Homemade {Easy, Low-cost} Light Table

You’ll be amazed at how easy it is to make an inexpensive DIY light table.

DIY light table that's easy and affordable

Light tables like this are great for preschoolers, as they inspire them with sorting and designing compositions. Light Tables are wonderful for exploring the play of light, shadow, color, and transparency. Their unique nature can add a magical element to child’s play and encourage curiosity, exploration, and problem-solving.

If you’ve been following my blog, you may remember the overhead projector that we salvaged for just $5 from Stanford’s Re-Use Department or the DIY Light Table that we filled with salt and water beads.

Build a Light Table

I wanted to include a light box tutorial in my forthcoming book and recognized that our light box wouldn’t be easy for other parents or caregivers to replicate, so I started tinkering. Once I wrapped my head around this project, it couldn’t have been simpler.

Like painfully simple! Wait ’til you see.

If you don’t already have one of these, you’ll wonder why not.

make your own light table

DIY Light Box Materials

  • Under-the-bed style clear storage box. This Rubbermaid Storage Box (affiliate) is fantastic and this one with a snap top lid also looks great. I’ve also spotted really nice boxes at IKEA, which may be worth hunting down.
  • White Tissue Paper (the kind you wrap gifts with), wax paper, or tracing paper. My preference is white tissue paper. Stay clear of parchment paper as it’s impossible to tape it to anything.
  • Clear Tape
  • String of holiday lights
  • Extension cord: optional


  1. Tissue Paper: Line the inside of the lid with tissue paper and tape it in place. Use clear tape so that the tape doesn’t show. 
  2. Holiday Lights: Spread a string of holiday lights around the inside of your box. The cord will dangle out. We were able to close our box on the cord, but this isn’t necessary.
  3. Play! Place a few bowls of transparent manipulative materials near the light box and invite your child to create.
  4. Seed the project: My kids are most responsive to this invitation if I seed the table with a few ideas. I set all of the materials out as you see in the photo above. My 2-year old saw this and added a red circle in the middle of one of the “flowers.” Then she decided to build a whole series of flowers with my assistance (below).

Homemade Light Box

Materials for the Light Table

affiliate links

Inspiring objects for light table

More cool design materials that you might enjoy

Store-bought Light Box Options

If making your own light box doesn’t appeal to you, there’s an enormous selection of store-bought options to choose from. We also have a sweet little 5″ x 7″ Gagne Light Panel that I found at a local art store. Dbmier makes a similar tracing pad that’s recommended for stenciling, 2D Animation, Calligraphy, Embossing, Scrapbooking, Sketching & Drawing, and Sewing projects,.

This small box doesn’t have the big-impact, scale-wise, as our homemade box, but it’s portable and I love it for tracing projects (mama makes art too!).

plug in light table

More Light Box Inspiration

I couldn’t have written this post without mentioning that as I was working on this project, my friend Anna at The Imagination Tree posted her own DIY Light Box for Sensory Play. Our projects are nearly identical, and this isn’t the first time this has happened! Click on the links to see how Anna made her sensory light box.

Two years ago we both posted the same project, on the same day. Here’s a peak: If you have a toddler, you might also enjoy my Colander Sculpture and Anna’s Discovery Box Pipe Cleaners. The Imagination Tree is one of my favorite blogs. If you’re a hands-on parent I’m sure you’ll love it too, so do check it out if it’s not already on your radar.

Easy Low Cost Homemade Light Table

Dead simple. How to make your own (easy) light table for curious and creative kids.

Looking at Art with Kids: Norman Rockwell

Have you spent any time looking at art — in a MUSEUM — with your child? Even though I’m an arts educator who spent years leading gallery tours and training docents, we don’t spend as much time in art museums as I’d like because, you know, my children look at everything as a potential playground. I have an arsenal of gallery games and tricks up my sleeve, but they’re no match for a 2-year old!

This isn’t to say that we don’t look at art. We look at art at home, and sculpture gardens are a preschool parent’s best friend. But given my love for visiting art museums, I’ve had to seriously adjust my expectations of how a visit feels.

In a word. Short.

This summer we had the pleasure of visiting Cape Cod’s Heritage Museums and Gardens in Sandwich, MA. If you ever find yourself in the area with little and big people, it’s a multi-generational gold mine. A few highlights were Hidden Hollow (an outdoor classroom and fun zone), the indoor carousel, and gorgeous gardens and grounds. What we didn’t expect to see was a traveling Norman Rockwell exhibit, Norman Rockwell Beyond the Easel.

