The Art of Outdoor Education: 5 Ways to Incorporate Art into your Outdoor Experiences

Lost Creek Falls, Wisconsin

I’ve often heard the acronym STEM held aloft as the pinnacle of modern educational goals. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, topics that teachers were told to focus on to ensure their students’ success. I don’t believe this was a misguided effort. An understanding of these subjects can lead to successful and innovative lives and careers for students, and I heartily believe in the importance of encouraging those normally discouraged from these fields (i.e. women, people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, and others) to pursue studies and careers in the STEM fields. No, I don’t believe we should abolish the STEM idea, but rather evolve it.

I was introduced to the idea of STEAM by one of my professors and mentors in my undergraduate studies. He also happened to be my supervisor for the work/study position I was employed in, and during one of my work shifts he asked me to make and distribute posters around the campus, proclaiming and exalting the teaching of STEAM, that is Science, Technology, Art, and Mathematics. I distributed the posters I made, and thought more about what they were trying to say.

Imbuing education (including outdoor education) with Art encourages creativity in our students, no matter what the field. Art promotes thinking outside the box, pushing limits of thought and understanding, and seeking a harmonious balance of form and function. Such a vital combination of creativity, personal expression and experience, and the mental faculty art stimulates in students seems to point to a potential strength in the combination of art and outdoor education

That said, here are five different ways I have experienced art in the outdoors, or incorporated art, especially visual art into my teaching as an outdoor educator.


Nature Journals/ Field Sketching

Author’s rendition of Lost Creek Falls. Watercolor and pen.

The field of Natural History was built on observations by naturalists and recorded in their field notebooks. Today’s outdoor students can draw on this rich tradition (pun intended) of observing and recording for their own immediate benefit as well as creating a record of natural phenomena and place to compare future observations with. Compared to taking a snapshot, drawing, sketching, or painting encourages participants to slow down and engage their visual and kinesthetic senses to capture the visual essence of an object, scene, or experience. As they try to replicate the shade of bluish purple that tints the shadow of the spruce trunks along the river, they are making countless observations and comparisons of color and texture that they might not have noticed had they simply lifted their cellphone camera and snapped a shot. By tracing the delicate outlines of the sandstone arch onto the paper with a charcoal pencil, the participant moves their hand in a manner that expresses the overall motion and expression of the stone, engaging their kinesthetic senses and again using acute observation. Artistic representations also allow for personal expression of the artist, letting participants capture through color, shade, motion, and perspective how they felt at a certain place. This lets the facilitator a glimpse into the affective process of the students, and encourages emotional expression and growth.

I like to encourage students to bring a sketchbook or a journal on our trips or experiences, and I try to make time for participants to draw, either a specific subject or give them free rein to discover and explore what catches their interest. Experimenting with different artistic techniques and materials as a group is a great way for students to try out new skills and media, such as charcoal, watercolor, or pen and ink. I like to carry a bundle of extra colored pencils in my pack when I take groups into the field, and when the nature of the group setting allows, I like to take out my own nature journal, immersing myself in my surroundings and reminding students that it is O.K. to like art, even if it takes you a few tries for your tree to look like a tree.


Nature Art as a Reflection

Taking a leaf out of Andy Goldsworthy’s book, (again, pun intended) nature art can be novel way to engage students’ creativity and offer a different angle to a reflection or debrief segment of an experience than your typical circle discussion. Godlsworthy is a British artist known for his works of art using natural materials such as mud, stones, sticks, leaves, flowers, and ice. His ephemeral creations call out attention to the forces of nature, and their inevitable return to the earth reminds us of our place in this vast universe, but not without first searing their striking beauty into our memories.

I love to encourage students to do nature art as a reflection activity, especially after spending several days in one place. Beachfronts and lakeshores are ideal locations for this to occur, partly because of the ample artistic supplies brought to the artist by the waves to the tideline, but the sand or pebbles offer a forgiving, versatile, and impermanent media with which students can work. Not only does this activity engage students directly with the land, it also allows for a freedom and self-expression I have seldom seen in a group discussion format. However, a small discussion and reflection on their experience prior to the assignment of the nature art is a great way to inspire students and focus their energy toward reflection.

