Seeing Spirits

seeing spiritsA quiet forest appears empty. But gaze long enough and…a fox spirit will magically appear before your eyes! No, its not Photoshop or camera trickery. It’s a simple physical stage illusion called Pepper’s Ghost (invented by English scientist John Henry Pepper in 1862). We conjured it at To Be Continued, our chapter book story time program for 6-8 year-olds. Scroll to the bottom of the post to see a video of the illusion in action!

We read Arlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon, written by John August (Roaring Brook Press, 2019). Summer camp for most kids means bonfires, canoeing, and hiking. But for Arlo Finch and his friends, it means surviving the supernatural forces of the Long Woods. Doppelgangers, menacing strangers, talking foxes, locations both in and out of time, and a mysterious object unearthed after decades in hiding test both Arlo’s courage, and his friends’ loyalty.

In the book, Arlo has a special ability to see the spectral world. And I’ve wanted to make a Pepper’s Ghost project for kids for AGES. Through an afternoon of happy experimenting, I was able to construction this inexpensive and kid-friendly tabletop version.

You’ll need:

  • 2 large tissue boxes
  • A box cutter
  • 1 toilet paper tube
  • 1 piece of glass or clear polystyrene (more on this below)
  • White card stock
  • Scissors, glue, and tape for construction
  • Markers for decorating

First, cut the lids off the top of a pair of large tissue boxes. Then cut the boxes in such a way as to create an L shape box like so:

ghost box step 1The L shape box is consists of two sections: a “forest section” and a “ghost section.”

ghost box sectionsNext, cut a small square (approximately 1.75″ x 1.75″) in the side of the box that faces the forest section. This is your viewfinder.

ghost box step 2In the book, Arlo gazes through a slipknot, a loop of rope or lacing that allows him to see and travel multidimensionally. In order to replicate that rounded view, we slid a 2.25″ piece of toilet paper tube into the viewfinder as well.

ghost box step 3 Now draw a backdrop for the wall opposite the viewfinder. I had the kids decorate a pre-cut  piece of paper or cardboard, then we glued it to the inside of the box.

ghost box step 4Next, sketch a ghost on a piece of white card stock. Here’s my tribute to Fox, a spirit from the book (and my favorite character):

fox spiritTape the ghost in the ghost section of the Pepper’s Ghost box. Though you will probably need to do a little adjusting on the exact placement, try to arrange the ghost in the center of the section. I found this gave the best results.

ghost box step 5Now for the magic! A Pepper’s Ghost illusion is essentially a reflection. For this model, the reflection is caused by a piece of glass or clear polystyrene set at a 45 degree angle in the junction of the L shaped box.

ghost box step 6During my initial test, I used a piece of glass from a 4″ x 6″ picture frame. However, I was a little uncomfortable giving multiple 6-8 year-old kids pieces of glass to take home. Luckily, I found clear polystyrene sheets on Amazon (a set of ten, 8″ x 10″ sheets cost $15). Polystyrene is plastic, lighter weight, doesn’t shatter, and you can cut it down to size with a box cutter or scissors. Testing revealed that the reflection illusion works just as well with polystyrene as glass. Yay!

The final piece of the Pepper’s Ghost illusion is the lighting. First, cover the area above the view finder with a square of cardboard…

ghost box step 7Then hinge a second square of cardboard over the ghost section. It’s important that this flap open and close. With the flap closed, the ghost will not appear through the viewfinder. But when you lift the flap, the ghost section will illuminate, causing a reflection to appear.

ghost box step 8Ready to see the illusion in action? Close the flap and peer through the viewfinder. Keep gazing through the viewfinder, then lift the flap over the ghost section. Your ghost will magically appear! I also encouraged kids to stick their hands in the forest section and try to grab the ghost. Their fingers passed right through it, of course!


This isn’t the first time the To Be Continued kids have adventured with Arlo Finch and his friends. We read the first book, Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire earlier in the program (you can see the project we did here). The kids voted unanimously to read the sequel. It did not disappoint. The Arlo Finch books are full of action, intrigue, mystery, and humor. I highly recommend them!

Abracadabra

abracadabra

Hat, wand, and rabbit ready? Then…it’s showtime! Prepare yourself for a magical extravaganza extraordinaire with a top hat packed with mind-boggling magic tricks!

We read Life is Magic by Meg McLaren (Clarion Books, 2016). Not every rabbit is the right fit for a magic show assistant. But Houdini the rabbit? He’s a natural! However, when a stage trick turns the magician into a rabbit himself, it’s up to Houdini to keep the show running until he can figure a way to get his human back!

You’ll need:

  • 1 plastic top hat
  • 1 strip of white poster board (approximately 2″ x 28″)
  • Black poster board
  • 1 square of plastic tablecloth (approximately 6.5″ x 6.5″)
  • 1 magic rabbits template, printed on 8.5″ x 11″ card stock
  • 1 piece of string (approximately 27″)
  • 1 snippet of plastic straw (approximately 1.75″)
  • 1 piece of PVC pipe (approximately 10.5″)
  • A selection of color masking tape
  • Scissors and tape for construction
  • Markers for decorating

magic top hat exterior

First, use markers to decorate a 2″ x 28″ strip of white poster board (we offered foil star stickers as well!). Wrap the hatband around the outside of a plastic top hat. We bought our hats from Oriental Trading Company (item #70/1284) for $8 a dozen. INSIDE the hat is where the magic happens…

magic top hat interiorAs you can see, the interior of the hat has two hidden pockets. These are made from 2 rectangles of black poster board taped inside the hat. After some testing, we learned that the pockets need to be fairly large (4.25″ x 9.5″) in order for the tricks to works successfully.

