“I Noticed Nature Subtly Dictating My Brush Strokes…”

An Essay by Janimarie Lester DeRose

Art in Nature Specialist for Nature Families

I am a clay artist working in Cache Valley, Utah, a beautiful home of farms and marsh land, tucked in the Rocky Mountains.  Recently, I was surprised at how starkly cold the decorated surface of my pottery was. Black and grey silhouettes of birds and tree skeletons graced my forms. It was February and a cold and lingering winter in Utah. I was working daily in the studio, and it was not till I looked back at the photographs from the year that I noticed the extremely strong connection between the seasons and the way I decorated my work. It was as if nature was subtly dictating my brush strokes.

In the spring, my art echoed the marshes that grace Cache Valley. Light blues and chartreuse circles with brush work of birds and reeds, brought a serene quality, full of new life to the pots.

Later, as summer sat heavily upon us, reds and oranges emerged with Red-winged Blackbirds and Poppy’s smothering the surfaces.



And as autumn seeped into the mountains, I was drawn to a simplistic branch and berry design, leaving expanses of open space.

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This new awareness of how deeply my creativity is connected to the natural world’s cycles, has brought me a sense of settled balance and belonging to my home.

Making art in all seasons with our children, or even by ourselves, connects us more deeply to the places we live and the natural cycle of the seasons.  Whether you are an experienced artist or simply playing with art with your children-I hope you enjoy this connection as much as I do.

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Invitations to Nature-Based Play: Gobble Gobble Gourds

By-Laura Grunze Franz


This week we brought home a few gourds from the market, and my son and I were joking about how they looked like birds. Thus was born the idea of turning our gourds into turkeys.

To set up this nature-based invitation, we collected maple leaves, oak leaves, gingko leaves, and maple tree “helicopter” seeds. I added small pinecones and whole cloves to the mix.

First we painted the helicopter seeds red to be used as waddles. gourd7

Next, I thought we could push the cloves into the gourds to make the eyes. I was so very wrong. Nothing can penetrate those gourds, although I did not try a drill. So the boys decided they would like to use googly eyes instead. This was a good, cute choice but the sticky backs wouldn’t adhere to the gourds.


Finally, we decided that the boys would loosely tape their materials (eyes, waddles and feathers) to their gourd turkeys and then I would use the hot glue gun to secure it all when they were finished.

It can be a good learning opportunity to be part of a project that hits roadblocks; it allows for creative problem solving. This bumpy, but creative, process ended in some very cute birds and two very happy boys.

Happy Nature Crafting!

Nature Explorations: Life Under Logs…Discovering Decomposers!


Are you looking for a simple and fun activity to get your kids out into the local forest or even the back yard this summer?  Thinking about the living organisms that rely on a simple log can be a great way to learn about decomposition and the soil cycle as well as an excuse to get your hands dirty and get out and explore your forest.  We tried this activity with our family nature club and it was a blast!  This is a GREAT exploration for kids of any age!

Rotten Log Puppet Show:


The Rotten Log Real Estate Puppet Show!

Rather than just going out to roll logs and see what is underneath we started our activity with a puppet show. A butterfly was a real estate agent and many animals (ants, worms, etc) came looking for a new home (an old wrapping paper roll made the perfect “log”). The log was the ideal place to provide food and shelter for a wide variety of animals. We talked about how the log is a home and the importance of putting logs back after we turn them over.

Children’s Literature Connection:

Next we read A Logs Life by Wendy Pfeffer. This book shows the process of a tree to soil with wonderful illustrations. Through this book we introduced the word decomposition.


Outdoor Activity:

Before heading outside each child got a sheet of paper with pictures of the animals they might find under a log. We talked about what each animal would eat and determined which were decomposers. As we entered the woods we listened for other animal sounds. When we got to the log, children were asked to feel if it was hard or soft, wet or dry, and use other senses before looking under the log. This helps focus children so the log turning isn’t as much chaos. We turned over one big log together and looked; then children were free to explore on their own.

FullSizeRender(9)Art and Nature Connection:

At the end, children could draw their favorite living organisms they observed in their nature journals.

Have fun rolling logs with your friends and family and discovering decomposers everywhere!!!!


Activity Written and Created by: Carey Truebe

Tips for Exploring Local Wild Spaces: Ponding with Children


Heading to the pond!

