What Can Be Learned Through Light Play?

Light, which we all value and appreciate because it enhances our living and assists our work, is a source of wonder and intrigue for children. Observing how a young child reacts to various sources of light within their environment will make it obvious that providing them with attractive and inspirational play materials which produce light will make their play more enjoyable, immersive and instructive.

So, just like loose parts play and playdough play, light play involving various activities as well as both natural and artificial light sources, can be beneficial in more ways than one. Let’s talk about how the lives of children can be transformed for the better as they embark on a journey of exploration and discovery with light.

Benefits of Light Play for Young Children

Benefits of Light Play for Young Children

Light sources are capable of evoking feelings; in fact several researchers are convinced that light affects not only our mood, but also our behaviour. In the case of young children especially, the presence of light can, in many situations, fuel energy, while its absence can bring about agitation and frustration. Light play, then, can help keep a child in high spirits while boosting their energy levels.

It so often happens that when parents, teachers or guardians are involved in children’s play with light, the kids can learn about things they would otherwise not be able to learn on their own, such as ‘light science’. 

In other words, adult-led light play can be a good opportunity for children to learn basic light concepts, such as the facts that light is necessary for vision, and always travels in a straight line. Through fun experiments and activities involving light, children are introduced to light vocabulary such as ‘ray’, ‘reflection’, ‘shiny’, ‘bright’ and ‘dim’; they can learn what it means for something to be transparent, translucent, or opaque; and they can develop an understanding of how and why shadows are created. Adult-led light play can also help children better understand and appreciate the concept of colour, as light is made up of several different colours; while discussions about natural and artificial sources of light such as sunlight, electric lights, torches and candles can also be a way of improving language and literacy skills.

Light play featuring a childs’ light table – which is a table with a translucent surface or elaborate lighting systems and simple controls – is something preschoolers love to participate in, and this is a good thing because light tables (or light panels) are a great play and learning tool that helps a child develop in many ways due to the wide range of play, science, and art activities, as well as learning experiences, that are possible with them. Examples of the range of possible activities include drawing, painting, writing, and observation of objects like flowers, sea shells and feathers.

Some skills that can be developed in children who engage in various light table activities include color recognition, pre-writing skills, hand-to-eye coordination, and fine motor skills. Children often learn better through visual images; as a valuable learning resource, a light table highlights the subtle details and physical properties of objects placed on it, turning them into a visual attraction worth studying. These effects could ignite a child’s sense of curiosity, imagination and creativity, and help them sharpen their observation skills over time.

Just like the light table, other light up toys for children, especially ones that produce spinning, bright lights in ever-changing patterns and/or colours, provide a means of evoking higher levels of interest. Light play materials easily attract and hold the attention of young children, helping to improve their attention span or ability to concentrate. This enhanced ability to focus can be a significant advantage to them as they take part in school work or other activities, both in childhood and in later years. 

Observing the light and shadows created by a flashlight or other light source on objects that are different in size or shape is a form of sensory play. Sensory play in general provides opportunities for children to exercise their senses of sight, touch, smell, taste and hearing; it also improves their capacity for processing different sensory information through the building of stronger nerve connections in the brain, and is therefore required for adequate brain development.

Attempts at measuring, recording, comparing and describing the shapes and sizes of shadows produced by the light source they happen to be playing with also provide children with ample opportunities of learning and exploring early maths concepts. 

By using a source of light such as a flashlight during an adult-led light play session, children can start to gain an understanding of the concept of technology. How? When you provide a flashlight for your child to play with, for example, you could take it apart and examine the different components together – like the bulb, batteries and wires; then talk about how they work together to produce the light that fascinates them so much. Providing this opportunity for them to explore the inner workings of their light source and share their thoughts about it is a step towards making them technologically aware.

In summary, the many benefits and learning opportunities for children taking part in quality light play include:

  • positive impacts on mood and higher energy levels; 
  • promotes language and literacy; 
  • enhances their ability to recognise patterns and colours; 
  • helps them develop fine motor skills; 
  • heightens interest in exploration, investigation, experimentation and even problem solving; 
  • encourages scientific and mathematical thinking; 
  • increases imaginative capacity; 
  • improves concentration; and
  • leads to technological awareness.

Some Light Play Activity Ideas to Try at Home

Child playing with light

Adults are always encouraged to get involved as much as possible in children’s light play, as they can introduce new vocabulary and concepts which build on a child’s play ideas to promote higher quality light play experiences.

In addition to more popular light play activities such as making interesting shapes or studying colourful objects on a light table, children can be taught to use natural light from the sun to trace their shadows with chalk; they can shine light through a variety of materials such as paper, fabrics, nylon, etc., to observe their different levels of transparency; they can shine light on old CDs, mirrors, and similar reflective materials to observe the way light reflects or bounces off them; or they can observe and take note of how the shadows of objects change in size, shape, and position as the sun steadily moves across the sky during the day.

Light from a flashlight, projector, or any other convenient light source can also be used to create shadows of a child’s hands on the wall to make a shadow puppet show. While the child tries to make different hand movements/positions such as thumb opposition and finger isolation with the shadows they can also develop fine motor skills.