Easy-Peasy Light Box

Light boxes are a great way to introduce a toddler to color and light.  Because children are interested in the way light plays over and through objects, they can be used to hold a child's attention while you introduce other concepts. Colorful shapes can be used to teach sizes, shapes and sorting skills.  They can also be used to introduce math concepts such as counting and basic fractions. Because light boxes are fun, children use them in sensory, exploratory, and imaginative play. -And by the way, did I mention they are cool?  I wish I'd had one as a kid!

A professionally built light table is pretty expensive, and so are many of the blocks and objects sold for use on light tables.  Buying one wasn't an option for us, so I got creative.  There are quite a few homemade light box tutorials out there, and I combined a few features from my favorites-using the most economical materials I could find.

To build your own light box, the name says it all.  You need a box, and a light.  You need a box with a transparent or translucent top that is fairly durable, and you need a light source that is diffused and not too bright or dim.  This leaves you with a lot of options when it comes to making your own.  Most tutorials either suggest you build a custom frame with glass or plexiglass tops, or use plastic storage totes.  For lighting the favorite is the under-counter fluorescent lights-they are relatively inexpensive, cover a large area, and do not heat up.  Battery powered closet lights are also popular for boxes that need to be portable.   Other creative solutions for lighting included Christmas light strings and rope lights. The most unique solution I saw used an old flatbed scanner-but I don't have the electronic expertise to rig one of those.

This is what I came up with:

1. Two small totes: Only one child will be using this at a time, so I didn't need a large box.  I wanted the totes shallow-you don't need much height for a light box, and I wanted the height of the box to be manageable if I stacked a second tote on top to contain objects. I'd hoped to find something with a flat bottom, but had to make do with two small indentations on the lids and base of the totes.  The deciding factor: these were on sale.
2. Extension cord: I used one I had already.
3. Aluminum foil to line the tote. Most light boxes are set up so the bottom and sides are opaque, and they are usually lined with something that will reflect light back to the top.
4. Socket plugs ($0.97).  I looked at a lot of options for lighting.  These totes were slightly too small for the undercabinet lights I already had, or I would have used those.  It would have cost about $10 to get a shorter light, and a bit more to buy a rope light, which would have been another good option.  These sockets plug into a normal plug, and hold a standard size light bulb.  I worried using bulbs like this would make two bright spots, and the rest of the box would be dim, but the tissue paper diffused the light well enough that you don't really notice the two brighter spots much.  (And I figure this is a temporary setup anyway).
5. Light bulbs: don't use regular incandescent bulbs, they get too hot and would possibly melt the box and in the worst-case-scenario could start a fire.  Compact florescent bulbs can generate heat, but not enough to cause a problem if used for short periods of time.  I wouldn't suggest leaving it on for more than an hour or leaving the box unattended without checking the temperature.  How hot it gets will depend on the wattage you choose. So far we haven't had an issue with heat.
6. Tissue paper: you need something to diffuse the light a bit so you don't have a few bright spots and the rest is dark.  I like tissue paper because it comes in larger sheets, so you don't have to tape it together and it is thin enough to let a lot of light through while spreading the light more uniformly instead of having a few bright spots.  Some people like contact paper with an etched glass look.
7. Tape.

To assemble:
1.  Line one tote with foil, and line the lid with tissue paper.  I just used a bit of tape to hold it down. In a few tutorials they've spray-painted the inside of the bottom tote with silver.  I figured I can more easily re-purpose the totes if I use foil.
2.  I plugged the sockets into the extension cord, and screwed in the bulbs.  Some tutorials suggest drilling a hole in the tote for the cord, but I found the lid closed easily over the cord without pinching it dangerously. Again, this will let me use the tote later for something else when I get around to building a nicer light box.
3. I suggest using some packing tape to hold the lid of the tote down, so it isn't a temptation to open the light box.

Some ideas for using the box:
I tried to find some affordable colored plexiglass or other colored blocks to use with the tote, but everything turned out to be rather pricey.  While I'd like to get some sometime-I decided any translucent plastic could be used in the box.  First find: some plastic binder dividers.  I cut some shapes out of the plastic and we were ready to go!  These were heavy enough that they haven't bent yet.  I may get some more and make some blocks and cups or cones to play with.

Another favorite activity has been the floral gelatin beads.  These are fun to pour and scoop-and there are a few that came out tiny-and we had fun sorting through them looking for the itty bitty ones.

I bought our beads for $2 at the big W.  Each package contains about a teaspoon, but once hydrated, one package was enough to cover the bottom of the tote.  These are non-toxic, but can be a choking hazard, so use supervision if your child is curious or mouths objects.  These feel wet and rubbery, don't squish too easily, and are pretty fun to run your hands through.  They also seem to last indefinitely, and are slow to dry out (a few that fell on the floor and were found a few days later had shrunk to half their size but returned to normal after being soaked).  They can be put in a sieve and rinsed if you feel they need it, and I just dump them into a plastic zip bag and keep them in the fridge.  I guess they will gradually loose their color but after a few weeks ours still look the same as day one.

Cons: they do bounce if dropped and can be a bit hard to contain, I have to pick up a dozen or so after each play session but feel it isn't enough of a mess to do away with them.  The red ones don't stain fingers or the tote that I used-though a white plastic scoop I let him use picked up the dye.  To be safe I rinse out the tote and wipe it down after each use.

Not everything needs to be translucent-one of the favorite toys to go in the box has been a pile of little plastic animals.  The light makes great silhouettes out of the figures, and my little buddy likes moving them into cups and containers then dumping them out.  He also picks up random objects to put in the box, and it is fun to stand back and watch him experiment.

The next thing I'd like to try is salt painting-just pour table salt or sand into the bottom of the tote so it has a good covering, then draw in the salt.  This would be a good way to practice letters or shapes, or tell a story.  Here is a link to a video showing a master artist using this technique.  You could even show this video to older children, then have them tell their own story. 

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