Do you need a simple outdoor idea for a great activity you can do right in your local town or forested area this summer?  Find a small pond near home and your kids will spend hours of enjoyment outside with a net and a bucket exploring the world of wildlife that exists beneath the surface of a small pond.  The summer is a perfect time to get adventurous and give ponding a try!

Ponding Tips:

All you really need for ponding is a net (fishnets work great) and a bucket.  But speaking from experience teaching many science lessons catching and looking at aquatic invertebrates I can provide some tips for making the experience a little more successful.

1.  Using a white bucket is very helpful for seeing what you have caught!  The perfect ponding bucket is actually a  white dishpan.

2.  Catching technique:  Encourage the kids to swish their net above the surface of the bottom of the pond back and forth quickly three or four times and then pick up their net and look for movement in the net.  Pick out the insects and put them in the white bucket rather than dumping the net with all the leaves etc into the bucket.  This allows you to see what you catch easier.

3.  Bring along a field guide to pond life or your phone or camera so you can snap photos of what you catch and look them up later!  You might be surprised how interesting the larval stage of many common insects appear.  Dragonflys, Damselflys, and beetle larvae are all very common and fun to observe (to name just a few!)


Larval Dragonfly, Dobsonfly, and salamander sorted in a deviled egg dish from the local dollar store…a white paper underneath the dish helps you see the organisms.

4.  After you catch into a big bucket get an white ice cube tray or deviled egg tray and use spoons to sort and count the types of animals you catch.

5.  Art and Nature Connection: Encourage your kids to use their scientific observation skills and to draw their favorite pond animal after you catch-remind them in scientific drawing to be as accurate as possible!


After sorting the organisms you can draw your favorite animal!

Science and Inquiry Connections:

1.  For a deeper exploration try ponding in the same place week after week (or every few weeks) as the spring turns to summer and through the summer.  Encourage them to record their findings.  It is a very cool experience to see how the pond life changes as the summer progresses.  Encourage them to predict how they think the pond might change through the season in diversity and total numbers etc.  Have them test their hypothesis by collecting data throughout the season and recording their observations in a nature journal. 

2.  Also studying larval pond life gives you a perfect chance to learn about metamorphosis…show the kids pictures of the larval and then adult stages of the same insects or animals and discuss how they are similar and different and explore the term “life cycle”.

Remember to remind your children to be respectful and careful with the living creatures they catch and to put them back when they are finished!  Have fun exploring the pond this summer in your town or neighborhood!

Getting Creative with Paint-Simple Outdoor Paint Projects for Kids!

    char painting leaf sheetAs the days are getting warmer the draw to be outside more and more hours of the day is clearly being felt by my young daughters and their friends.  I have started to get creative with doing those afternoon art projects outside around my yard-here are a few fun and simple ideas to help you soak up some sun, have fun, and get messy in nature!

Leaf Painting on an Old Sheet:

I have been doing some nature-based early childhood education work with Project Learning Tree lately and came across this great idea.  I just had to try it out!

I headed to Goodwill and picked up a white sheet for $4.00.  I grabbed some plates and put on a variety of washable finger paints.  My daughters then put their hand and footprints all over and took leaves and painted all around the leaf-leaving the imprint behind.  We can now use the sheet for a variety of things, a roof for a homemade playhouse, a picnic blanket or just a huge ever-changing canvas!  SO MUCH FUN!

sheet leaf painting sheet painting 1

The Dirty and Clean Car Wash

We took a bunch of small cars and ran them through washable paint…then drove them all over paper leaving colorful tracks behind….I set up a car wash station with rags and bubbles in an old plastic bin…they LOVED cleaning the cars and then getting them dirty driving them through the paint again and again!

car painting and wash

Fish Printing

Catch a fish lately on your spring camp out or making fish for dinner?  Before you eat it consider this fun and easy art project-Fish Printing!

Take the fish and put it on a flat surface like a tray or piece of newspaper.  Use a paper towel to dry off the fish.  Paint paint directly on the fish with a brush.  Lay the fish down on paper or on a T-shirt (use fabric paint for the T-shirts).  Press gently on the fish.  Pull it off carefully and enjoy the fun results!

fish printfish print 2fish print t-shirt

Giant Yard Paintings

Take your paintbrushes then tie them to sticks to make them extra long.  Unroll a huge piece of paper on the grass.  Let the kids be creative with the extra long paintbrushes or walking along making footprints on the paper.  Certain to be a fun, messy afternoon project!  To recycle the final product use the painting for wrapping paper all year-long!


