My dad was the first person to introduce me to shadow puppets. When my sister and I were tiny kids, he would tuck us into bed, turn off the lights and then cast an image of a dog against the wall. He’d curl in his index finger, lift his thumb, and open and close his pinkie while barking. Sometimes, he’d do a bunny or an eagle or a different type of dog. We were always charmed.
Shadow puppets remain a delightful, tech-free activity — something you can do with your children while camping, hanging out in a blanket fort or just sitting in a dark room with a lamp or torch.
You’ve probably mastered a few basic puppets, but if you want to take your skills to the next level, check out this 1858 guide called Hand Shadows to Be Thrown Upon the Wall by Henry Bursill. I stumbled upon it on Project Gutenberg, a collection of free works in the public domain.
What I enjoy most about the simple book of hand-drawn illustrations is the way Bursill writes about his puppet-making process:
I calculate that I put my ten fingers through hundreds of various exercises before “Bird” took wing; my left little finger thrills at the memory of “Grandpapa”; and my thumbs gave in no less than twenty times before “Boy” was accomplished. Yet now how easy it is to make the “Duck” to quack, the “Donkey” to bray, “Toby” to wag his tail, and the “Rabbit” to munch his unsubstantial meal.
Here are some of Bursill’s shadow puppets that you can try with your kids:
If your kids want to see more of what can be done with shadows, show them this video of a “magic angle sculpture” made of LEGO plates, or this Star Wars shadow art series by Red Hong Yi, or this whimsical short film by Olive Us. And then turn down the light and see what they create themselves.