Shadow Puppets

by Michael Vetere

When I was young, my parents took me and my twin sister to see the stage version of Peter Pan. When Peter got his shadow sewn back on by Wendy he was so excited that he sang a song about being proud and self-assured. During the song, Peter made giant shadow puppets with his hands on the stage – I was hooked! For weeks after you could find me making shadow puppets during play time, meals, and even at church – my mother also joined in the fun by pretending to eat my shadows with her hands in the shape of a mouth.

Shadow puppetry is an ancient art form dating back to…well…no one really knows. Many believe that it can be traced back to the Han Dynasty of China (206 B.C.E – 220 C.E) or the wayang kulit shadow puppet figures from Indonesia around 800’s C.E. However, shadow puppets can be found all over the world including Turkey, Mexico, and Australia.

puppet1                     puppet-2                    puppet3


Shadow puppets can be detailed and complex or they can be simple and interesting. They are a great way to teach about the science of shadows and the art-form of shadow puppet theatre. Not only can you share about indigenous puppets from various cultures to your students, but you can teach using shadow puppets in your classroom. So what do you need to engage young learners in shadow puppet theater? Three things:

  1. A light source: A strong light source is helpful to make clear and sharp shadows. Ideally, an overhead projector works great, but they are getting harder to come by. So think about a desk lamp with an adjustable neck or I like to use a clip light that focuses the light into a direction.
  2. An object or puppet to block the light: Shadow puppets can be made using cardstock and straws for the handles. Personally, I like to use small plastic balloon sticks that can be attached to the back of the puppet with tape. For younger students, precut shapes using foamies or die-cuts work well.
  3. A screen to project onto: Typically, a shadow screen is placed between the audience and the light source for the performers to play out their scenarios. I would suggest using a white shower curtain as it helps defuse the light and provides for a flat surface. However, a bedsheet draped over a garment rack works just as well.


The fall season is always a good time to investigate shadows and shadow puppet theatre as the days get shorter and the nights longer. Students can work through different tasks such as investigating various materials and their reactions to light. These items could be transparent, such as plexi-glass, translucent, such as tissue paper or cellophane, or opaque, such as cardstock.

If you have access to a large wall and a darker room such as a gymnasium or cafeteria – place lights on the ground so students can stand in-front of the light to cast large silhouettes. Play music and explore how the shadows change when they move closer or farther away from the light source. Ask your students questions such as, “Why does your shadow get longer or shorter during the day?” or “What do you think would happen if we added two light sources?”

Thematic units are also very interesting for youth to explore. Themes can include: Autumn, Forest at Night, Under the Ocean, or even Out of this World! You can also connect shadow puppetry with literature. I always like to tell stories using the shadow stage or let the students retell stories. You can extend the learning by having students create a character or scene from the story in shadow form. Ask the student’s shadow character questions like, “What is your name? Where to do you live? What do you like to eat?” – Questions like these help students go deeper into the story and create more believable characters, necessary for good literature and theatre.

Some books you may find easy to connect include:

  • The Dark, Dark Night by C. Christina Butler
  • Who’s Shadow is This? by Claire Berge
  • Moonbear’s Shadow by Frank Asch
  • Go Away Big Green Monster by Ed Emberley

puppet-6                                                                   puppet7

Like Peter Pan, it is always beneficial to remember being young and discovering the world for the first time. Don’t be afraid to play and try out new experiences. Think about working with a teaching artist or your art or drama teacher at your school to help you connect the arts to your students’ learning. Or if you are looking to see a shadow puppetry show, join me at the Children’s Discovery Museum in Normal, IL for Fall stories at Halloween Hoopla on October 28, 2016.

Michael J. Vetere III, Ed.D., is an Associate Professor at Illinois State University in the School of Theatre and Dance.  His focus area includes creative dramatics, puppetry, and the arts for early childhood and elementary education.



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