Art and Nature Project: Simple Any Time of Year Ice Suncatchers

–A Simple Project submitted by our Art and Nature Specialist: Janimarie DeRose

DSC05065Here is a fun idea you can do in the winter or use the freezer in the warmer months.  This activity can stimulate the senses and creates a beautiful, ephemeral end-product.  This activity can be fun with kids of all ages, is free, gets kids outside, takes very little planning, isn’t very messy and is just a lot of fun!

My daughters and I created some “ice tree sun-catchers” during a deep mid-January freeze.  It was a fun activity getting us out of the house to gather some rose hips, old sunflower heads, dried berries, and any little bits of nature’s finery we could spy.

After the outdoor collections we brought our bounty inside and carefully arranged them on plastic plates, though a tin pie plate or any container that can hold a shallow amount of water would work.  We also put a loop of string through the composition of natural materials, weighting it down with cones or heavier berries, with a large loop intended to stay out of the water/ice. This loop later becomes the hanger for the ice ornament.


We also had fun experimenting with food coloring…one drop goes a long way!

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We transferred the plates to the sub-freezing temps outside and filled them with a shallow covering of water.  If it is warm you can just put the plates in your freezer.

The next day we gently popped the ice out of the plates and hung our suncatchers.  The suncatchers were beautiful!

Inquiry Extension:  In summer it might be fun to hypothesis with kids how fast these would melt if you hung them in sun vs. shade or if you added different materials.  This could make the perfect foundation for a simple inquiry project where the students raise the questions and test their ideas.

Group Extension:  Corie Scribner, one of our other nature families writers, did this activity in winter with her kindergarten class and they hung them in a grove of trees and had a beautiful winter solstice celebration.

Literacy Connection:  The wonderful children’s book The Mitten written by Jan Brett shows pictures of these ice suncatchers in her illustrations.  This is a very common book that could be borrowed at  your local library for free.  It might be fun to read this book with your children when you do this project!

There are so many creative extensions that could be made with this project-have fun!Let us know if you try this activity and how it works for you!

char suncatcher suncatcher

“Over and Under the Snow”: Discovering the Subnivean Zone

Lesson Created and Written by: Janimarie Lester DeRose

over and under the snowRecently, my preschool age daughter was given the book Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messner  with illustrations by Christopher Silas Neal.  This book explores the subnivean zone or the space between the snow and the earth during the winter’s long months.  We decided to share this wonderful book with her preschool class.


Reading the Story

We introduced the lesson by sharing a winter animal home cake.  My daughter had a wonderful time tucking the little plastic frog down into the mud for winter hibernation, creating a pretzel beaver lodge, hiding a snowshoe hare under an ice cream cone tree etc.

DSC05187The other children loved dissecting the cake and at the end of the lesson eating it!


The Final Cake

We then read Over and Under the Snow and the students carved/drew their own subnivean zones into the sides of leather hard vases. (You could do this if you are a potter or you could easily have the students do this on tiles with a leather hard slip instead of vases.)  If the clay project is too much a simple drawing can be as impactful.  Or you could use scratch boards for added effect where they could scratch away what is under the snow.


Carving their vases…

For our project the students simply used a ball point pen to carve through a white slip surface.  They drew a line depicting the surface of the snow near the top of the vase and applied a blue glaze for the sky.  Then they carved animals under the snow on the rest of the slip.  The bare clay at the base of the vase was to represent the ground.  Later, I fired the vases with a clear glaze.  The students then took them home filled with pussy willows celebrating the coming spring!

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As an outdoor component explore outside with your children looking for plunge holes where small animals dive into the snow.  On a warmish winter day head outside to see the tunnels left behind as the snow around them melts.  This is a delightful activity with children of all ages!


Finding melted subnivean tunnels on a warm winter day…


“Growing Paperwhites”: A Winter Nature Journal Project

Project Created and Written by: Janimarie Lester DeRose


Using watercolor to capture the Paperwhites in the nature journal.

