Lights, Camera, Shadow Puppets!

Shadow puppets have a long history, dating back to China over 2,000 years ago. Their unique technique, called “shadow play,” involved intricate puppets which were moved between a screen and a light using sticks, regional folk music, and theatrical lighting (for more information, view the Chinese Shadow Puppetry documentary on YouTube, 10:07). Though the technique is still used today in its original form, people all over the world have entertained themselves through manipulating shadows with creative silhouettes. This activity uses both digital and non-digital design tools to explore line, shape, and contrast through the creation of shadow puppets that can perform on a stage.
hand shadow puppet OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Materials needed:

  • black cardstock paper (or other dark colored paper)
  • sticks (i.e. craft sticks, chop sticks, wooden skewers, sticks, etc.)
  • paper fastener brads
  • white copier paper or tissue paper
  • cereal box (or small cardboard box)
  • scissors
  • tape and/or glue
  • table lamp
  • Silhouette Studio software (optional)
  • Silhouette Cameo machine (optional)
  • video camera (optional)


  1. Begin with the end in mind. Consider how you want to construct the puppet. This decision will impact the way you create your silhouettes. Also, consider where you will perform. What light source will you use? Where will your “stage” be?
    1. Do you want it to be a solid piece that easily glues to a stick and has static movement?
    2. Do you want to more options for controlling the puppet’s movement through the use of interconnected joints using paper fastener brads and sticks?
  2. Skeleton Shadow Puppet DesignCreate the puppets. This can be done by drawing by hand on cardstock paper then using scissors to carefully cut out the shapes, or this can be done by creating digital designs in Silhouette Studio software and then trimming the designs out of cardstock paper on a Silhouette Cameo machine. Either way, the silhouettes must have a strong sense of line to provide contrast. Affix puppet pieces using chosen materials (i.e. sticks, paper fastener brads, etc.)
  3. Build the stage. Stages for shadow puppets and shadow play can be constructed out of anything. Whether you cleverly use the sunlight to cast shadows on the ground or you build a high-tech stage for formal performances, the key to success is a strong light source (i.e. sun, lamp, projector, etc.) and an area to cast shadows (i.e. ground, white paper, white bed sheet, etc.). Check out this easy upcylcled cereal box stage. Or if you want a real challenge, check out this high-tech fancy stage idea.
  4. Put on an awesome show. If you don’t already have an awesome story in mind, try out a story generator to get started. Once you have your idea, you can formally write a script or improv your way to a great performance. Don’t forget to invite others to share in your awesomeness and add in a simple video recording so you can share your performance with the world.

WANT MORE? View the Shadow Puppet Lesson, which is focused on 3rd grade English Language Arts and Visual Arts. In the activity, students will create an original video that will highlight their own story, music, shadow puppets, and stage design. Students will begin by writing a short story in response to book or a prompt. They will consider mood through the creation of original music using found objects to accompany the short story. They will then explore line, shape, and contrast as they create shadow puppets and a stage. The performance can then be performed in front of an audience of other classes and parents or video recorded to share with others beyond the school community. This activity can me managed and modified to take under an hour or be spread over multiple class meetings.

Multidisciplinary connections:

Additional resources: