May is the perfect month to use a teaching garden to integrate the arts. From science topics such as plant growth and development or insects to venturing into the artistic world while using flower petals to make dyes, there are many opportunities for cross-curricular lessons. Some of the ideas below can be a quick “mix-in” to what you’re already teaching, while some may be larger scale projects that could culminate your school year.
A great way to help students develop a learning mindset while in a teaching garden is to have them great a nature journal for use during garden lessons. Each observation students make or activity they complete in the garden will occur in their journal. While it is quick to hand out premade composition books, it can help students creatively take ownership of their work if they have the opportunity to make their own journal using inspiration from the garden. The following steps for this creation can be scaffolded for the amount of time you have or the ability level of your students.
- Create a nature cover. Have students gather a variety of materials from the garden and press them. Ferns, flower petals, and most leaves are great for this. Have students choose a few to arrange on a piece of cardstock. Students can glue their items to the cardstock, or you can cover them with a piece of clear contact paper to affix them to the cover. While students are arranging their designs, it is a great opportunity to talk about white space or positive and negative space to help them make wise design decisions.
- Assemble the book. Punch holes in the margin of the cover and your choice of paper for the pages. Then, have students fasten the edge by sewing it with yarn or ribbon, or tie the pages closed with raffia.
- Share well-known scientific journals. Before or after creating their nature journal, share famous artistic and scientific science journals with students. This not only emphasizes the importance of journaling sessions, but it provides students with great mentor journals from which they can gain inspiration. My students love learning about Marie Curie’s journals, and how even after 100 years after her death they are still radioactive. It is the perfect time to point out how modern day scientists learn from the journals of past scientists, hoping to learn from them and potentially continue past scientists’ research. Here are a few read aloud titles to share: The Flower Hunter: William Bartram, America’s First Naturalist or The Boy Who Drew Birds: A Story of John James Audubon.
Learning in the Garden
Once students create a nature journal, it is time to explore! While any nature related activity can be recorded in the journal, here are a few of my favorite arts integrated garden lessons.
- Basic nature observations: Have students find an observation space. Give each student a hula hoop or a yard of yarn tied in a large loop. Students should use the hoop to circle the space they plan to observe. This parameter helps students focus on one space without wandering, allowing them to observe more details for a period of time. These are the student directions that I use: Nature JournalingDirections.
- Color matching journaling. This activity is from Project Budburst, a citizen science initiative researching how plants change with the seasons. Have each student grab 6 crayons of different colors. Have students use the Project Budburst color wheel and shade in each section of the wheel with each color crayon they chose. Students should take the wheel into the garden and stop to sketch and observe when they find something that matches their colors.
- Use visual thinking strategies in the garden. Start with Seeing, Thinking, and Wondering during observations. The children’s book In the Garden: Who’s Been Here? by Lindsay Barrett George is a great springboard for this type of garden exploration.
- Exploring colors in the garden. Have students respectfully pull petals (or gather these ahead of time) from different colored flowers, leaves, and grasses. Discuss pigments, and how Native Americans made paints colors from plants and minerals in nature. Have student rub the petals on paper to create a design or to color in a sketch they have done. If they know the type of flower petal they are using, have them label it in their journal.
- Try chlorophyll coloring: Similar to #4, this is an effective and fun way to teach plant vocabulary and the concept of photosynthesis. The idea is simple: have students pluck a few blades of grass and rub it on paper. The green left behind is the chlorophyll, which is the food that the plant makes.
- Natural dyes: Discuss how plants have been used throughout history to dye fabrics. Here is an inquiry-based based science experiment for students to discover the different colors a variety of natural materials produce. and here is a description of a student’s project, dyeing yarns with natural materials. Find more resources here.
Outside of the Journal
Some projects are too three-dimensional to fit in a journal. Here are some garden-based activities that are perfect for integrating the arts with science concepts.
Plant Inspired Batik
Did you know that you can do batik with Elmer’s glue? At this year’s NAEA conference, presenter Annie Jewett shared this great project connecting plants and art. Annie’s directions, as well as her beautiful student work, can be found here at her website. (Simple directions for creating a glue batik can be found here.) Annie had her students create a scientific drawing of a plant they were studying. Students drew on an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper with a pencil and then traced over the pencil with a Sharpie. After placing a piece of muslin over the drawing, students traced their lines again with Elmer’s blue gel glue. Once the glue dried, they painted it with acrylic paints, and after the paint dried, they watched the fabric in hot water to remove the glue. The results were stunning.
Dance Like a Bee
Did you know that bees communicate by dancing? Find a great free lesson plan and handout that allows students to dance this process while learning why bees do this strange waggling. To increase the arts integration, include dance elements when you are giving directions. Observe bee videos and have students use their bodies to mimic the motion as they follow the bee choreography as described in the lesson.
Create Simple Flower Models to Explain Pollination
I like to have students complete this lesson after dissecting a flower so that they are familiar with the parts of a flower. This lesson plan has scientific background information that explains each of these pollinators and more. Students make three different flower models to represent three different pollinators. Since students are creating models, this activity is a direct match for NGSS 3-LS1-1.
- Bee-pollinated flowers: Have students trace, cut, and connect the orchid model on light colored paper. Curl the petals slightly in towards the center of the flower with the side of a pencil. Students should draw the pollen in the center, as well as the “landing zone” lines that guide the insect to the pollen. Finally, spray it with a flowery smelling perfume. This flower represents bee-pollinated plants because they are attracted to smell and can see infrared lines that are like arrows pointing them to the pollen. The shape of the petals helps them stay in the right place so that the pollen is sure to stick to their bodies.
- Bird and butterfly-pollinated flowers: These pollinators are attracted to color and use their beak or proboscis to drink nectar while the pollen rubs onto a bird’s head or a butterfly. Have students take a piece of red construction paper and roll it into a trumpet shape. Tape to keep it together, and fringe the wide end. Insert and attach a straw and a few pipe cleaners to represent the stamen and pistil.
- Wind-pollinated flowers: For this, no attraction is needed, so there is no smell or color. Use a paper cupcake wrapper turned upside down. Poke a small hole in the center of the wrapper, and thread a few pieces of yarn through the hole making it look like a bell. Tie a knot in the yarn so it doesn’t slip through the hole, and fringe the yarn that is hanging. These are light and breezy so the pollen can mix when the wind blows.
To increase the level of inquiry, have students observe these types of flowers, learn about pollinators, and then create a model that would work for each pollinator using supplies you provide. When sharing their creation, have students share evidence for why pollination will work with their plant/pollinator combination.
Make the most of the springtime weather, and get out into nature! As students dive into nature journaling, allow them to frequently share their findings with the class, small groups, or partners. It can even be an informal assessment tool to discover students’ knowledge and misconceptions. I hope it becomes a beneficial activity for you as it has for me!
Dyan is a third grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.