Exploring eco-art education in elementary classrooms

| June 17, 2015 | 0 Comments

By Hilary Inwood

As an educator focused on teacher training, I share Hicks and Kings’1 belief in the importance of using ‘new artistic visions’ to develop humans’ means of living more responsibly on this planet.

This is manifested in my ongoing research into how to use visual arts education as a means of envisioning new routes into environmental and sustainability education. Art education offers a dynamic way to increase the power and relevancy of environmental education by providing an alternative means of furthering students’ learning about the environment.

Eco-art all about integration

This can be achieved through an interdisciplinary endeavour called environmental art education, or eco-art education which integrates knowledge, skills, values and pedagogy from the visual arts, art education and environmental education as a means of developing awareness of and engagement with environmental concepts such as place, interdependence, systems thinking, biodiversity and conservation.

Eco-art education draws inspiration from activist artists who have been responding to environmental issues and concerns in creative ways for decades, including Joseph Beuys, Hans Haacke, Agnes Denes and Lynne Hull, to name only a few. These artists, and the next generation following in their footsteps, have touched countless viewers through their understanding of environmental concerns as well their innovative solutions for them, thereby reaching people in ways that scientists have been unable to do.

Engagement in elementary school settings

These early voices have been strengthened by other scholars’ work, yet what was missing from these conversations was a richer mapping of generalist teachers’ engagement with eco-art education in elementary settings. Could teachers create learning appropriate for elementary students that integrated art and environmental education? If so, what does this learning look like? My research aimed to help answer these questions by investigating teachers’ experiences in developing curricula for and delivering eco-art education in their elementary classrooms.

This inquiry brought together four elementary school teachers with a university-based educator (myself ) to investigate the experience of developing working models of eco-art education through the framework of collaborative action research. The key questions were: how do teachers connect learning in the visual arts to environmental concepts and issues? What forms the curricular content and pedagogy of eco-art lessons? And what benefits and challenges do teachers experience in implementing eco-art education with their students?

Over 50 eco-art lessons

The teacher-researchers, each with more than fifteen years of teaching experience, worked in four elementary schools spread across the city of Toronto, Canada.

The study’s findings demonstrated what eco-art education can look like in elementary classrooms, as together the teacherresearchers designed and delivered over fifty eco-art lessons (a resounding number in nine months, given that they were responsible for teaching all parts of the curriculum, not just art.) The lessons utilised a wide array of materials and techniques, ranged in complexity and depth, and supported a variety of environmental education concepts (see figure 1).


Over the course of the year, the team capably demonstrated that eco-art education could be used to support learning about environmental concepts and issues while simultaneously providing innovative art lessons. The lessons aligned with environmental learning in two ways: first by connecting to the schools’ curricular key concepts in environmental literacy (connecting to a sense of place, developing ecosystems thinking, and understanding human impacts) that were discussed as part of the research team meetings. But they could also be aligned with the more common approach of learning in, about and for the environment, a guiding trilogy often found in the development of environment education lessons.

In and for the environment

The eco-art lessons that aligned with learning ‘in the environment’ asked students to draw, sculpt and exhibit in locales outside of their classroom. This was an unusual practice for art lessons, as many teachers deem it too unwieldy to move students, art materials and tools outside to work. Those lessons that aligned with learning ‘about the environment’ often took more traditional forms, as most were done inside the classroom (often accommodating the cold Canadian climate), and therefore involved more common art-making techniques. Yet they still involved nature as the subject for art-making, or by using natural materials or found objects, allowed the teacher- Approach: Type of lesson Art education concepts Environmental education concepts Learning in the environment: Nature as site for artmaking and/or exhibiting art Ice sculptures Waterfront eco-art designs Bark rubbings Natural sculptures Butterfly relief sculptures Clay insect homes Eco-art exhibition Sculpting, shape Installation design Drawing, texture Sculpting , composition Clay modelling, shape Clay modelling Exhibit and touring techniques Sense of place Ecosystems thinking Sense of place Sense of place Ecosystems thinking Sense of place Ecosystems thinking Learning about the environment: Nature as subject for art Art created with natural materials Art created with the ‘3Rs’ (recycling, reducing and reusing) Leaf and tree drawings Landscape drawings Rainforest batiks Community mural Transparent ground drawings ‘Take 30’ photographs Nature quilt Natural dyeing Seed and sand drawings Potato print frames Edible veggie sculptures Junk art sculptures and masks Urban/rural drum collages Papermaking Scarecrow sculptures Drawing, line, shape, shading Drawing, line, perspective Drawing, colour, line, shape Drawing, painting, colour Drawing, line Composition Collage Dyeing, colour Collage Printmaking, shape Composition Sculpting, form Collage Papermaking, drawing Sculpting, form Sense of place Ecosystems thinking Human impacts Sense of place Sense of place Sense of place Sense of place Human impacts Sense of place Human impacts Human impacts Human impacts Sense of place Human impacts Human impacts Learning for the environment: Viewing and critiquing eco-art Art as activism Andy Goldsworthy Emily Carr Brian Jungen Art gardens, Harbourfront Giant grapevine basket/fence God’s eye garden sculptures ‘Solution to Pollution’ video Earth Day posters Wish scrolls Pioneer art garden Art history/criticism Art history/criticism Art history/criticism Art history/criticism Weaving Weaving, colour Video production Drawing, printing Drawing, printing Sculpting and planting Sense of place Human impacts Human impacts Sense of place Human impacts Human impacts Human impacts Human impacts Human impacts Ecosystems thinking 64 Independent Education • Winter 15 researchers to reinforce sense of place connections or human impacts concepts. Eco-art lessons that fell into the learning ‘for the environment’ category were divided into two types: the first was learning about artists who practised environmental activism (such as Andy Goldsworthy or Brian Jungen) and the second was students’ attempts at their own artistic forms of activism to address local environmental issues.

