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Mirrors: Playing with reflections

by Louise Parks


Which of the following has happened to you?
You’ve been startled by your reflection in a store window.
You’ve used a reflection in a computer screen to tidy your hair.
You’ve noticed the fear in your face reflected from the lake as you prepare to dive.
You’ve stared into the bathroom mirror wondering when that wrinkle appeared.
You’ve celebrated the dancing points of light reflected in an outdoor mirror ball.

These shared experiences highlight the curiosity, discovery, and fascination humans have with reflective surfaces, including mirrors.


History of mirrors
Noticing a reflection in a quiet pool of water goes back to the dawn of human history. The urge to play with that reflection is just as old. In the ancient world, obsidian, a glass-like volcanic rock, was ground smooth and polished to create the first mirrors, about 8,000 years ago. The Egyptians polished copper while the Chinese and Indian cultures made mirrors from polished bronze.

While ancient civilizations learned that they could create glass by heating sand (composed of silica, soda ash, and lime) to extremely high temperatures, the process was too demanding and the results too unstable to make the work worthwhile. Not until the first century and the invention of glass blowing did glass become commonplace in jewelry, vessels, and even architecture. When layered with polished metal, glass becomes reflective—a mirror.

Today, glass production has changed little, save in the introduction of color and agents that ensure clarity or opacity. Mirrors remain basically unchanged too, although the materials are more refined and more easily shaped into flat, concave (curving inward), convex (curving outward), and even rippling surfaces. Contemporary household mirrors are commonly made of glass backed with thin sheets of aluminum.

Mirrors have an important place in the history of child development. Jacques Lacan, a psychiatrist, noticed that when babies between 15 and 18 months old look into a mirror they recognized themselves (the mirror stage). This developmental milestone is regarded as an essential marker of the baby’s self-awareness and emerging identity as a distinct and unique individual.


Activities with mirrors
Mirrors and other reflective surfaces are fascinating tools for exploration, discovery, and creativity. For every age group, make sure the mirrors are appropriate to the developmental skills of the children using them. Infants and toddlers will appreciate plastic mirrors mounted to walls, crib sides, and the ceiling over the diaper-changing station. Preschoolers can generally safely use heavy glass mirrors in frames in the dramatic play area if they are mounted permanently to a wall; acrylic, unbreakable mirrors on stands are less expensive and have the advantage of being movable—for inside and outdoor use. Offer smaller framed, unbreakable hand mirrors for table-top activities.

Avoid using unframed glass mirrors; even if the mirror doesn’t break, the edges of the mirror are too sharp for young fingers. If your activity requires several small mirrors, consider using acrylic mirrors (though the reflection won’t be as precise as with glass) and wrapping the edges with cloth tape.

Mirror tiles, available at home stores, are an inexpensive addition to the classroom. Typical 12-inch glass tiles have ground beveled edges; they cost less than $2 each. Check the edges and if sharp, wrap in cloth tape. Also available at home stores are large sheets of mirrored acrylic board. Ask to have the sheet cut into 2- by 4-foot pieces—they are easy to store and open the possibility of cooperative art and socialization activities.

Alternatively you can buy high-gloss mirror board (shiny surface on cardboard) in packages of 8 ½ X 11-inch sheets; 10 sheets cost about $5 at craft stores. You can also find 1-inch mirror tiles (in circle, square, and diamond shapes). These too are inexpensive and fun for art and science. They should, however, be restricted to use by school-agers who have been alerted to sharp edges.

Remember to clean and sanitize mirror surfaces routinely. Babies, especially, will mouth the mirrors as they explore.

Watch how play deepens when images—both children’s faces and their tools are reflected. Build a tri-fold mirror by taping three 12-inch mirror tiles together side by side. Place the mirror panel at the manipulative table and observe. As children use construction bricks, Plexiglas® shapes, and jigsaw puzzles, the investigations slow and become more deliberate; the mirror seems to make the familiar materials more complex, more engaging, and more worthy of regard.


Infants and toddler activities
These youngest children learn most and best from sensory explorations. Prepare the environment and let exploration and discovery rule. Just make sure the space is safe and ready for creepers, crawlers, and toddlers.

Mirror, mirror everywhere. Give the environment an honest appraisal and try to find additional areas for mounted mirrors. Place the mirrors along the floor for babies who are just beginning to scoot and crawl; the position will be appropriate for toddlers too.

If your ceiling is structurally sound, consider hanging a 24-inch square mirror over the diaper-changing table. Make sure it’s higher than an adult’s head to avoid bumps but low enough that babies can gaze at their reflections during changing time. String small toys and hang them from the mirror so the baby can see the toy’s front and back surfaces.

It’s shiny. Buy Mylar® squares at a craft shop. Cut large shapes and tape them to the walls and other durable surfaces. These are inexpensive and easy to move from place to place for a shiny surprise.

