What is an Art-Based Approach to Environmental Education?

Nature journaling, anyone? Most often, attempts to combine environmental studies and art education result in one of the following activities:

1. Nature Journaling/sketching

2. Landscape paintings

3. Recycling art sculptures (a.k.a. art teacher spring cleaning)

While these projects are not inherently bad, their full potential is rarely realized, as the focus of these projects often remains on the visual–what you see around you–which is then depicted on the paper/canvas in front of you. Or, as is the case with the recycled art, the focus becomes “what can I make with this stuff” (much of which consists of toilet paper rolls, milk jugs, and egg cartons). At the elementary level, these sorts of sculptures often turn into cute little animals with marker-drawn eyes, monsters, or a stacking competition to see who can tape together the highest tower of toilet paper rolls. While the students enjoy the building/creating associated with the project, a deeper meaning is missed.

An art-based approach to environmental education is much more than simply making art outside or creating egg carton animals. It is an awakening of the senses. I know that description sounds rather convoluted, but that is the ultimate goal of art making–a newly discovered awareness to the subtleties of existence. An art-based approach to environmental education promotes experiencing and perceiving the world with all of the senses, and articulating those experiences in a new way.

Landscape painting in-and-of-itself is not environmental education, as Meri-Helga Mantere states in her lecture, titled, “Art and the Environment – An Art-Based Approach to Environmental Education”. “But if it can be done with environmental consciousness, understanding the interrelation of the visual processes–by which I mean biological, as well as cultural processes–the painting process itself can also be a study of environmental processes. The students spend many hours [in] the woods painting not what they saw, but how they felt the process of growth and change: the energy and interrelation.”


In much the same way, recycled art becomes much more than simply sticking recycled “throw-aways” together to create a new, recognizable creature. A recycled art project should focus on the act of recycling–taking materials that are used and turning them into a new, purposeful product. So, rather than simply trying to get rid of all of the donated egg cartons and milk cartons that have been piling up around your classroom, why not try one of the following ideas (as mentioned in Meri-Helga Mantere’s lecture)?

– Making new clothes from old ones

-Making vases and drinking glasses from empty bottles

-Making textiles from rags and paper scraps

-Making a hammock from old blue jeans

Or, if you’re itching to clear out some of those old “throw-away” donations (as I know I was when I taught k-8), I would recommend cutting or tearing everything into pieces. The simple fact that these paper rolls and egg cartons are no longer in their original forms will inspire new creations and an increased likelihood that new, purposeful products will emerge.

On a side note: This website is FANTASTIC! Check it out. Now.


6 thoughts on “What is an Art-Based Approach to Environmental Education?

  1. I love reusing everyday “trash” items as new things. It’s almost like a game for me to see how much I can not throw out, particularly in my gardening. In the long run it’s pretty cheap too! Thanks for the ideas!

    • I’m glad you got some new ideas! More recycle art ideas to come in future posts! I agree, I think reusing everyday “trash” items can not only create cool, new, USABLE items, but it’s also intrinsically rewarding to feel like you are able to throw away less!

  2. You were right, Tara. A lot of the suggested ideas for projects on this site would be wonderful for elementary kids, too. We’re studying insects right now in my 2nd grade class and I’m going to try one of those projects with them for our unit. Thanks!

    • That’s great! I look forward to hearing about the project you ended up doing with your second graders!

      One project that I did over the summer that you might enjoy was a pollinator installation. I had the kids design their own 3D pollinators and a flower for their pollinator to pollinate! We then installed the giant flowers (approx 3′ tall) w/ their pollinator in a grassy area to be displayed for visitors. During our “public viewing” of the installation, the visitors could talk to each student about their work. They turned out awesome! 🙂

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