Learning about the reflection and refraction of light energy is like learning the secret to a magician’s tricks. How can sunlight strike one object and make it look red while hitting a different object and making it appear purple? To elementary-aged students, it all just seems like a big magic trick. Science teachers take this magic and make it meaningful. By the end of the unit, students should be able to distinguish between reflection, where light travels in a straight line bouncing off objects, and refraction, where light bends as a result of a change in medium. Using the 5E model and high-quality resources, teaching about light can be one of the highlights of your year. Here are some of my favorite reflection and refraction activities for teaching and reviewing.
Don’t miss out on the FREE reflection and refraction sorting activity at the end of this post!
Engagement Activity for Light Energy
I always read Philippa Leathers’ The Black Rabbit as a starting point for engagement. In it, a rabbit thinks a big scary black rabbit is following him; it turns out the black rabbit is actually just his shadow. As you read this book with your students, discuss what they understand about shadow creation and what they still need to learn. Here are some questions I keep on hand during and after reading this book.
- Why did the black rabbit always follow the white rabbit?
- What happened to the black rabbit when the white rabbit went into the woods?
- What type of weather was there on this day?
- What size was the black rabbit compared to the white rabbit? Why?
- What was the black rabbit made out of? What about the white rabbit?
These questions are great for partner talk, and getting insight into your learners’ misconceptions and understandings about light.
Reflection and Refraction Hands-on Explore Activity
After gaining their attention, the next few learning sessions should contain opportunities for your students to explore how and when light refracts and reflects. Before teaching the vocabulary and concepts, let the students explore. I make each table group a bin of materials, and give them about ten minutes to see what happens to light while using them. While exploring, students write down observations and share them with their teammates. Once done exploring, students can begin to label their observations by learning the meanings of refraction, and reflection. The materials I give each table group are:
- Flashlight (a laser pointer is a great choice but you must go over safety expectations)
- A clear glass of water
- Unsharpened pencil
- Magnifying glass
- A piece of paper with a target on it
- A concave and a convex lens
- A clear piece of plexiglass
A magical idea for refraction:
- Place students into groups of 2 or 4. Provide each group with a coin, an opaque shallow bowl, and a container of water. Have one student place the coin in the center of the bowl and then step back until the coin in just out of sight. The other student then slowly, without splashing, pours water into the bowl. They should be careful to pour so that the coin remains in the same place. Have students take turns repeating the steps. When finished, have students discuss what they saw and complete a CER over what they think is happening.
Reflection and Refraction Activities for Review
Using a variety of reflection and refraction activities to teach and review will help your students master both the concept and the academic vocabulary that comes with light energy. Here are some of my favorite review activities.
Using peer discussion helps to build a deeper understanding of how light behaves when it interacts with different types of matter. These reflection and refraction discussion cards help bring students’ attention to when light travels in a straight line and then bounces off objects, versus when it bends in refraction.
Get instant engagement with a reflection and refraction escape room. Students work in small groups to crack reflection and refraction codes that will help them escape the room. This fun activity can be completed as a physical escape room or a digital escape room.
Gamify your review with a reflection and refraction board game. Groups of up to 4 can play. Players answer reflection and refraction questions to move their game pieces around the board. The first person or group to reach the finish line wins!
Reflection and Refraction Activities for Extention
Any seasoned teacher knows some students will pick up concepts quicker than others. What do you have on hand for the dreaded, “I’m done!” call from across the room? I have two books that I always keep around the classroom while we explore light. These books are perfect for kids to pick up and peruse when they have a few minutes. The first is A Ray of Light by Walter Wick, and the second is Light: Shadows, Mirrors, and Rainbows by Natalie Myra Rosinsky. What I love most about these books is that they take the sometimes complicated concepts of light, and how it acts, and make them relatable. I always find my students looking around the room, watching light energy in action as they read through these beautiful pages. They learn to observe the world around them and make sense of how it works; what a beautiful sight.
Whatever way you choose to teach the concepts of light movement to your students, keep it fun, keep it active, and most of all, keep it real. Light is all around you; use it!
FREE Concept Sort for Reflection and Refraction of Light Energy
Concept sorts are an easy way to assess your students’ understanding of complex concepts.
Use this FREE light energy sort to gauge student understanding of how light interacts with matter by reflecting or refracting.
Includes materials for creating a reusable file folder center, student interactive notebooks, and a digital version.