I first saw a Light Table on Play at Home Mom’s website, and was immediately inspired by the play possibilities. It is a very Reggio-inspired material, allowing for open-ended exploration of any material that is placed on top of it. Real light tables or light panels can be very expensive, and while I think that they could be a worthwhile investment for someone who has the option or imperative to purchase one, I decided to first try my hand at making our own Light Box.
I viewed several tutorials online and they all seemed to creep up in price — some cost as much or more as actually purchasing a real light panel! Many of the lower-cost tables were only achieved based on the DIY-er already owning the needed materials — old (expensive) train tables, spray paint, etc — which were small extra costs that anyone following their tutorials would have to purchase. My commitment was to create a table based on readily-available materials that would total $25 or less.
My first step was to find an appropriate box. Several of the boxes recommended were either sold in specialty stores (not in my area), were ridiculously expensive, or had been discontinued. I found this one for $8 at my closest Wal-Mart.
In that same Wal-mart I also found a package of four camping tap-lights for $16. I wish I had done a bit more research on my light source but I am happy with our results. Our lights use AAA batteries, and if I didn’t own reusable AAAs, the cost would add up quickly. A good tip is to remove the batteries when the lights are not in use — lights seem to drain battery power even when they are turned off. I’ve since seen a package of six similar-quality tap lights that use AA batteries (lower cost) at Costco for $30, and you honestly only need two or three so that package could be split with a friend. You could also purchase strip lighting at a hardware store, or repurpose non-heating holiday lights.
I simply lined my bin with tinfoil, the shiny side facing up to reflect more light, and taped it in place. I then lined my lid with white tissue paper and placed the lights in the corners. Ella has only recently started opening this bin to turn on the lights and initiate light play herself, and so far has been really delicate with the tissue paper and tinfoil linings. Personally, I am more okay with the cost and environmental impact of replacing a square of tinfoil rather than dealing with chipped or peeling paint, but some people might prefer to paint the bottom of the box with a matte black and the top with an opaque white.
We’ve experimented with the number of lights and I find that two lights give off more than sufficient light, but four does give off a more “even” effect.
- Short/Thin and Clear Bin, or Bin with clear top
- Light strips, holiday lights, or tap lights
- Tissue, Wax or Parchment Paper
- Transparent (Scotch) tape
Cost breakdown is $8 for the bin, $16 for the lights, and if you didn’t have tinfoil or any opaque paper, those could each be purchased for less than a dollar — bringing us to the exact total of $25! If you already owned an appropriate bin or light source, your cost would be even lower than that!
(I will say that the light table doesn’t photograph well — in pictures, the light sources seem to emit less light than they really do, and the table doesn’t look, in person, to have four separate rings of light. It is very even.)
The light table can be used for any number of activities. We’ve used it to explore playdough, colour mixing, counting, patterning, drawing, sensory bins (waterbeads and sand), and continue to find new uses weekly. If Ella continues to love this material into the Elementary years, we may invest in a “real” light panel, but I would still keep this DIY light box for messy explorations — an advantage that this wipe-able, easily cleaned DIY version has over expensive light panels that could break if they were exposed to some of our exploration materials (water, sand, rocks, etc).
How would you (or have you) explore a light table?