My mother-in-law wanted to see the show, and while I did too, all I could imagine was the push-pull of my two- and four-year-olds to skedaddle in the wake of weary art patrons and Rockwell’s photorealistic paintings.

But the interpretive team did a great job bringing Rockwell’s work to my kids’ level. We snapped lots of photos in the Model T, put on old-fashioned clothes that matched the style of Rockwell’s models, and assembled a magnetic version of Rockwell’s famous painting, The Runaway (1958).

Do you know The Runaway? It turns out that Norman Rockwell’s narrative work provides a rich platform for children to search for meaning, and my my 4-year old loved it!

We were all fascinated by the side-by-side comparison of the final painting with intermediate sketches and the black-and-white photograph that Rockwell staged as inspiration. We did a lot of tennis-match looking to spot the similarities and differences, which made me appreciate Rockwell’s eye for details and storytelling even more than I had before.

Try it for yourself…it’s super fun.

Print the two images, and then look at them carefully with your favorite little person, an experience that fosters creative thinking and curiosity. Beyond making comparisons, you can try asking a couple inquiry-based questions (based on Visual Thinking Strategies) that will get the conversation flowing:

  1. What’s going on in this picture?
  2. What do you see that makes you say that? (ask this question if your child offers a subjective answer such as “The boy likes the Police Officer.”)
After that, if you want more information about The Runaway and the photo that it was based on, click over here.

If you find yourself falling in love with this image or you want to see more works by Rockwell or other beloved American artists, you might enjoy visiting Art.com’s Americana gallery or go directly to The Runaway on Art.com. I own a few pieces by Art.com, and the quality is beyond belief. I almost feel like I’m looking at the original piece.

They also do an incredible job framing their work, which was the first thing I noticed when I opened the carefully wrapped print that arrived on my doorstep. You can see what I mean in this craftsmanship video, which shows how Art.com‘s frames are handcrafted in America.

You can also find Art.com on Pinterest, where they pin cool art and, ahem, I hear there’s a BIG giveaway happening soon for their Pinterest followers.

What was the last museum you went to? Any tips on visiting art museums with kids?

This post is sponsored by Art.com, but all opinions are my own.

We only think when confronted with a problem

“We only think when confronted with a problem.” — John Dewey, American philosopher and educator

What do you think about this quote by John Dewey? 

I spend a lot of my time considering how to set the stage for open-ended discovery as a way to foster a child’s confidence and independence. If you caught my last post, Organizing a Self-serve Creativity Zone, you’ll see a thread here. Children who set up their own problems are invested in the process of learning and are motivated to see a project through completion.

If you were to put paint pots, blocks, or a basket of acorns in front of your child, what expectations would you have? Do you think you would have a specific outcome in mind or would you be curious to find out what he would make of these materials?

When I place materials on a table or in the garden as a learning invitation, or provocation, I can’t help but guess or imagine how my children might use them. Maybe that’s human nature.

The other day I invited my 4-year old to draw some pumpkins that I placed on the table. I imagined  that she might draw a round, orange image with a green stem on top. Instead she started with a round, orange pumpkin shape, and then added a pattern of orange circles, a grid of orange lines, a windy brown flower-covered tree trunk, and then she filled the rest of the page with Halloween stickers and polka dots. In all, she spent close to an hour working on this project. An hour.

If I instructed her to draw a pumpkin as I imagined it, you can guess how long that might have taken her.

So I try to get past any expectations I might have because my children always surprise me with their own clever interpretations that often extend far beyond the box of my adult mind. Not only that, but these invitations are fun for me because I get the chance to learn from my children and witness how they think about the world.

Today I challenge you to place some intriguing objects in front of your child as a provocation to explore, create, invent, and problem-solve. Be open to exploration, wonder, and curiosity. Pay attention to where their own thinking leads, as it might surprise you.

Maybe you already do this — yay! If so, I’d love to hear about how you set up successful provocations and what makes them work in your home or school.