First, stuff a 6.5″ x 6.5″ piece of plastic tablecloth inside the right pocket of the hat.This is your magical “handkerchief.” Meanwhile, on the left side of the hat, notice the little 1.75″ snippet of plastic drinking straw? That’s the beginning of the pull string for a long line of magic rabbits…

magic hat rabbits pull stringWe gave the kids white rabbits to color, but if you want to print them in rainbow, you’ll find that template here. Knot a piece of string around the drinking straw snippet, then tape the rabbits to the dangling string. Bunch the rabbits up and slip them into the left pocket of the hat. However, leave the drinking straw snippet dangling outside the pocket so your fingers can find it later when you’re performing your trick.

Ready for the magic? Trick #1: First, show your audience that the inside of the hat is “empty.” Then, sneeze into your hat dramatically. While you are sneezing, pull the plastic handkerchief from the hidden pocket and say “Ta da!” Trick #2: Again, show the inside of your hat is empty. Then find the dangling drinking straw snippet with your fingers. Shout “Abracadabra!” and yank the line of rabbits out of your hat!

We also made classic wands by wrapping a 10.5″ piece of PVC pipe with color masking tape. And who can resist a poster board bow tie that attaches to your collar with a small paperclip?

magic wand and bowtieIf you’d like a add a third trick to your magic show, we highly recommend the “sticky wand” trick. You’ll find it, and other awesome tricks, in this “Incredible Illusions” post, but I’ve modified the instructions slightly below.

First, run your hand around the rim of your hat, announcing that it is giving you “magic magnetic powers.” Next, hold the wand in your “magnified” hand. Say “Observe my stupendous magnetic powers!” Extend your arm across your body and out to your side, still grasping the wand. Wrap your free hand around the wrist of your wand hand. Slowly and dramatically, lift each finger from the wand until you no longer appear to be holding it.

wand trick 2

But you are holding it of course. Because when you grab your wrist, you sneak a finger behind your wand hand and hold the wand like this:

wand trick 3 Tell the audience they have magic abilities too. On the count of three, have them audience clap once to “demagnetize” the wand. When you hear the clap, lift your finger to release the wand, and let it fall dramatically to the floor. Then take a big bow!

Now You See It…

now-you-dont This paper disappears in water before your very eyes, leaving the letters floating free. It’s the ultimate aqueous word scramble!

I was very intrigued when I spotted this dissolving paper in Educational Innovations’ online catalog. I’ve certainly seen the floating letter experiments with Skittles and M&Ms, but I’ve never seen anything like this paper! It’s made of sodium carboxyl methyl cellulose, a non-toxic substance that dissolves quickly in hot or cold water. Each sheet is 8.5″ x 11″. You can buy the sheets in packs of 15 for $7.95, packs of 30 for $13.95, or, if you want to vanish a whole novel, you can get 100 sheets for $42.50.

dissolving-paperThe paper is about half the thickness of standard office printer paper, but it went through both of our office printers and the copy machine with no tearing or jamming. Granted, I was just printing 1 sheet at a time. I did try 3 pages in a row on our most trustworthy office printer. Unfortunately, it had trouble grabbing the thin paper and actually missed the final sheet of the print job entirely. I was waaaay too chicken to try multiple sheets in the copy machine.

The product description stated that this paper works with “most laser printers and copiers.” But we took it a step further and also tested an inkjet printer, Sharpie permanent marker, roller ball pen ink, and ballpoint pen ink.

First, the laser jet printer. I filled a dish tub with a couple inches of room temperature water a dropped the paper in. It floated for a just moment, and then started rapidly dissolving. In a few seconds, it was reduced to a thin, almost transparent, paper-shaped film.

The package recommended giving the water a gentle stir, so I poked a drinking straw in the solution. It started breaking up, dissolving further, and yes! The letters started floating! How long do the letters remain on the surface of the water? A long time! I left them in the dish tub overnight, and they were still happily floating the next morning.

laserjet-testSecond test, copy machine. The letters printed considerably lighter on the page (this was a toner thing with our copier, not the paper). But that didn’t impair the letters from floating on the water like little alphabet ducks!

copier-testSo our laser jet printer and the copy machine worked. What didn’t work? Our inkjet printer. First of all, it blotted the paper during printing…

inkjet-blotchAnd when it came to the water test, the letters just disintegrated:

inkjet-testThe same applies for Sharpie permanent marker:

sharpie-testRoller ball ink and ballpoint ink also broke apart. The ballpoint ink shredded immediately (you can just see the sentence “Will ballpoint pen work?” at the bottom of the image below). Roller ball, I am surprised to report, held out a little longer.

roller-and-ballpoint-testIt was sort of cool. The roller ball ink blurred, sunk a little, and then just hung in the water. Eventually, however, the roller ball ink went the way of the ball point, Sharpie, and inkjet. It dissolved into a black smudgy mess.

It’s important to note that for all of these tests, the paper didn’t dissolve entirely. There was a little cloud of solution that started hanging around the bottom of the dish tub. The more paper I dissolved, the cloudier the water become. So if you’re going to do this with a bunch of kids, you will definitely need to change the water every so often.

Finally…

Being the incredibly mature people that we are, we decided to test the paper in the toilet. It worked. Of course it worked.

toilet-testBut no matter where you’re dissolving this paper – a dish tub or a commode – the letters do float apart very quickly. So leaving a secret message for someone isn’t really going to work (unless they’re standing right next to you and reading quickly). But this would be a fantastic way to introduce the concept of the anagram. Or jump-start a discussion about biodegradable materials. Or, just experience the fun of watching a sentence you’ve written slide apart and swirl across the surface of the water. Magic!