The structure of eco-art lessons proved similar to general art lessons, making it easy for these generalist elementary teachers to implement without specialised in-service training. At times there was a greater acceptance of ephemerality in the artmaking process than is the norm in most classrooms, placing less emphasis on the traditional ‘make and take’ approach, and more on the use of biodegradable materials and natural processes (like freezing or decomposition). Also evident was the intentional use of collaborative modes of art-making, involving small teams or the class as a whole in creative eco-action.

Relationships with the earth

There is no doubt that the teachers’ definitions of eco-art influenced their classroom practice. The team agreed that while eco-art education was defined in part by materials and techniques (showing sensitivity to biodegradability, recyclability and use of the ‘3Rs’: recycling, reducing and reusing), what was more important was the inclusion of themes or concepts that raised awareness of humans’ relationships with and/or impact on the earth.

These perspectives raised more questions: does eco-art have to be made of environmentally friendly materials? Does using found or reclaimed objects fall into this category? All of the team members wrestled with this issue: how do we continue to make art with children in a world struggling under the weight of its own refuse, when we know that those artworks will likely end up in landfills? One way this was addressed was by experimenting with biodegradable materials and natural processes in art-making; another was through an ongoing discussion about whether eco-art should contain a message. If eco-art helped to make the world a better place, could we better justify the place of product-based art projects in schools?

Eco-art requires resolve and ingenuity

As part of the study, the advantages of eco-art education were identified: one was the excitement it generated in students, seen in their expressions of delight throughout lessons. There was a recognition by the team that eco-art had an ability to strengthen students’ connections with place. They also liked the ease with which they were able to link it to other parts of the curriculum: integrations with science, social studies, and language arts were done frequently. And the team was quick to point out its practical advantage: by reducing their consumption of traditional art materials, they saved money in their classroom budget for other things.

But the challenges of eco-art education were also identified. A few of the teachers found that some eco-art lessons took more time than usual to prepare for (citing clay work and papermaking as examples), or needed an extra set of adult hands to facilitate (like batik). The weather was another challenge, as its unpredictability required a greater degree of flexibility. While these challenges didn’t stop any lessons from proceeding, it did mean that the teacher-researchers sometimes had to show a greater resolve and ingenuity to move ahead with what they envisioned. At the outset, all of the team was in agreement that the advantages of eco-art education far outweighed its challenges, and that there were no barriers to its implementation.

A growing discourse

As the first study to examine eco-art learning in a sustained way across four school sites, this inquiry made a contribution to the emerging knowledge and growing discourse of eco-art education. It demonstrated that eco-art education can support learning in, about and through art education and environmental education simultaneously in elementary classrooms. It exemplified how eco-art learning can be used to make connections to the natural world, support integrated, place-based learning, and inspire age-appropriate activism with children. It has also identified an important next step in this field, which is to explore students’ experiences with eco-art education: what characterises their experiences, and what is the effect on their environmental literacy and/or eco-friendly behaviours?

The study was a deeply gratifying experience for all on the team: working together on a collaborative action research project helped to inspire the teacherresearchers to take on new initiatives in their own schools the following year. Together we created a rich collection of lessons, developed insights into the content and pedagogy of eco-art education, and better understood where our learning in this field needed to go next. Through workshops, lectures, writing and research, we continue to share this learning with others in hopes of inspiring students and teachers to experiment with eco-art education in their own classrooms moving forward.

1. Hicks, L. and King, R. (2007) “Confronting environmental collapse: Visual culture, art education, and environmental responsibility.” Available at: http://www.naeaworkspace.org/studies_single/Studies%2048%284%29_Summer2007_individual/E1_Studies%2048%284%29_Summer2007.pdf.

Category: Winter 2015

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