My picture. Tape a large photo of a baby to the wall mirror. Sit with the baby to explore facial features—on the photo and in the mirror. Invite conversation by asking, “Where’s Nico’s nose?” or “Pat Jessa’s hair,” for example.

Bubble pop. Challenge a toddler’s hand-eye coordination by blowing bubbles toward a mirror and inviting the child to pop the bubble against the mirror surface.


Preschool activities
As children build skills across all domains, mirror play reinforces self-identity and introduces early science lessons on reflection and light. Support learning by allowing ample time for exploration.

Show your emotion. Invite a child to sit next to you in front of a mirror. Demonstrate facial expressions that express a range of emotions—sad, happy, surprise, frustration, fear, or anger, for example. Challenge the child to name the emotion and to mirror it in the mirror. With experience, children can play the game with each other, taking turns making faces, naming emotions, and mirroring.

Prepare an extension of the game by writing the names of emotions on index cards. Invite beginning readers to draw a card from the stack and showing the emotion the card directs.

Getting dressed. Invite children to put on dress-up clothes in front of a mirror. Allow ample time for trying on hats, wigs, scarves, and aprons. Similarly, ask them to put on their outdoor jackets at the mirror. Encourage them to self-correct buttons that are askew and waistbands that are turned.

Same and different. Invite couples of children to stand in front of the mirror. Either with a Rebus checklist or your verbal direction, invite them to compare—hair color, hair length, teeth, eye color, skin shade, clothing, shoes, and so forth. Encourage them to use this careful observation and comparison to complete a self-portrait in the art center using collage materials, crayons, paint, and markers. Have each child sign the self-portrait.

Reflections of loose parts. Use a framed mirror as a tray for table-top sensory exploration. Gather a variety of soft, textured, loose parts. You might choose materials from nature (leaves, twigs, feathers, and grass) or small construction links, buttons, bricks, or stacking rings. The exploration changes when children can see both the top and underside of an object.

Mono-prints on glass. Put mirrored tiles or a large mirror in the art area. Invite children to finger paint on the glass surface and to describe how what they feel is different than when they paint on paper. Make a mono-print (a single print) by placing a sheet of paper over the mirror to lift the paint. The print is a mirror image of the painting on the mirror.

If you use a large sheet of mirrored acrylic, the children can work together on a mural print. Be prepared for a mess—and exceptional artwork.

Mirrors and water. Pour about 3 inches of water in an outdoor sensory table or tub. Place mirror tiles on the bottom of the tub under the water. Invite children to look at themselves in the mirrors. Talk with the children about what they see.

Invite children to disturb the water and to look for their images again. What happens as the water becomes still again? Invite the children to add a few floating materials to the tub—a flower, a sponge, a leaf. Compare the images when the water is still, slightly moving, and agitated.


Activities for older children
Mirror activities for school-age children invite scientific inquiry. Share background information and give children the time to dig deeper and build skills based on curiosity and creativity.

Multiple reflections. If you place two mirrored surfaces at an angle you can increase the number of reflected images. Prepare the activity by drawing a 12-inch-long line on a large sheet of paper. Draw additional straight lines from the end of the original line at a series of angles—from 180 degrees to 30 degrees.

Provide small framed table-top mirrors or 12-inch mirror tiles for exploration. Place a small toy on the table and show how to hold one mirror vertically and securely on the single line. Place the two mirrors side by side (a 180-degree angle) with the toy between. Ask the children to count the number of reflections of the toy. Adjust the angle by putting the second mirror on another line and count again. Chart the results noting the angle and the number of reflections.

If the two mirrors are in a straight line (180 degrees) they will reflect the toy only once. At angles between 180 degrees and 90 degrees, there are two reflections. When two mirrors are parallel, the number of reflections is infinite.

Encourage conversations about the reflections and ask children to build a hypothesis as they adjust angles from wide to narrow. Ask, “Does it matter where you stand when you’re counting reflections?”

Walking on clouds. Note: This activity demands careful supervision and is best done with fewer than four children at a time. Be careful to introduce the activity by making it clear that all the children will get a turn.

Take a few mirror tiles outdoors and designate an activity area that is flat and has no tripping obstacles. Give each child a mirror tile and show how to hold the mirror level and parallel to the ground. Invite the children to look into the mirror as they walk around the area. After a designated time, ask the children to put the mirrors down and to talk about what they experienced.

Mirrored art. Arrange the space so that there is a mirror close to the art table. Encourage the children to draw their reflections or another classroom object they see in the mirror.

Written reflection. Invite children to use the mirror to explore backward print. What happens when you hold the front of a book, a newspaper, or class height chart into a mirror? Encourage children to explore, discover, and record what they find.