Box Theatre: Grade 4-6 Ideas and Engagement

This morning, I helped out with some outreach program at MTSU for grade 4-6 students. I had 4 groups of about 10 students each come through for a science activity lasting about 40 minutes. We, of course, talked about and investigated with pinhole theaters.

Here is what the children predicted they would see (collected across all four groups that circled through the activity):

(1) A small circle of light (because it takes the shape of the hole)

(2) A dimly lit box (because light spreads out to fill the box)

(3) You will see nothing. It will be a completely dark box, (because the hole is too tiny to let light in) / (because your head will block all the light)

(4) A shadow of your head, (because your head will block some of the light, but not all) / (because some light will go around your head)

(5) You will just the see the inside of the box, because even if it’s dark you can still see a little.

(6) The box will be dark at first, but as more and more light gets in it will be light everywhere inside

(7) At first it will look dark, but our eyes will adjust, and we will eventually see something.

(8) You will see a shadow or picture of whatever is outside the box

(9) The shadow or picture of whatever is behind us will be seen upside down, because it’s like an eye.

(10) There will be colors or a rainbow, because of the reflective tape.

Here is what students noted that they saw:

They saw the window, and trees, branches, leaves, and the sky and clouds, and people, and buildings, and grass, and some saw colors, and some noted that it was upside down. Other swore it was right side up. And others only saw it in black and white. One child got scared when a person walked behind them and they swore they saw a ghost.

Here is what students had to say after the observing and drawing:

The white paper reflects the outside like a mirror.

The glass window makes it go upside down (note: it was too cold to be outside, so we looked out a window)

The hole makes the outside squeeze down and go inside the box

Our brain is being tricked into seeing it upside down

The box is like an eye without a brain

The hole being at the top of the box (not the middle) is why

The colors that are blue go in blue (like the sky), and the colors that are white go in white (like the clouds), and they go in and paint a picture

The image is black and white (and not colored) because the paper is white, and it can’t show colors.

The reflective tape is acting like a mirror

After we predicted, observed, and shared our ideas, not a single child asked me what the answer was. Many lingered around to tell me about their ideas, many came over to tell me what they were wondering about, and many told me about who they were going to share their discoveries with when they got home.

Engagement as  Social Construct

Of the 4 groups, only one was disinterested. They didn’t want to share their ideas. As a class, they only came up with three ideas: the box would be dark, we’d see the paper, or we’d see light. They balked at the idea of trying to draw what they would see. Many chose to just free draw instead, and many complained that they didn’t know how to draw, or that they had no ideas about what they would see. Not a single student in any other group had this problem, but over half the students in this group were disengaged in some way. They weren’t even excited to see images in the box, and had no interest in trying to draw or talk about what they saw. This group was very different than the others groups, who were excited to think, and share, and draw. They were excited about their discoveries, and happy to share possible explanations.

So what was the difference? Why would one group be so different? Was it something different about the students? Did I do something different?  Was it just later in the day and students were brain-zonked? To tell you the truth, I don’t think any of those things explain I saw. I actually believe that the difference was largely due to the chaperones. In the disinterested group,  the adults in the room stayed in the corner playing with their i-pads and i-phones. They didn’t look up, or listen to the students. One of them kept walking in and out of the room with his phone. There were also two high school aged students in the classroom who were showing vivid signs of contempt, sarcasm, and disdain for being there. I think children (and people in general) are very aware of these behaviors and the social cues they send, even if it is subconscious. Those signals were clear–the activity was not interesting or worthy of their engagement. And those children suffered because of it. Of course, I can’t be sure about that. But that’s what I saw. See, In the other groups, the adults were engaged in the activity. They were responsive to me and my invitations to be part of the activity, and they were attentive to the children. The children’s excitement was reciprocated by all the adults in the room. That sent the message that it was not only OK to be excited, but that it was something worthy of their time, excitement, and engagement.

4 thoughts on “Box Theatre: Grade 4-6 Ideas and Engagement

Add yours

  1. I agree. I saw this so often on field trips. There was always a couple of parents on their phone or leaving to talk on their phone. They had no interest in the field trip, be it a museum or a trip to a farm. Their children were always drawn to the more engaged parents, and I always felt sad for them. If they can’t generate enthusiasm for something new and different they will experience on a field trip, do the little common things at home engage them? I often think that cell phones should be banned, for parents, on field trips.

  2. Brian, such a powerful observation. I should re-read this next time I chaperone a trip, and share it with all the other chaperones.

    I’m also curious about the pinhole theaters—how big were they? Were they large enough for students to actually walk inside and see the image formed by the pinhole?

    1. medium size moving boxes. Big enough to put your whole head in… and see a large image. I think if I did it again, I’d get the refrigerator size box.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: