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Explore the World Around You: A Sun Printing Unit for Elementary Students

If you look in a child’s backpack, you are likely to find a variety of collected treasures: a marble, a feather, a ribbon, candy wrappers, a broken necklace, a used eraser, a crumpled note. Children have the natural impulse to investigate their environment, taking delight in the most miniscule of curiosities. Objects that most would consider mundane are novel, and the most ordinary elements of everyday life have the potential to be extraordinary. How can this innate propensity for exploration lead students toward artistic investigation and creative expression?

Rationale: In this unit, students are free to express their curiosity through an exploration of materials encountered in their environment while learning the new process of sun printing (cyanotype). The big idea of exploration will foster curiosity and deepen students’ understanding of their surroundings.

Process: Cyanotype is a photographic process using light-sensitive paper to make vibrant, blue prints. This lesson requires a special paper that is prepared for this type of printing commonly referred to as ‘sun paper.’ This pretreated paper is ready for printing. All you will need are sunlight, water, and a collection of objects for printing. Follow the instructions provided with the paper, as some techniques may vary.

Lesson 1: Exploring, Collecting, and Sorting Materials

Tell your students that for this unit, they will be explorers of their world, and that today, they will be going on a hunt for small, forgotten treasures. In a safe outdoor area, students can explore and search for the most beautiful things they can find: dandelions, rubber bands, pebbles, leaves. Model the process of squinting or crouching to look closely at and collect ordinary things, and express your excitement when students show you what they have found. Have fun, and enjoy being outside while students look at their world in a new way.

When back in the classroom, arrange the plunder across the tables. Tell students that they will be investigating what they found. Explain that texture is a word that describes how something feels. As students investigate the materials, encourage them to describe what they feel using words like soft, smooth, rough, crinkly, or slick. Students can playfully explore the materials and sort them, grouping similar objects together. Clean up by collecting all the objects in a shared bin, as students will continue to use them during the next lesson.

Lesson 2: Printing with Sunlight

If this is a new process for you, it will be helpful to do some test prints yourself so that you understand the technical considerations. Hint: small objects with a lot of detail will create more interesting prints than larger, less nuanced items. Semi-transparent materials can also create an interesting effect.

Take students outside to make their sun prints using the objects that they collected during the previous lesson. Prompt students to arrange the objects to show how they see the world and to show how they feel. Model this process during your demonstration, placing objects with special care in an arrangement that is pleasing to you. