Art in Nature
By Beverley Hartman, Head Teacher
Inspired this year by our natural setting and the works of artist Andy Goldsworthy, the teachers in the East Mornings classroom led a project we called Art in Nature. We sought to guide children in an exploration of color, shape, texture and pattern, using materials from the play yard. We examined the art in nature, observing changes over time.
Nature study was a good fit for our curriculum because the play yards and gardens are rich with trees, plants and flowers. They also offer small stones, pebbles and sand as well as animal life. In a sense, the project was an extension of last year’s project, focusing on trees, which still resonated with the children and teachers. The children observed, collected, considered and designed with found materials in the process. This curriculum afforded ample opportunity to learn the characteristics of the objects, to investigate their scientific properties and to represent the ideas about art in nature that emerged.
Andy Goldsworthy’s outdoor installation Stone River at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center is a huge serpentine sculpture built from sandstone recycled from campus structures. Teachers visited the site and invited families to do the same. Back at the school, teachers and children saw the sand area in a new light. It became a fresh canvas, providing opportunities to mold and shape the landscape in new patterns and textures. Children learned to add materials to their sand sculptures that enhanced the designs. Teachers watched the documentary Rivers and Tides about Andy Goldsworthy and also viewed his images and writings.
“My sculpture can last for days or a few seconds—what is important for me is the experience of making. I leave all my work outside and often return to watch it decay,” says Goldsworthy. This mirrors the young child’s interest in process and reminds the adults of the value in the immediate experience. For a small-scale experience, children used sand trays with an array of stones, shells and acorns to make patterns or represent ideas. On a large scale, children excavated boulders in the sand area and made their own stone river. Inquiry and activities promoted learning about color, shape, texture and pattern. We returned to these investigations to observe changes such as how water revealed the color of a pebble or how leaves crinkled and faded as they dried. Teachers found meaning in Andy Goldsworthy’s sketchbook entry: “Nature for me is the clearest path to discover—uncluttered by personalities or associations—it just is. A perfect lever. People, like layers of leaves on a woodland floor—one generation after another—each layer adding a new level to human understanding and character.” Perhaps the study of nature is a universal path for discovery and learning.
The teachers displayed collections of natural objects, aiming to promote thoughtful investigation of the magic in nature. Rapunzel’s Supermarket, a book on building children’s relationships with art, also influenced the teachers. Its author Ursula Kolbe writes, “The sense of wonder that we are all born with sensitivity to the look and feel and sound of things—matters a great deal. If we try to look at things with children, if we value the moments when they stop and stare and wonder at the world, then we probably do more for their creative, aesthetic and artistic development than a host of specific art activities might ever do.” Observational drawing, painting, collage and assemblages are some of the conventional means the children used for studying color, shape, pattern and texture. Sand sculptures were formed with hands and tools, then enhanced with colored sand, pebbles, acorns, sticks and leaves. Placing specimens in a clear container or helping children construct a museum offered new ways to display objects. Reflections, overhead projection and refracted lenses inspired us to consider the items we examined. Looking near and far these experiences brought forth our sensitivity and sense of wonder.
Looking at objects with children has taken on important dimension and increased our perception. Teachers traditionally invite children to step back to look at their easel paintings and provide binoculars and magnifying glasses to look at nature. The intentionality of the experience of looking has increased during this study and we eagerly accept Andrew’s invitation to “Come up on the mountain and look at the sand sculpture!”