Teach Kids About Animation and Visual Wonders

With this set of lessons about visual tricks and animation, I had a few questions I wanted to explore with kids: How can you make moving pictures without making a movie? How can we “trick” our eyes, and why do those tricks work? How do you make a stop-motion film, and what are some lower-tech ways to put on shows?

What Kids Will Do

In these explorations, kids might…

  • Build a phenakistoscope
  • Make thaumatropes
  • Design their own flipbooks
  • Make pop-up cards
  • Build a miniature Ames room
  • Explore photography with cyanotypes
  • Make a camera obscura
  • Make a tunnel book
  • Do shadow puppetry with colored lights
  • and more

Designed for preschool and lower elementary students, but many parts will be enjoyable for older children and adults, too.

Read On

  • Optical Illusions, Gianni A. Sarcone and Marie-Jo Waeber [Amazon] — Winner of the Royal Society’s Young People’s Book Award in 2018, this clever and fun book is packed with optical illusions and experiment suggestions. And, wonderfully, with every illusion there’s a “what’s going on?” paragraph or two. Some of these explanations might be a bit too technical for younger readers, but even they will enjoy marveling at some of the pictures. The whole thing is designed beautifully, too — the cover design can be spun to create a hypnotizing optical illusion. 

  • The Bluest of Blues: Anna Atkins and the First Book of Photographs, Fiona Robinson [Amazon | Bookshop] — This beautiful picture book tells the story of Anna Atkins, whose Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions is often considered to be the first book of photography. Fittingly, the illustrations are almost entirely in blue, with occasional pops of red, and it’s wonderful that the book features a number of her actual botanical cyanotypes. It’s so worth seeing these. They glow coolly from the page with a ghostly vitality — gorgeous botanical specters. If you’re going to make cyanotypes, this book offers plenty of inspiration.
  • Fairy Spell: How Two Girls Convinced the World That Fairies Are Real, Marc Tyler Nobleman and Eliza Wheeler [Amazon | Bookshop] — In the first decades of the twentieth century, two girls played a trick on their families — but the trick soon got out of control. After Frances and Elsie borrowed a camera to take photos with “fairies” — cleverly positioned paper cut-outs — they assured their parents that there truly were fairies in the woods. One thing led to another, and not only were the newspapers printing the photos, but Arthur Conan Doyle was defending their authenticity, too. Frances and Elsie maintained that the fairies were real for most of their lives, and although they eventually admitted that they had staged the famous snaps, Frances continued to insist that one of the photos truly captured a real fairy. It’s a charming story and a wonderful one, too, about the importance of evaluating images and the slipperiness of photography (which can seem to many like a straightforward representation of reality). There are a couple of books about the Cottingley Fairies, including Ana Sender’s nice, shorter picture book, but this one is my favorite.

  • The Jolly Christmas Postman, Janet and Allan Ahlberg [Amazon | Bookshop] — Another terrific Jolly Postman book, this time with a Christmas theme and a series of delightful mini-presents. There’s a board game from Mr. Wolf, a working Humpty Dumpty puzzle from All the King’s Horses and All the King’s Men, a tiny magazine with an even tinier insert, and an expanding peepshow (or tunnel book) that will astound any child (and probably you, too). It can be hard to find a tunnel book at a reasonable price, but if you’d like an example to show kids, the one in here is terrific. A cozy marvel of a book, worth every penny. Plus, if you want to discuss postage and postmarks, this book is great for that, too.
  • Animation Lab for Kids: Fun Projects for Visual Storytelling and Making Art Move, Laura Bellmont and Emily Brink [Amazon | Bookshop] — As with many project books, this book has a fair amount of unnecessary padding, but many of the ideas are good. It gives instructions for several fairly simple stop-motion projects (tearing paper or smearing clay, for instance) and for a collection of more complex ones that I wouldn’t want to bother with myself (like hand-sewing wired puppets). It’s a decent resource if you want to tackle more projects than the ones I list here.



Shadow Puppetry

Watch: The Master of Shadow Puppets
Look: Utagawa Hiroshige’s shadow puppetry guides (1842)
Watch: How to Make Shadow Puppets With Your Hand

Activity: Make shadow puppets
Using the guides above, you could make shadow puppets using your hands, or you could cut out paper silhouettes and glue them to craft sticks.

While you might be able to use a powerful flashlight for this, consider moving a table lamp to the ground and removing its lampshade, or you might plug a lightbulb, via a outlet-to-socket adapter (like this one), into a power strip.

A wall works just fine for this, but you could also cut away most of the side of a cardboard box and then cover the opening with parchment paper to make a theatre.

Activity: Colored shadow play
For this, you’ll need three lights in red, green, and blue, but you can also get remote-controlled color-changing bulbs like these and plug them into a power strip via an outlet-to-socket adapter.

It’s exciting simply to use your hands and body to make shadows on the wall, but you can also use a magnifying glass, a slinky, or cardboard with shapes cut into it.

Full instructions and explanation here. (And if you can suspend the lights above a white-papered surface, you might have some fun with blocks, as seen here.)

