Using Art as an Introduction to Science

“Ms. Anne!  Did you know kelp is a plant like the sunflowers?”

That was just one of many questions I heard last week as my class turned the classroom into a kelp forest.  It all began with the otters.  No, it really all began with the students…

I teach in the high desert, but many of my students have extended family connections to coastal California.  With the holiday season in full swing, many of my students had visited their relatives and explored nearby beaches, tidal pools, sloughs full of otters and sea lions, visited aquariums and gone whale watching.  The discovery that sea otter awareness week started September 23. 2018 was the final sand grain, so to speak.  They wanted to become sea otters.  As a self-contained teacher I have more flexibility than others in integrating subject matter.   But what I did can easily transfer over to non-self-contained classrooms as collaborations between teachers.

We started with a photo of sea otters, and making sea otter finger masks and puppets.  This required close attention to the photos.  Through such close observation with a purpose, the students compare sea otters to humans and discovered many unique characteristics to sea otters, such as the fur.  We had many “side trip” investigations requiring complex thinking, such as “how do you show fluffy sea otter fur on a flat piece of paper?”

Dramatic play as sea otters unleashed many other questions.  Do sea otters use one paw more than the other?  If their fur is fluffy, why do they sink?  Other things with air don’t sink.  How do they take paths?  Where are daddy sea otters?  Who eats sea otters?  What do sea otters eat?

student created otters and urchins

The class became enamored of purple sea urchins, making many models using yarn pom poms, leading to a texture comparison and differences between models and the real object.  They class also noticed that our sea otter puppets were about the same size as the sea urchins, leading to discussions of scale. 

The sea urchins unveiled many other questions:  why are sea urchins purple?  Why don’t our bones turn colors when we eat lots of colored foods like oranges?  Why is it good for them to have spikes?  Where do baby sea urchins come from? How can sea otters grab urchins?  Do  the sea urchins hold on to the kelp?  How?


fluffing yarn sea urchins

The discovery that sea urchins eat kelp necessitated building a kelp forest in our class.  The students had to mix water colors to create “kelp” colors.  Looking at photos they had to identify what else they needed to add, which reminded several of a song we sing about the parts of plants, leading to question I put at the beginning of this post.  Of course, new questions emerged….how are sea plants similar / different that land plants?  What kind of flowers does kelp have?  How are their seeds transported?  They can’t fly in the air like dandelion seeds.  So animals eat them like birds do sunflower seeds?  Or do they catch on fish and sea otters like we catch on the hollyhock seeds?

kelp hanging from the ceiling

Art is a very powerful tool to introduce students to science concepts and practices  Too often, I see art being used as an extra activity, or as one component in preparing an end of exploration report.  From my experiences, integrating visual, dramatic, and musical arts not only help you differentiate your own  lessons, but quickly provoke deep questions.  Consider the elements of visual arts:  line, color, texture, emphasis, space, unity, contrast, rhythm, form, movement, balance, patterns, shape and value.

A resource we use in one of my PLC’s is:  Elements and Principles of design.  A pdf of the student activity guide is available here:

Using art, in any combination of dramatic, musical, or visual, amplifies the science explorations through offering additional avenues for asking questions and constructing evidence.  Just think of the some of the standards covered in a week in my class:

Discplinary Core Ideas

K-LS1-1: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes

Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive.

K-ESS3-1 Earth and Human Activity

Use a model to represent the relationship between the needs of different plants and animals (including humans) and the places they live.

 K-2-ETS1-1 Engineering Design

Ask questions, make observations, and gather information about a situation people want to change to define a simple problem that can be solved through the development of a new or improved object or tool.

K-2-ETS1-2 Engineering Design

Develop a simple sketch, drawing, or physical model to illustrate how the shape of an o  bject helps it function as needed to solve a given problem

Science and Engineering Practices:

Asking Questions and Defining Problems

Developing and Using Models

Analyzing and Interpreting Data

Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking

Engaging in Argument from Evidence

Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

Cross Cutting Concepts:


Cause and effect: Mechanism and explanation.

Scale, proportion, and quantity

Systems and system models

Structure and function.

Stability and change.

All of those NGSS standards, with just a week into creating our kelp forest; think  of what other core ideas, practices, and concepts will have been used by the time the project is done.  Try acting out your next science lesson and see where it takes you!



Common classroom supplies: 

paper, pens, pencils, scissors, yarn, paints, brushes

cardstock and cardboard (I recycle old boxes and file folders for stencils)

NSTA  Resources:

Science and Children Articles

Though these articles are describing older elementary grades, such approaches are still valid for the P-2 grades, with differing levels of scaffolding from the teacher

Editor’s Note: STEAM: Beyond the Acronym  by Linda Froschauer

Art and Science Grow Together by: Pat Stellflue, Marie Allen, and D. Timothy Gerber

The Artistic Oceanographer Program by: Sheean T. Haley and Sonya T. Dyhrman

Biome Is Where the Art Is by: Kelly Gooden

Art and the Cosmic Connection  by: Whitney H. Cobb, Monica Petty Aiello, Reeves Macdonald, and Shari Asplund

Drawing Out the Artist in Science Students by: Al Camacho, Gary Benenson, and Carmen Patricia                 Rosas-Colin

Anne Lowry

Member, Committee on Preschool-Elementary Science Teaching

Pre-K Teacher, Aleph Academy

Reno, NV

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