A few years ago I spent two winters in interior Alaska. For several months of deepest winter we had only four hours of a dusky-rose sky, and the rest of our days and nights were spent living by reflected starlight on the snow. I desperately missed growing green life. It was during this time that I developed a tradition of growing Paper Whites or Narcissus, and recording their growth through a watercolor field journal.


“Hope for a Bloom”

This is a perfect antidote to the long colorless scapes that fill our winter months, and a great activity to get your young ones and yourself to really observe the changes in growth carefully. Drawing what you observe, measuring the height with a ruler, and watering the living plant every few days really drives home the amazing metamorphosis taking place!

red pw

Full Bloom

Narcissus are a common bulb that you can find at most garden stores during the winter months. These flowers amazingly grow in even a small amount of sunlight, as long as you keep them amply supplied with water.

Place the bulbs in a small pot with only rocks and water for the roots to cling to.


Growing the Bulbs

The water should be kept at the base of the roots where they emerge from the bulb and no higher. If the water touches the bulb too much it will begin to decompose.

You will need to check the water every few days and more when they start to grow.

Give them a good two weeks in a sunny window (or a bit longer if you live with little light) before you will start seeing growth.

As they grow, measure, and sketch the plant at different stages of their growth and development.


A page from the author’s nature journal

Enjoy the process and have fun adding some life to your winter days!

full bloom (2)

The flowers in bloom!

Easy Sand Paintings

A simple nature art project is creating sand paintings.  This is perfect when visiting a place with ample sand like the beach or the desert!

gab sandpainting

Getting creative with sand!

First, have your kids find their own natural brushes (sticks, grass, feathers).


Natural gathered brushes and collage materials.

Next, let them paint Elmer’s glue on a piece of cardstock, the bolder the design usually the more successful. Then, liberally sprinkle the sand over the glue, let the projects dry in the sun for ten minutes or so and then gently shake the excess sand from the painting. DSC04531 You can then add natural materials to create a collage.  All you need is:

  • Natural brushes (sticks, grass, feathers, found on the site)
  • Elmer’s glue,
  • Paper or ideally cardstock
  • A landscape with sand, and other plants for collaging

DSC04526 DSC04527 DSC04533 In addition, a great extension is to research the Navajo Indians Sand Paintings.  Here is a website that you might found helpful:http://navajopeople.org/navajo-sand-painting.httm Have fun with this simple and creative project!  Please share photos with us if you try this with your own family nature group!

By: Janimarie Lester DeRose, Nature Families Art and Nature Specialist

“Painting A River That Connects Us Through the Seasons”:

A lesson in seeing color in Nature’s seasons, and painting with an analogous color scheme.

-Janimarie Lester DeRose


Painting the Summer Scene

I introduced the lesson by showing the children images of nature in the different seasons, focusing on the different colors present. They pointed out which color was dominant by squinting their eyes to look at the image. I then mixed the color wheel from the primary colors red, yellow, and blue, and we introduced the analogous colors…red/orange, red/purple, yellow/green, yellow/orange, blue/purple, blue/green.

We had nine preschool age children, but you could do this project with as little as four.

When you are ready to paint:

First, make sure to number the back of the canvases and place students names on the back.


Preparing the Canvases

Using Acrylics, paint your “river” connecting all the primed canvases, including wrapping over the edges of the canvas.

Let dry and apply a second coat for durability. (I like to keep the river graphically simple, with only one color to tie all the students work together in a cohesive manner.)

Assign each student a season and analogous color scheme for example:

Canvas one: Winter/ Blue and Purple paint

Canvas two: Spring/ Yellow and Green paint

Canvas Three: Summer/ Red and Purple paint

Canvas Four: Fall/ Orange and Yellow paint

Note: The reason to strictly stick with analogous colors is that many young painters mix the paints so much that they muddy the colors. Using analogous colors prevents the completely brown canvas! It’s also a great new vocab word and way to review the color wheel.


Painting with Analogous Colors

You will need to let all the students canvases dry and then touch up the blue river threading through the canvases.

Display as a complete collaborative piece. I like to have each student sign their canvas where it is visible to the viewer.

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Finished product

Later in the year, you could add collage images of the flora and fauna found in the local watershed. This would help stretch resources as canvases can be pricey!