Distance Illusions

Tunnel Books, or Paper Peepshows

Look: The V&A’s resource on paper peepshows
Read: The Jolly Christmas Postman [Amazon | Bookshop], which has an impressive tunnel book at the end

Activity: Make a tunnel book
The V&A has a template for making a landscape tunnel book, but you can also use their instructions to make your own from scratch. Younger children will definitely need help with some of the cutting, and I very much recommend that you cut out the frames beforehand, as it does take a while. (But I think it’s worth the effort.) Full instructions and template here.

Ames Rooms

Optional browse: Optical Illusions, Gianni A. Sarcone and Marie-Jo Waeber [Amazon]
Award-winning illusions by year in The Best Illusion of the Year Contest

Activity: Make an Ames room
The Royal Institution has a full lesson plan about distance illusions, including several activities and a template to build your own Ames room. They suggest comparing a toy car to a real car in the distance, then using perspective to draw houses in the foreground and background of a picture, and then constructing the Ames room. It’s all terrific. Full instructions, video, and template here. (Be sure to print the room on cardstock.)


Read: Any pop-up book you have! You can find the full list of my favorite pop-up books here. Be sure, as you’re reading, to examine the pop-up mechanisms.

Activity: Make a pop-up

This is a pretty basic and simple activity, but keep in mind that a big design won’t fit inside a card when it’s folded. For the pop-up elements, you can cut out your own shapes, use pre-cut construction paper shapes, or you can put stickers on cardstock and then cut them out (I’ve used this great sticker book). This video has a few variations on the cut-two-slits-into-a-folded-card method. And this video has instructions for making a pop-up rainbow card. 


Look: The History of Photography in Pictures

Activity: Make a pinhole camera/camera obscura
This video guide produces a really nice camera obscura. You can find variations many places, including here. For an explanation of how the camera obscura works, you can watch this video. You can also make a pinhole camera you can fit your whole head inside.

Read: The Bluest of Blues: Anna Atkins and the First Book of Photographs, Fiona Robinson [Amazon | Bookshop]

Activity: Make a cyanotype print
These cyanotypes produce amazing results, but Nature Print paper also works. If you’re feeling bolder and have some acetate sheets, you can try making a cyanotype from a photograph.

Read: Fairy Spell: How Two Girls Convinced the World That Fairies Are Real, Marc Tyler Nobleman and Eliza Wheeler [Amazon | Bookshop]
Watch: How the Cottingley Fairy Photographs Were Made
Look and read: The Story of the Cottingley Fairies Shows That Image Manipulation Is Nothing New
Optional watch: Fairy Tale: A True Story

Activity: Fairy photos
For kids who are really intrigued by the Cottingley Fairies, you can fairly easily make your own versions of these hoax photos. We happened to have a Flower Fairies sticker book, and it’s simple enough to put the stickers on some cardstock, cut them out, and attach them to toothpicks. And if you like, you can duplicate the photos in black and white, too.

Early Animation

For more vision activities, see Teach Kids About Color and Vision.

Activity: Do a persistence of vision experiment
For this experiment, you’ll need only a poster tube and some black paper. Full instructions here.

Watch: The Awesome History of Animation

Activity: Make a thaumatrope
You can find an instructional video for this activity from the Royal Institution here and the templates for these thaumatropes here.

Activity: Make a phenakistoscope
You’ll want to print these templates on cardstock, but all you need otherwise is a pencil, a thumbtack, and a wall mirror. Find the frog and a blank one here, the horse here, and a Coraline one here.

Activity: Make a zoetrope
The results are very similar to the phenakistoscope, so you needn’t necessarily do both, but you can find a good zoetrope template here. You could also buy one (but I haven’t tried this).

Activity: Make a flipbook
You can make your own flipbooks from blank books (like these or these), or sticky note blocks, or you can use a template with a pre-printed sequence. If your kids love flipbooks, this set of 4 is really wonderful, too.

Stop Motion

Watch: A collection of short stop motion films
Streamschool (video and making-of details and clips)
Cooking with Wool
Cooking with Wool: Pizza and Cooking with Wool BTS: Pizza 

Using people or animals:
Sorry I’m Late
Tricky Dog (commercial)

Lego Adventure in the City
Lego Chocolate Cake
Lego Breakfast
Lego Breakfast with Super Mario

Stop Motion Activities

For these activities, you’ll want to have a stop motion app on your phone or tablet. I have used and liked the Stop Motion Studio app. You’ll probably also want a tripod. I’ve used this one for my phone and while it’s not perfect, it got the job done. (You could also try attaching a phone to a sturdy desk lamp or a yardstick.) If you’d like more thorough guidance on making a stop-motion film, you can consult the helpful guides here and here.

Activity: Make a stop-motion film on paper (flat)
For this, you can decorate a paper background any way you like (we happened to have a background from a sticker book) and use either paper figures or animal figurines tipped on their sides.

Activity: Make a clay or Lego stop-motion film

If you’ve made or are up to making the kaleidoscope box (see my instructions in Teach Your Kids About Having Fun With Math), you can create some interesting stop-motion films with it, too.

This site uses affiliate links, and I might earn a small commission, at no cost to you, if you click through to buy these books. I only recommend books that I have used and love. Thank you for supporting this site.

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