Color Refraction Science Experiment

This simple science experiment/art project is a great way to make children think about the science of light and color.



Light waves travel in straight lines through empty space. The speed of light is reduced when light enters a dense medium, such as water. In these dense mediums, the light wave is said to refract, or bend. Create a visual experiment for children to observe this theory of refraction.

A good way to explain refraction, or the bending of a light wave when the light moves from one medium to another, is through a visual experience. Let’s begin!

Step 1. Gather your supplies.

Step 2. 

Set up a still life using a vase filled half way with water and two paintbrushes inside. Have your child draw and paint the object in front of them. Allow them to draw what they see, or what they “think” they see. Most children will draw straight paintbrushes in water.

Step 3.

You will note that most children will simply draw and paint what they think they see, in this case straight paintbrushes and blue water.

Step 4.

Once they have drawn the design, have them step back and observe the vase more closely and explain the concept of refraction. Refraction refers to the bending of a light wave when the light moves from one medium to another. In this case, when looking head on, your child should observe that the paintbrushes appear bent when passing through the water. The paintbrushes distort in the water as the light waves enter the water and “refract.” The water then reflects the surrounding environment. This is similar to what happens when you try to run in water – your body slows down, just as light does when it travels through water!

Step 5. 

Now, have your child draw a second version of this still life. Encourage them to pay attention to what they actually see. Ask them to take special care to show the distortion in the paintbrushes and the many colors that appear in the water. Once complaint, paint the enhance the design.

Step 6.

You will be surprised at how interesting their paintings turn out! Take some time to discuss the differences between the two paintings.

Further Discussion:

A science experiment that is paired with an art project, is a great way to make children think about light, color and observation. Expand the conversation into other topics about light color and illusion using more more experiments that involve light waves!

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