Do you remember the overhead projectors teachers used to project their notes onto a wall? My kids and I made our DIY projector out of a cardboard roll and used it to review Chinese characters in a fun way. It’s a handy tool for teaching your kids language, shapes, numbers, and more!
Cardboard roll flashlight projectors take only a few minutes to make. This simple craft is also eco-friendly and reusable.
As with all Chalk Academy activities, please feel free to adapt to your child’s language and developmental level.
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DIY projector word shadow show with recyclables!
I was inspired to try this idea after seeing other moms use cardboard rolls and flashlights to project shadows of shapes! This idea has been around for years, and the earliest version I could find was on Happily Ever Mom.
Clear plastic wrap was used in these examples, and we tried this approach, too. However, seeing my post and others quickly go viral on social media, I became concerned about the impact of thousands and thousands of families using plastic wrap, which is not easily recyclable.
Especially since Earth Day was this week, upcycling cardboard rolls while wasting plastic feels hypocritical. Thankfully, another mom, Cathy, shared a brilliant idea of reusing the plastic from take-out containers!
How to use this DIY projector as an educational activity
My children and I have used this projector in so many ways. Here are a few of our favorite activities. As you’ll see, with a little imagination, the options are practically endless!
Before diving into the how-to steps, I want to talk about language since this website is about raising multilingual children.
I’m always looking for ways to make learning more engaging with activities. So, I primarily used this activity to teach my kids Chinese. However, this interactive project can be used when learning any second language. I’m showing Chinese in this post because in our home, Chinese is a minority language, and English is a dominant language.
Encouraging kids to use a minority language takes special encouragement. And even one language can be daunting to some kids. So, if you’re trying to teach children Chinese characters, English letters, or the Korean alphabet, this flashlight projector is a fun way to play with language.
When my kids are intrigued by an activity, they have a better chance of looking at what’s being projected and focusing longer. This is why both of my children began to read Chinese at a young age!
Let’s use our imagination! This could be a great activity for kids to make up their own stories. For example, have them draw their characters or animals on the DIY projector and then let them dream up a story about those characters.
Alternatively, it could be a wonderful bedtime bonding activity. When you snuggle at bedtime, start telling a story and project the scenes on the wall. The funnier the voices, the better!
Shapes and numbers
You can make this activity super simple for toddlers and preschoolers with shapes and numbers. Outline the shapes or try filling them in to make the shadows darker and more prominent. Ask your child to identify each shape or number as it is projected on the wall.
When you’re teaching your older kids about space or perhaps Greek history and constellations, this would be the perfect activity to explore stars. Use the pen to create dotted stars and lines to connect them. Change the size of the projection by getting closer or farther away from the wall.
The activity could be used as a science experiment when teaching kids how light works. For the drawings, you can either have the kids draw whatever they like or use one of the suggestions above for extra fun.
The light will shine in a straight line from its source. When light touches a solid object (the letter, shape, or drawing on the plastic), it cannot pass and leaves behind an area of darkness known as a shadow. When the object is transparent, such as plastic, the light can move through it.
How to involve kids of all ages with DIY cardboard projectors
When making the cardboard projectors, involve your kids! It’s a perfect opportunity to speak Chinese consistently or whatever language your family focuses on at home.
Older kids can help write words in the language they’re learning. You can still make flashlight projectors for children who are not yet reading. Stickers or shapes can be projected instead of Chinese characters or letters.
While using the DIY projectors, ask your kids what they observe. Talking about the projected shape shadows is another chance to converse in your target language!
Important bilingual vocabulary
For parents learning Chinese with their children like me, I’ve listed some relevant phrases in English, simplified Chinese, traditional Chinese, and Hanyu Pinyin for reference.
These phrases will still be useful if you’re learning a different language. Translate the English phrases below into your chosen language when discussing the shadow show.
- 投影机 / 投影機 (Tóuyǐng jī / projector)
- 阴影 / 陰影 (Yīnyǐng / shadow)
- 墙壁 (Qiángbì / wall)
- 用手电筒照在墙上 / 用手電筒照在牆上 (Yòng shǒudiàntǒng zhào zài qiáng shàng / Shine the flashlight on the wall)
- 你看到墙上的字吗？/ 你看到牆上的字嗎 (Nǐ kàn dào qiáng shàng de zì ma? / Do you see the word on the wall?)
- 这是什么字 / 這是什麼字? (Zhè shì shénme zì / What word is this?)
What you need to make a DIY projector out of cardboard
Here are the recommended materials, which most people already have at home!
DIY projector with recycled plastic
- Cardboard paper towel tubes (纸板管 / 紙板管 / zhǐbǎn guǎn) or toilet paper rolls (卫生纸筒 / 衛生紙筒 / wèishēngzhǐ tǒng)
- Hard, clear plastic (透明塑料 tòumíng sùliào) from food packaging is the best option to minimize waste and encourage reuse. Written words can be easily erased with a damp towel.
- Whiteboard marker (白板马克笔 / 白板的馬克筆 / Báibǎn mǎkè bǐ)
- iPhone light or small rechargeable flashlight (小可充电手电筒 / 小可充電手電筒 xiǎo kě chōngdiàn shǒudiàntǒng). Since disposable batteries are toxic to the environment, save battery-operated flashlights for emergencies. Batteries should be disposed of in designated locations.
- Pen knife (笔刀 / Bǐ dāo)
DIY projector with single-use plastic
- Cardboard paper towel tubes (纸板管 / 紙板管 / Zhǐbǎn guǎn) or toilet paper rolls (卫生纸筒 / 衛生紙筒 / Wèishēngzhǐ tǒng)
- Clear plastic cling wrap (保鲜膜 / 保鮮膜 / Bǎoxiān mó) is a popular option we’ve tried. Another option is clear packing tape (透明包装胶带 / 透明包裝膠帶 / tòumíng bāozhuāng jiāodài), and the smooth side of the tape can be wiped and reused. However, I do not want to encourage the widespread use of single-use plastics.
- Rubber bands (橡皮筋 / 橡皮筋 / Xiàngpí jīn) or hair ties 发带 / 髮帶 / fà dài
- Black marker (黑色的马克笔 / 黑色的馬克筆 / Hēisè de mǎkè bǐ or 黑色的彩色筆 / Hēisè de cǎisè bǐ)
- Scissors (剪刀 / Jiǎndāo)
How to make a DIY projector and create a shadow show
If reusing plastic from a container…
- Draw a circle by tracing the end of the toilet paper roll.
- Cut a circular plastic piece.
- Draw Chinese characters, letters, or pictures in the center.
- On one end of a cardboard roll, cut a slit and insert plastic. Make sure the word is inserted backward.
If using plastic wrap…
- Cut out a piece of plastic.
- Draw Chinese characters, letters, or pictures in the center.
- Cover the end of a cardboard roll with the plastic wrap. Make sure the word is backward, such as “想” (xiǎng / want) in the photo.
- Wrap a rubber band around the plastic wrap and end of the cardboard roll.
Then turn off the lights! This will make the projection easier to see. Shine a flashlight at the open end of the roll and point the DIY cardboard projector toward a blank sheet of paper. Then, test out the projector on a wall, ceiling, and other surfaces.
Enjoy your shadow show! And have fun experimenting! Use different lengths of cardboard tubes. Position the flashlight to see if you can make the shadow appear larger or smaller.
What did your kids think of this DIY projector?
If you try this activity, please let us know in the comments below! What age(s) are your kid(s), and how did it go? We’d love to hear about your learning experience!