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I Love Nature: Nature-Based Art Education in Early Childhood

By Bian Xia

Photo via author

Commentary and Translation by Yvonne Liu-Constant

After four visits to China, Howard Gardner wrote in To Open Minds, a seminal text comparing education in China and the United States:

We might contrast the Western, more “revolutionary” view with a more “evolutionary” view espoused by the Chinese. There is a virtual reversal of priorities: the young Westerner making her boldest departures first and then gradually reintegrating herself into the tradition; and the young Chinese being almost inseparable from the tradition, but, over time, possibly evolving to a point as deviant as the one initially staked out by the innovative Westerner.  p. 282

Gardner’s visit to Nanjing, China in the 80’s inspired a group of Chinese progressive educators who have since been working on integrating the revolutionary and evolutionary views. The following study of a Kindergarten class’s exploration of nature and art is a prime example of their work integrating the best of both cultures.


The Spring Fieldtrip

During flower blossom season, it is customary for schools in China to organize day trips to gardens, parks, or fields. On the fieldtrip, the teacher noticed that the children stopped to explore the scents and colors of flowers while playing chase in the garden. By a shrub of white flowers swaying in the breeze, they said: “This flower is so pretty. It’s like thousands of flowers making one flower.” “Or like butterflies! I like how they flow here and there.” “Or like snowflakes, falling on the branches!” In the meadow, the children rolled around with great excitement, enjoying the smell and touch of newly cut grass. They commented on the yellow flowers shining in the sun, “It looks just like gold, lots of it!” “It feels very warm, like the rays of the sun.” “When I laid down to see it up close, it looked like little yellow flowers all over the blue sky.” It was clear that the children were keenly aware of the colors, scents, and sounds in the natural world around them.

The children were also drawn to a few art students painting cherry blossoms, as Chinese artists typically do when flowers bloom in the spring. The children were extremely interested in the tools and art materials: paint brushes, easels, watercolors, palettes, even the little water buckets. They surrounded the art students, watching, touching materials, and asking questions. They exclaimed to the teachers, “We want to paint, too! We want to paint, too!” The teacher responded, “That’s a great idea, but what can we do without paint and paper?” A child suggested, “Take a mental picture, rush back to school, and paint it!” So some children made a rectangular frame with their fingers, some made “butterfly shape cameras”, and they “clicked” away, remembering the beauty with their mind’s eyes. The children kept saying to the teachers, “Please bring us back here to paint!”

Discussions in the Classroom: Seeing Nature through the Eyes of Master Artists

            After the fieldtrip, the children could not stop talking about their experiences and observations. In response, the teachers posted photographs around the classroom that they had taken during the fieldtrip, which furthered the children’s excitement and conversations about the trip. In a whole group discussion, the teacher started by showing the children photographs of water lilies in the pond taken during the fieldtrip. Interestingly, in addition to noticing colors and naming familiar plants, the children commented on the sunlight and the reflections in the pond:

 “I see reflections, reflections of flowers and trees.”

 “The reflections are not so clear.”

“There are ripples, the water is moving.”

“There are clouds in the water. That’s reflection, too.”

“There are leaves in the water, they are yellow.”

“The water is shiny, looks like sunshine on it.”

After the discussion, the teachers and the university researchers reviewed the children’s responses together to plan for the next activity. They were excited about the level of detail in the children’s observations which was expressed through their verbal descriptions, and wondered how they might scaffold their expressions through visual arts. At this point, the children’s drawings were not atypical of kindergarteners – the grass and the leaves were green, bodies of water were blue, and the sun was a yellow circle in the sky. The teachers wondered: How could they make use of master artwork to help the children observe more closely and express more freely.

The teachers decided that the rich use of colors would be the key inquiry for discussion with the children, and a series of European oil paintings were selected. In the first lesson, the teachers planned a provocation using Claude Monet’s Water Lilies series. However,     it was not the goal of these progressive educators to use Monet’s paintings as a model for copying, but rather as a way to enhance the children’s appreciation of beauty in nature by seeing the world through Monet’s eyes.


