overhead projector art project

My husband works at a university and the collector in me was overjoyed to discover that there’s a little-known department on campus that sells surplus property from departments that no longer need old projectors, desks, and reams of paper.

I wandered into the dusty space about a year ago and walked out with something everyone needs: an overhead projector for just $5. Right, you have one, don’t you? And then it moved to my garage where it continued to collect dust for another year.

Well, I finally pulled it out and it turned out to be a perfect rainy day art project.

overhead projector object discussion

My daughter had never seen one of these before, so we started off with an open-ended game in object-based looking that I learned in graduate school. The idea behind the game is to unpack the qualities of a mysterious object based solely on what you can see. No other information is shared, and the process of discovery can build a great deal of enthusiasm around an experience.

I didn’t tell N what we were looking at. Rather, I put the projector in a place where she could easily see it from multiple points of view and then our conversation sounded something like this:

“What do you see?”

A box with a long, tall pole and a plug. It’s dusty. You missed a spot.

“Got it. Okay, how do you suppose it might work?”

I don’t know. Maybe you plug it in. And I see these knobs, so they probably turn. If I turn this one, this piece moves up the pole. There are some buttons, so you can turn it on and off.

“If we plug it in, what do you think it might do?”

I think it makes noise. A loud noise, like a blender. Brrrrrrrrr.

“Hmmm. Maybe it does make a noise. We’ll find out in a moment. If you open this flap, what do you see?”

A light. Let’s plug it in!

playing with the overhead projectorI plugged it in, flipped open the light, and spread out a collection of tangram pieces to play with. N had fun adjusting the height of the light and then made various arrangements of shapes, both abstract and realistic.

tessellation tilesI have a huge collection of transparent tangram tiles that I picked up at Resource Area for Teaching (RAFT), but if you click on this link it’ll take you to Amazon where you can order these shipped straight to your home.

overhead projector with kidsI pulled the curtains in the room shut, and the overhead projector’s bulb did a great job illuminating the wall. The walls in this room are painted dark grey, so I taped two sheets of 18″ x 24″ paper from Discount School Supply to the wall, and it made for a perfect screen.

We talked about how the projector reverses images, so you won’t see a mirror image of what exists on the glass plate.

This art project was wonderful in so many ways. The dim lights in the room were calming and helped focus my child’s big afternoon energy like a cup of tea can focus mine. It was fun to play with something new, and we both enjoyed exploring the mechanics of this archaic tool from Stanford’s past. As an artform, working with the tangram shapes was like painting with light and color, while making compositional choices. 

In case you’re interested in finding your own overhead projector, I did a quick Craigslist search and see them posted in the $25-$80 price range, but I bet a little searching could find you something for less money. And if you happen to be in my real-life friend circle, you’re more than welcome to borrow mine for a while, which is better than having it collect dust in my garage.

I’m thinking our next overhead projector project might be making our own transparencies. Any other ideas?

Do you have an overhead projector, light table, or some other type of projector (either of your own or at your disposal)? What could you try this with?

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  1. Thank you for reminding me to investigate the “surplus sales dept” sign I saw while dropping my husband off on campus last week! Considering I’ve been pinning DIY light tables AND we’re on a doc student’s budget- I think this might be my new favorite place:)

    • Hi Kristal! Are you a Stanford family too? If so, hopefully we can meet one of these days. I saw more of the $5 projectors on their website yesterday, so you’re in luck!

  2. we’re having loads of fun with our overhead too…I put it away for a little bit and take it back out again, using different materials on top.  It’s like new all over.  My next plan is to use the overhead with an old light bright panel and pegs.

      • That’s so great too! I’ll have to find some of those transparent dividers.

    • We’re on the same page (no surprise!). We have an old lite brite too! How are you planning to integrate them?

      • We found an old light bright at the recycle center and couldn’t fix it to use it in the traditional way.  So, we took it apart.  Now we have this great holey plate and lots and lots of colored pegs.  I thought I’d just set up the plate on the overhead with the pegs in a bowl next to it and see what happens.  I’m sure I’ll do a post about it.

  3. What a fun thing to play with!  love how you introduced it too.  I wonder if tissue paper is transparent enough. A fun thing might just be to write on it with dry-erase markers.  So fun!!!

    • We didn’t test tissue paper, but my guess is that it would sort of work. The machine is designed to shine light through transparencies, and the little bit of opacity of the paper would probably shine light through, but also block the color. Nevertheless, it would be worth testing!

  4. A visual/spatial activity idea: Have transparencies of different objects or artworks. Begin with the image incredibly blurry and have her keep trying to guess what it is as you bring it into focus. You could make it a game- seeing how long it takes to guess correctly- as welll as discuss it’s different qualities as it comes into focus (maybe it’s more “dreamlike” when it’s blurry, etc.). Thanks for sharing, I always enjoy your ideas!

    • Oh, I love that idea, Mama Cass! Games are a big deal in our home, and I know she would really appreciate this. Thanks for the help.

  5. Pretty cool. What a great gadget to play with and so inexpensive compared to a digital projector! 

    • Isn’t it a cool gadget?! I love stuff like this!

  6. I have been wanting to get one of these!  I have been looking at Craigslist locally .  So far, no luck.  Hopefully soon!

    • Oh, I hope you find one. Too bad you don’t live near me! Maybe you could post a request for one on craigslist? 

  7. overhead projectors are great! i love this!

    • Hi Lana,
      That’s okay — you can do this any time you introduce your kids to a new-to-them object. I’m glad to hear it resonates with you. Thanks so much for adding me to your post.
      Take care,

  8. My husband and I found one of these babies at a thrift store for only $9. I was jumping up and down when I found it. lol I love it and the kids do too. I use it for a light box and also to help with large murals and paintings. I am about to customize mine to look a lil bit more modern. Love this blog! Def following! Merry Christmas!

    • Wow, Cecilia! $9 is a great deal. Obviously people don’t need them anymore, but it still surprises me that they can be found for so little. Ours is trapped in the 1980’s and could use some spiffing up. I’d love to hear more about how you’re planning to modernize it. Merry Christmas to you too! ~rachelle

  9. I got my OHP as a throw out from our local library. Oh so cool! Transparencies are easy together a hold of as well. My children love watching themselves draw. It has been great for assisting pencil control tracing around shapes projected onto the wall.

  10. I love all these ideas! My husband brought home a brand new projector he got free from work! I just gave it to our pre school. They have never used one before, so these are great ideas for them to use!

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