beautiful and interesting from the back too! Thanks to a wide corridor visitors could walk behind the main wall and check out the mechanisms that made the vignettes work. Perhaps not surprisingly we did not have a single episode of “vandalism,” where visitors messed up somebody else’s hard work. I did, however, notice people coming back hours after leaving their box behind to check on it and fix little things that might have gone awry.

Maker Faire 2017

Maker Faire 2017

We played around with signage for the space. Sebastian built a cool mixed media vignette with a rotating tinkering sign overlaid on a projection of Lásló Moholy-Nagy’s film “Lightplay,” which was the original inspiration for this very activity!

Maker Faire 2017

Maker Faire 2017

From the simple activity sign that was nicely illuminated, to a larger color changing stencil sign built by Amy and Deanna, every little touch combined to create a cohesive and beautiful environment.

Maker Faire 2017

Maker Faire 2017

Maker Faire 2017

Maker Faire 2017

Speaking of environments, I feel that we created one of the most cohesive and evocative environments at Maker Faire; Ryoko chose exhibits that complemented the activity very well. Some classics like shadow kaleidoscope saw visitors delight in creating geometric patterns from a variety of materials.

Maker Faire 2017

Maker Faire 2017 Maker Faire 2017

Maker Faire 2017

People explore the Pixel Table both above and below the surface, and it was nice to bring the original inspiration for it, a simple box filled with mylar cylinders. Ron Hipschman was an Explainer Extraordinaire, as always, engaging faire-goers at all the exhibits and really deepening their experience.

Maker Faire 2017

Ron also set up a traveling version of Colored Shadows, where many a pose were struck.

Maker Faire 2017

Maker Faire 2017

And we created a small free-standing version of the shadow wall exhibit, that allowed both writing with light, and with a little bit of creativity (or the strong ultraviolet flashlight that Ron was carrying around!) to freeze people's shadows just like at the Exploratorium.

Maker Faire 2017

Who knows what next Maker Faire will bring, but it will be yet another adventure.


Tinkering at the LEGO Foundation’s Partner’s Meeting

Last month the Tinkering Studio team traveled to Billund, Denmark to participate in the LEGO Foundation’s Partners Meeting. Over two days educators, funders, and leaders from all over the world came together to discuss Learning through Play, which is the focus of LEGO Foundation’s work.

The video above gives a good overview of what we did. The Tinkering Studio set up and hosted three concurrent workshops, to directly engage participants in playful learning experiences and provide them with materials-rich explorations of scientific phenomena. We facilitated Marble Machines, the LEGO-powered version of Scribbling Machines we have been calling Art Machines, and a new iteration of Light Play that we have been prototyping for the last few months that adds programming and computation to our analog version.

Billund Light Play

This last activity, tentatively called Digital Light Play, has been a collaboration between the Tinkering Studio, MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten group, LEGO Foundation, and Reggio Children. LLK developed a version of Scratch Junior that is able to control three color-changing LED lights, a slow-moving motor, and take input from a couple of sensors—all through a custom made board.

Billund Light Play

The app is still in its very early prototype stage, but the main idea is to create sequences of commands that can combine light effects, movement, feedback from the vignette, and even sound and music to explore further dimensions: sequential scenes, narrative, stage lighting, puppetry, and perhaps even large scale immersive installations.

Billund Light Play

We’ll share more about Digital Light Play in future blog posts. For now, enjoy the video and a little teaser about our developments!


This Thursday: Scratch Day at the Tinkering Studio

We are hosting a Scratch Day event on Thursday in honor of the 10th anniversary of Scratch. Come by the Tinkering Studio and connect Scratch with the curious objects and phenomena of the physical world.

Join the tinkering crew on Thursday May 25th from 11am – 4pm to play, learn, and share together. By pairing Scratch with motors and light sources we will create and control beautiful moving light and shadow sculptures. Drop-ins welcome!

Scratch Day at the Tinkering Studio:
May 25th
11am – 4pm
Free with museum admission

Scratch Day is a global network of events that celebrates Scratch, a free programming language and online community where you can create your own interactive stories, and animations. Learn more here: https://day.scratch.mit.edu


Lighthouse Mini Maker Faire

In April, the Tinkering Club after school program participated in the Lighthouse's Mini Maker Faire. Students in our program were the main facilitators of the activity, supporting the students at Lighthouse in making various forms of tin art (if you missed our blog post on tin art, check it out here ).



Before the event, Lianna asked for students to brainstorm tips for getting someone started with tin art. Students built on each other’s ideas as they reflected back on their own experiences as learners making tin art for the first time. Lianna transcribed their responses on the classroom whiteboard and I categorized and wrote up their responses into small “cheat sheets” for student reference on the day of the event. Their responses focused on supporting safe tool use as well as being thoughtful about their tin designs, which I thought were totally spot on for this activity.

Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 3.36.24 PM

Our Tinkering Club students fully embodied the role of facilitators at the Lighthouse Maker Faire. It was great to see how much they’ve grown over the past semesters and their increased comfort with tinkering. Lianna and I made note of a few students in particular and they ways in which they facilitated that day.


Marla worked with two students who were running a booth from Grass Valley. They wanted to make the paper circuit version of the luminaria, and Marla instructed them on the basics of how to work with tin. When they were working on the paper circuit portion of the project, one of the girls had trouble getting her circuit to work. Marla jumped in and took lead on problem solving the circuit. She identified that when she pressed on the copper tape that rested on top of the coin cell battery, the light would illuminate and only then. She tested and made small changes until she figured out what needed to be changed.




Marceline stepped into a mentor role and pushed her skills during the event. She would notice as people were arriving to the table and acted as a greeter. She proactively introduced what was going on and made additional inspiring examples for the table without distracting from the facilitation time. Others excitedly showed off her work and wanted to have their photos taken with them (see her tree example above).

Karla was really thoughtful in how she got people started with the activities. She made an example with a large “K” to show that making your initials is an easy way to get started, and used that prompt to help younger kids who weren’t sure what to do.



Usually fairly reserved in Tinkering Club, Rose found a nice balance between helping others and working on her own projects. She offered options and suggestions to participants, like, “You could try this or that.”

Aurelia was an active facilitator for tin art. She made some last-minute examples in the morning, then stayed to help facilitate through the entire event (some students stayed only for morning/afternoon shifts). She was also very aware of the environment and helped with both keeping the table tidy and restocking materials when they ran low.


Overall, the day felt like a success! We had about two hundred Lighthouse students visit our table, and our Tinkering Club students had the experience being facilitators. Some of our students expressed how tired they felt at the end of the day - who knew tinkering could be such hard work!

Overdeck Family Foundation

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