After a close look at Monet’s paintings, the teacher asked what colors the children saw depicting water in the picture. The children’s responses included: red, yellow, blue, green, purple. One child added, “And some colors that I’ve never seen before, like these (pointing).” The teacher then asked, “What do we usually see as the color of water?” and the children responded with only two colors: blue and light blue. The teacher followed up with the key inquiry question: “Why did the artist use so many colors to paint the water?”

This question provoked an explosion of ideas from the children:

“When the sun shines on the water, there are this many colors.”

“The artist used so many beautiful colors, because he wanted the picture to be very beautiful.”

“I think the sun shining on the flowers, grass, and trees around the pond and made the reflections on the water.”

“These colors are all mixed up!”

The teacher responded: “You said that these colors are all mixed up. How is this style of painting different from the ones we usually see?”

“The ones we usually see have blocks and blocks of color.”

“Usually, the paintings don’t look so messy.”

“This picture is not very clear, looks a little out of focus.”

The teacher again asked a question: “Why did the artist paint like this? What’s good about this kind of painting?”

“It shows the water moving.”

“The reflection on the water is moving too.”

“It painted the feeling of sparkles and sparkles of sunshine.”

“The water is a little shiny. It feels good to have sunshine.”

“Even though it’s messy, it’s beautiful!”

Clearly, this discussion was not a teacher-centered lesson about skills nor was it encouraging children to simply copy. Here, the teacher and children together and through dialogue, created a new understanding of the master’s artwork.


In successive lessons, the children were also introduced to Henri Rousseau’s Tropical Jungle series and Ivan Shishkin’s the Oaks. Through discussions of these master’s works, the children studied the artists’ intentions, appreciated the beauty of the famous paintings, and acquired new art techniques.

Painting in the Park

            After the series of lessons to practice observing from the perspectives of master artists, the class went on another fieldtrip to paint in a neighborhood park. With great excitement, children carried their travel easels, watercolors, paintbrushes, and water cups, and walked to the park. Their facial expressions showed a sense of pride and seriousness, comparable to any established artist. They could not contain their excitement, sang happily as they walked, drawing lots of smiles from other pedestrians. One of them commented, “Here come the artists! Make way for the artists!” The children were so proud!

            Once they arrived at the park, the children found their favorite spots, set up their tools and materials, and went to work. It was a sunny day, and the children’s observations of sunlight were clearly expressed in their work. Moreover, the children learned to see color from a different perspective, which opened possibilities of creative expressions. Miao-Miao painted her grass with shades of yellow on top of green. She entitled her painting “Meadow in the Sun” and said, “There is a lot of sunlight on the grass, a lot, a lot, a lot!”

Zhi-Yuan’s painting of trees shows an explosion of red, orange, and yellow. He titled his painting “Tree in the Sun” and said, “The summer sun is hot like fire. When sunlight hits the tree, it’s like the tree is on fire.”

 It is clear that the masters’ artwork deepened the children’s observation, opened their mind’s eye to a richer expression of color, and fostered new coloring-mixing and painting techniques. More importantly, the joy of visiting nature and painting in the park sparked a love for nature. As a child remarked, “Nature is our friend!” One of the educators expressed their long-term goal:

            “I Love Nature” is a curriculum unit that we hope marks the beginning of the children’s love for nature and the arts. As they grow older and gain more knowledge, we hope they continue to gain a further understanding, deeper appreciation, and ever increasing passion for the natural world.

Bian Xia is Professor of Preschool Education at Nanjing Normal University, Nanjing, China.

Yvonne Liu-Constant is  Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education at Lesley University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A.


Gardner, H. (1989). To open minds: Chinese clues to the dilemma of contemporary education. New York, NY: Basic Books Publishers.

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