Another aspect of this activity that I love is that it has great room for interpretation and can be as literal or abstract as the student needs or wants it to be. While one student may painstakingly create a to scale map in the sand of the campground where they have been staying, another student may lay out a twisting path of bird feathers, symbolizing the circuitous and uplifting path their mind took on the experience. One crucial aspect of this activity that I highly recommend you incorporate is a sort of “Gallery Tour,” in which the entire group walks to each creation and listens as the artist talks for a few minutes about their art. Not only does this reinforce the importance of art, it allows students the opportunity to communicate their thoughts and emotions to their peers and mentors, and to take pride in the work of their hands and minds. Additionally, seeing beautiful human creations formed from the very land where they have spent time deconstructs the myth of the “pristine wilderness” and offers a great talking point about the effect of humans on this earth.

Map Making

As a child, I loved maps. I had a shoebox filled with my dad’s old AAA automobile maps, as well as maps of distant lands and ancient cultures I had saved from the pages of National Geographic magazines. To this day, I still have a strong pull to maps, and as an educator, I believe that maps allow for an interesting exploration of our conceptualization of a place.

While mapmaking can be highly technical, what with the scale, topographic indicators, declination, and legend, a map could also be interpreted in a more artistic manner. This is a great way to engage more logical-thinking participants who have difficulty participating in more abstract or artistic activities. A map might start out as a highly technical description of location, angle, and distribution, but might evolve to include notes on color, beautiful stones, or personal experiences.

I like to use a map-making activity over a couple of days to encourage students to explore an area more deeply. We discuss how maps can be used to notate many different features of the land, and I suggest making several maps, each one of a different purpose. One map might contain all the water they can find, and in its creation, a student might end up walking the banks of waterways they never paid attention to. Another map might describe all the stone outcroppings in a certain section of forest, while another might notate the location of patches of edible plants, or the vibrancy of wildflowers. Inevitably, I find that when I pay attention to the land and try to communicate it onto the map, I discover that my mental model of an area is not quite the same as someone else. The two paths that I thought were so far apart might actually be closer together than I thought, or the patches of elderberry bushes confined to open clearings in the forest where enough light gets through, something I might not have noticed had I not been in the map-making mindset to compare and study.

By no means to maps have to be as sterile and uniform as a AAA automobile map. I encourage marginalia, illustrations, annotations, and sketches to be included in a map, all of which help flesh out a participant’s understanding of place. Alternatively, maps do not need to be of a tangible thing or phenomenon. Sound maps are a fascinating way to explore an area through one’s audial experiences. As with any art form, the only limits to map-making are those you impose on it, so encourage creative, daring, and abstract maps in your participants’ work.

Natural Clay Sculpting

For a tactile art experience, it’s hard to beat clay. Usually found along riverbanks or in the beds of ancient waterways, clay is a deposit of decomposed silica laid down by ancient erosional processes. Displaying a unique combination of plasticity, flexibility, and strength, wet clay offers a ready-made art supply for the in-the-field educator. After a silent sit-spot activity along a creek, I brought students to a pocket of clay I had discovered in the stream bank and had them scoop up a handful to sculpt a tiny handheld model of what their experience was like. One participant was able to tease out a spiny little creation like a sea urchin, explaining that he felt like his senses felt like tentacles reaching out in all directions during the sit-spot.

Clay sculpting and ceramics are also full of learning extensions for further investigation by students. It is one of the oldest human art forms, and cultures around the world have their own unique interpretation of ceramic art. Students could look into the geologic process of how clay is formed and deposited. For a longer, more involved project, students could collect, process, temper, sculpt, and fire their own clay pots or creations, all the while exploring the various cultural, geological, chemical, and physical science concepts that help make clay such a wondrous material to work with.


Some final thoughts on educating with art

As an expression of someone’s emotions and personal view of the world, art has a tremendous power to help students make meaningful connections and discoveries about themselves and the world. As educators, we must always remember to encourage students to express themselves, and validate their art as the valiant and brave thing they are doing. Encourage students to be kind to other’s art, even if they don’t understand or like it. Establishing dialogue over why something appeals to one person versus another is a fruitful discussion to have with anyone in this polarized world we live in, but especially young children.

Remind students to be kind to themselves when they make art. Like any skill, visual art takes practice and dedication to get to a point where one can render images of the world around us with ease. But even if you’re still practicing, even if people sometimes confuse your spruce trees with asparagus, it shouldn’t detract from the fun of making the art. Play with color, splash paint on your paper. Color the ground with mud you scrape from the path. Explore this vibrant world both on and off the page.