Exploring Refraction: A Child-led Discovery

I thought I’d share with you how a typical exploration comes about in our home. People often ask how I come up with ideas for ‘activities’. It’s really not about thinking up my own ideas, but rather listening to their questions and providing ways they can learn more and discover the answers for themselves.

This one started with some questions one day while we were having morning tea.

Miss 6: ‘How does light make colours if it’s only clear?’

Miss 4: ‘It’s not clear, it’s yellow. But how does it make colours if it’s only yellow?’

Me: ‘Like a rainbow? What do you think happens?’

Miss 6: ‘Maybe it shines through water and mixes with microbes. Yeah, I really think that’s the answer.’

Miss 4: ‘I think it mixes with all different kinds of microbes to make different colours and then they curve themselves around into a rainbow.’

Me: ‘Interesting.’

I left it there instead of providing them with the answers, as they were satisfied with their own ideas. I then made a note of our conversation and exactly what they had said, and started thinking about how we could explore this further.

Exploring Refraction: A Child-led Discovery

I remembered we had a triangular prism packed away in an optics kit in the cupboard which would be perfect for this. So, a couple of days later when we had a bright sunny morning I took it out to the outdoor table and asked them if they wanted to have a look at it. They asked what it was and I told them it was called a prism and said ‘I wonder if you can make a rainbow with it?’

Exploring Refraction: A Child-led Discovery

After some twisting and turning we saw our first rainbow! They were excited! They each had a turn.

Exploring Refraction: A Child-led Discovery

Exploring Refraction: A Child-led Discovery

Next I gave them some white paper and oil pastels and invited them to draw what they saw. They noticed the colours were always in the same order as a rainbow. Then we had a talk about what was happening.

Me: ‘What do you think is happening to make a rainbow?’

Miss 6: ‘I think the light mixes with microbes in the water to make colours.’

Me: ‘Does the prism have water in it?’

Miss 6: ‘Oh, no. I don’t know. How did it make a rainbow?’

Me: ‘Do you have any other ideas?’

Miss 6: ‘No. I don’t know. Do you know?’

Me: ‘I know the colours were actually in the light all along. Light is made up of all the colours and when they’re combined you can’t see them.’

Miss 6: ‘So, the prism is breaking up the light’

Me: ‘Yes. So the same happens when you see a rainbow in the sky. How is that made?’

Miss 4: ‘With rain and sun! The light shines through the rain.’

Me: ‘I wonder if we can use water to make a rainbow too.’

Exploring Refraction: A Child-led Discovery

We made some rainbows using a glass of water and found that we had to tilt the glass to make the light go through at an angle to see a rainbow. We talked a bit more and also touched on the speed of light and how it changes when it passes through the water or prism.

Exploring Refraction: A Child-led Discovery

A little later I set out some oil pastels and water colour paints and asked the girls if they wanted to draw or paint something about what we had done that morning. They both wanted to. Above is Miss 4’s drawing showing the sun going into a glass of water, then the glass of water tilted on an angle, and then the rainbow that was made. I love how she decided to use arrows to show the steps.

Exploring Refraction: A Child-led Discovery

Miss 6 drew the rainbow being made by the prism. I love how she’s even drawn the light inside the prism.

Exploring Refraction: A Child-led Discovery

And because I am often asked how I do things with the older girls while the little ones are around, here’s what Miss 1 was up to. When we were experimenting outside she watched and had a turn too. While they were painting she did her own painting. Baby sister was asleep in the carrier the whole time.

That’s pretty much how most things unfold here. It starts with a question, and I provide a way for them to explore it further. We keep investigating until they’re satisfied, and follow their lead as to how far they want to go. Here they’ve found out that light is made up of different colours and that it is ‘broken up’ when it passes through water, creating the rainbows they see in the sky. We didn’t go further into how exactly that happens. They might think about it for a few days and then ask more questions, or they might not! Where it goes now is up to them.

13 thoughts on “Exploring Refraction: A Child-led Discovery

  1. I love it! πŸ™‚ Absolutely fabulous and just how we do things around here for my preschool girls… you make me wanna homeschool soooo much more!! Hehe! But I think we’re settled on our local ‘small school’ with 24 students from K-6 πŸ™‚

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