Ideas for Provocations

  • An opened-up paper bag and a black marker (see above)
  • A jar of fresh flowers or colorful Autumn leaves, paper, markers or crayons to match the flowers/leaves
  • Multiple cups filled with vinegar, one cup filled with baking soda + a spoon (See Vinegar and Baking Soda)
  • A basket of toy cars, cut pieces of cardboard (that could become ramps or bridges), boxes
  • A couple sheets, kitchen clips (See How to Build a Simple Clip Fort)
  • A tall jar of water, assorted liquid watercolors in jars, pipettes
  • Large piece of paper covered with circles of multiple sizes, container of markers
  • Clay or Play Dough, small bowl of water, popsicle sticks (See Clay)
  • Piece of canvas, wood or felt; bowl of small stones, sea glass, or shells
  • Containers filled with different scrap paper, glue, large piece of paper (See Self-serve Valentines)
  • Child-friendly knife, whisk, mushrooms or other soft food, cutting board, bowl (See Cooking with Toddlers)

Silently step aside and observe. What does your child do with the materials? What problem is he trying to solve? You might want to step in periodically to help problem-solve or prompt further discover with open-ended questions.

How do you set up provocations and what makes them successful in your home or school? If this is new-to-you, I’d love to hear how what you think about this process for discovery.

Diet Coke Mentos Experiment

My 4-year old and our neighbor enjoyed witnessing this explosive soda and Minty Mentos experiment. Have you tried it? It doen’t require a huge set-up, and the show is pretty awesome. I have to warn you that the explosion itself goes by quickly, so you might want to have an arsenal of soda containers on hand so you can conduct multiple experiments.

diet coke and mentos explosion

Ingredients for Diet Coke and Mentos Experiment

  • Diet Coke
  • Minty Mentos
Hee hee — pretty obvious, huh?

mentos and diet coke

Take the Mentos out of the wrapper.

mentos and diet coke experiment

Almost as soon as the Mentos hit the soda, the explosion begins, so f you’d like to try dropping more than one into the Soda bottle, make a paper tube and fill it with all your Mentos.

filling mentos into a tube

Take it outside. open the bottle, drop in one (or multiple) Mentos, and then step back!

kids mentos and diet coke

The explosion happened so fast that I was unable to capture it with my camera, so you’ll have to try this experiment for yourself and see how it works.

Experiment ideas

  • Try this with other types of soda. I read that diet soda is recommended because it’s less sticky than regular soda, but regular soda should work too. Compare the results of regular and Diet Coke.
  • The carbonation is what’s supposed to trigger the reaction: try this experiment with carbonated water. What happens?
  • Compare the results of fruit-flavored and mint-flavored Mentos.
  • What happens when you add other ingredients to the soda: salt, rock salt, sugar, baking soda, peanuts.

soda science experiment

The Science Bit

According to Wikipedia, “the numerous small pores on the candy’s surface catalyze the release of carbon dioxide(CO2) gas from the soda, resulting in the rapid expulsion of copious quantities of foam”

Taking this 100 Steps Further…

Eepybird.com (Entertainment for the Curious Mind) shared that  the exploding Diet Coke and Mentos Experiment was first introduced by University of Chicago chemistry professor, Lee Marek. The Eepybirds later recreated this experiment in a spectacular multi-bottle show on David Letterman.

 Your Turn!

So, are you ready to run out and pick up some soda and Mentos? Have you tried this experiment? What did your kids think about it?

Cooking with Kids: Butter and Rosemary

Do you like to cook with your kids? It’s not always the easiest thing for me to do; we have a tiny kitchen and limited counter space, but I try to find ways to integrate my kids into the kitchen routines when I can.

Why? Because cooking, experimenting, and learning about the interaction of ingredients builds creative thinkers, gives my kids a solid footing  and confidence in the kitchen (hey, I’m priming them to cook for me one day!), and it’s a wonderful way to bond and share stories about family traditions and food adventures.

20 month old Baby R (who’s hardly a baby anymore) likes to spend time in the kitchen, but she’s not the best helper in the world. So I try to drum up activities that will keep her hands busy and her mind engaged while I cook.

The other day we were baking bread and the recipe called for rosemary and a pat of butter. As I pulled the flour, yeast, maple syrup, milk, salt, and butter together, I also cut two tablespoons of butter off the end of the stick and chopped it into rough pieced for R to handle.

The slippery texture was captivating.

I handed her a few sprigs of rosemary to handle and poke into the butter.

cooking with kids

After squishing the butter for a bit she really wanted to cut the butter like me, so I gave her a small butter knife and showed her how to hold it. She cut butter for about fifteen minutes before tiring of this, which gave me just enough time to pull the bread dough together.

I’m not one for wasting food, but we did throw the gooey mass of butter and rosemary away when we were done.  I suppose I could have saved it, but there was a lot of finger licking going on and I wasn’t ready to go there. However, I liken this experience to playing with play dough (made from flour and oil) or dry beans, both materials that we use for imaginative and sensory play. When children learn to handle real food they build a relationship with it and gain a stronger understanding of its properties.

So, the next time you’re in the kitchen, if you don’t already do this, look around for something sensory for your toddler to explore. You might also enjoy reading Cooking with Toddlers, where I share a few tips including our favorite kid-friendly knives.

If you have a preschooler or school age child, you might like this fun post on how to invent a recipe with kids, where I share some ideas on how to foster a spirit of experimentation by building a pancake recipe from scratch.

And when my kids want to play in the kitchen, but they’re not interested in helping, I often slide this big tub of wheat berries out from under a counter for them to explore. It often makes a big mess, but it keeps them entertained while I cook and it’s easy enough to vacuum up when they’re done.

What do your kids like to do while you cook?

Finding Flow: A Journey Toward Happiness

Have you ever been so deeply involved in something that you lost all sense of time? How did you feel in this moment?

It happens to me all the time, often when I’m writing blog posts like this late into the night. Oops, it’s 2 am. How did it get to be so late? Or when I’m building or painting something that requires my focus and attention. Maybe it happens to you when you’re training for a big run or when you’re baking your favorite recipes. It’s a great feeling, right? You lose all sense of yourself and probably create something incredible that amazes even you. And maybe you thought, “really, did I make that?”

And guess what…this happens to kids as well. 

When I pay attention to what my children are interested in and how they get wholly absorbed in meaningful activities (pouring and mixing water in the bath, imaginative play in forts, or mastering a drawing game, below), I notice that these moments happen all the time. At the root of these moments are the elements of curiosity, exploration, and imagination.

I recently facilitated a cloud dough station at my daughter’s nursery school. A handful of children surrounded the table, asking good questions., squishing dough in their hands, and laughing. One of the boys who arrived at the table late couldn’t keep his hands off the dough; it reminded him of snow.  He was captivated by the feel of it and stayed rooted at that table, running his fingers through the silky dough and enjoying the phenomena of its texture. Witnessing this enthrallment in a child other than my own reminded me of the growth, comfort, and exploration that children can find through meaningful hands-on experiences.

Csikszentmihalyi flow with kids

Watching young children engage deeply in an activity (some to the point that they stopped talking and forget that the world is moving around them) made me think of the concept of flow, coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his seminal book,  Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

The idea, simply, is that people are happiest when they’re deeply absorbed by whatever they’re doing. In a 1996 Wired Magazine article,  Csikszentmihalyi explained flow as…

“being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

In his books,  Csikszentmihalyi explains that reaching a true state of flow can takes years of experience and practice, but you can see moments of it in children of all ages, learning how to focus their attention by exploring the things that they’re passionate about. Have you seen these moments in your own children or students?

An interesting point to note about flow is that it can’t happen if the task is too easy. If the child (or adult) isn’t challenged to test their new skills,  they become bored. You’ve witnessed this transition away from flow if you’ve ever tried setting up a “favorite” activity, only to find your child is no longer interested in it.

In the photos I’m sharing here, my daughter just learned the dots and boxes game, and wants to keep at it (over multiple days) to figure it out and test her knowledge. She’s in a state of 3-year-old flow. But as soon as she’s mastered the game or feels like it’s too simple, she’ll no longer be in that state.

Csikszentmihalyi flow children

I’d love to hear about your own observations of flow, either with yourself or your children. Can you think of a time that you experienced this? And what about your children?

And if you can’t think of any off the bat, I’d like to challenge you to look for these moments over the next few days. Take some notes and report back with your discoveries.

Sensory Activity: Wheat Berries

Could your child spend hours sifting flour or scooping sand? Sensory activities like these can fully absorb the minds of young children as they test the limits of materials and build imaginary worlds through pouring, filling, and building.

This sensory activity is so easy, it doesn’t require a lot of materials, and the process of exploring tactile materials through hands-on play is good for growing brains.

But why wheat berries? Like rice or sand, wheat berries are fun to scoop, but the larger, rounder size has a different tactile feeling than these other materials. I’m not advocating for one over the other, but presenting this as an option that came on like gangbusters with my kids.

And you can grow or cook this nifty grain after the playing is done…scroll down for more on that.

wheat berry sensory activity


  • Wheat Berries*
  • Large Container
  • Small toys, bowls, and scoopers

* I found our wheat berries in the bulk bin aisle of Whole Foods, and used a full bag for this project. You can find wheat berries in most bulk bin aisles and online. I spotted this organic 25 Lb Bag of Hard Red Wheat Berries on Amazon and there are plenty of other choices there.

sensory activity

I poured the wheat berries into the tub and placed a few plastic eggs, a couple homemade paper funnels, a couple bowls, a scooper, and an egg carton next to the tub. My kids dropped what they wanted inside and started playing.

sensory activity

They came up with all sorts of ideas that surprised me, but perhaps the biggest surprise was watching them play alongside one another (well, across the table, actually) in total harmony.

The other surprise: This activity went on for days. Each night I would clean everything up, put the lid on the tab, and tuck it away under a cabinet. And the next day my toddler would ask me to pull it out.

sensory activity

The only mistake I made was setting this up over a shaggy carpet. It was such a mess, but nothing the vacuum couldn’t take care of. On a nice day, this would be fun outside, but I would caution you against setting this up over any dirt or land that you wouldn’t want wheat grass shooting up in.

They also brought dollhouse furniture and little action figures over to the tub, where they ran them through various adventures. My three-year old built a paper canoe (seen above), to fill with berries and take Strawberry Shortcake on rides down the river.

I loved watching how inventive they were with this simple grain as the backdrop for their creativity.

sensory activity

And suddenly the tub doesn’t seem so big anymore! When they exhausted all of their play options, walking right in the wheat berries, and eventually sitting in them became a game in itself.

More Wheat Berry Fun

wheat berry

Wheat Berry Gardening (above), Tinkerlab

Wheat Berry Salad with Dried Cherries and Walnuts, Ellie Krieger on Food Network

Wheatberry Salad with Bell Pepper and Red Onion, Barefoot Contessa on Food Network

A nice explanation on why wheat berries are good to eat, and a recipe for Greek Wheat Berry Salad, A Life Less Sweet blog

Have your kids played with this fun sensory grain?

Are Black Markers Really Black? A Chromatography Lesson.

are black markers really black chromatographyWhat color is black? Is it one color or many colors combined to “look black”?

Black is the absence of all reflective colors, and when the three primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) are combined in just the right way, they give off the appearance of black.

We set off to find out more about the predominant colors in our black Crayola marker, and to do this we had to separate the colors. The chemical technique used to separate dyes, pigments, or colored chemicals is known as chromatography. 

This activity can take anywhere from 5 minutes to 25 minutes, depending on how much experimenting your child wants to do, and it’s appropriate for kids ages 2 and up. It’s so simple to do, and would be a natural addition to a morning or afternoon of drawing with markers.


  • White paper towels or white coffee filters
  • A Plate
  • Black marker/s
  • Water
  • Water Dropper

add water to black ink

We started by drawing a big quarter-sized dot on the paper towel, and then squeezed water on top of it. The colors that are released into the paper towel give you some clues as to what goes in to your black. In our case, there was a lot of green.

add water to marker on paper towel experimentAfter the black marker test, 3-year old N wanted to test the rest of her markers. She made a lot of predictions, and they all came out as expected (yellow appeared to be yellow and green was made from green dyes).

add water to marker on paper towel experiment

The red and pink, however, stumped her as they both released a pink color.

add water to marker on paper towel experiment ChromatographyAnd then there was a lot of fun in opening the paper towels up to reveal the levels of color that soaked through all the layers.

More Chromatography

For older kids, this slightly more advanced version of our kitchen experiment from Science Project Lab has some pretty cool results.

Kids will be amazed at the rainbow of colors released by leaves in this chromatography experiment shared over on TLC Family.

I like this coffee filter chromatography project from Kids Make Things.

Have you tried this experiment with your kids? Do you have a favorite paper towel/coffee filter project? What is the most challenging part of doing experiments with your kids?