ARTSEDGE Lessons for Elementary School

Trees in Nature and Art

Discover how artists use trees to inspire their work


Key Staff

Classroom Teacher and/or Visual Art and Science Teachers

Key Skills

Making Art: Composing and Planning, Producing, Executing and Performing
Creative Thinking: Communication and Collaboration


Students will explore the use of trees in the arts (as paintings and poetry), understand basic science involved in forestry, and integrate tree arts and science in a final creative project.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Discuss paintings by Thomas Locker and Vincent van Gogh
  • Develop a classification method for trees using leaves
  • Explore the science of forestry
  • Create artwork using leaf rubbings
  • Write creatively to merge science and art

Teaching Approach

Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Discussion
  • Hands-On Learning
  • Information Organization
  • Reflection
  • Research

Assessment Type

Performance Assessment


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Classroom
  • Projector
  • Internet Access
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Before starting the lesson, teachers should obtain copies of:

  • Thomas Locker’s Sky Tree: Seeing Science Through Art
  • A scientifically-accurate book about trees that includes descriptive photographs, such as Trees: A Visual Guide by Tony Rodd

Teachers should review the web pages below, the links for which are available within the Resource Carousel. These websites will be used as instructional material during the lesson.

Prior Student Knowledge

Basic understanding of botany, including life cycle of trees and growth rings.


  • Large Group Instruction
  • Small Group Instruction
  • Individualized Instruction


Check computer for Internet and projection. Prepare a work area for the leaf-rubbing portion of the project.

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.

Build Knowledge


1. Introduce trees in art. Share children’s author and illustrator Thomas Locker’s book Sky Tree. Read the lyrical writing and show the paintings. (Do not read the questions at the bottom of the page.)

2. Ask students questions about the paintings. What is the same about each painting and what is different? How does Locker use color? What role does the sky play? What do you feel as you look at each painting? How did Locker capture each of these images? How scientifically accurate are the paintings? Is that important?

Build Knowledge

1. Explore tree paintings by Van Gogh. Divide the class into small working groups. Assign each group one of Van Gogh’s tree paintings to evaluate.

2. Ask them to use the questions from the Trees in Van Gogh’s Paintings website to guide their thinking and evaluation. Ask them to consider questions asked about the paintings in Sky Tree too. Have each group present their painting and analysis to the class.

3. Discuss the life cycle of a tree. Discussion should include: start from a seed, stages of growth (seedling, sapling, pole, mature, old) and growth rings (of trunk but also of branches). Show the cross-section of a tree. Ask students to determine how old this tree is.

4. Discuss role of tree leaves. Discussion should include photosynthesis and capturing rainwater.


1. Collect a variety of leaves. Ask each student to find ten different leaves to bring to class. (Ask them to ask permission if taking leaves from private property.) The teacher should also collect leaves, including needles from coniferous trees, as they are oftentimes overlooked by students.

2. Develop a leaf classification system. Working either independently or in small groups, students should develop a leaf classification system using the collected leaves. There is no right or wrong system. Encourage students to look at the details on the leaves.

3. Introduce a science-based leaf classification system. Show students that scientists also study leaves to classify them. Share with students the website Leaf Classification.

4. Create leaf-based artwork using the work of Locker and Van Gogh as inspiration. Use the following steps:

  • Lay newspapers on the work surface to create a padded area.
  • Place an arrangement of leaves on the newspaper. The arrangement of leaves should be smaller than the paper that will be used for the leaf rubbing.
  • Place a piece of tissue paper over the leaves, being careful not to disturb the arrangement.
  • Gently rub a crayon across the arrangement. The leaves will create an imprint on the paper.
  • If desired, use different colors for each area of the arrangement or perform multiple rubbings to get a layered effect.

5. Read and analyze the tree poem with students, a link for which may be found within the Resource Carousel. Ask students: How is this poem similar to the paintings by Locker and Van Gogh? What tools did the author use to convey emotion? Was the author successful in “painting a picture” with his words? Did the author use color, either directly or indirectly? Did science play a role in the author’s choice of words, image, or message?


1. Write a tree poem. Have each student, using his or her leaf-based artwork as inspiration, “paint a picture” with words. Student poems should incorporate trees either directly or indirectly.

2. Host a poetry reading. With the artwork on display (perhaps on the windows to allow light to come through the tissue paper), ask each student to read his or her poem. Have students try to match the poems to the artwork that inspired them.

3. You can also use the "Trees Gallery" in the Reflect tab of the Resource Carousel above to share images of different trees.


Assess the students' work using the Assessment Rubric, available to you within the Resource Carousel.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

Common Core/State Standards

Select state and grade(s) below, then click "Find" to display Common Core and state standards.

National Standards For Arts Education
National Standards in Other Subjects



Karen Smith
Original Writer

Carol Parenzan Smalley

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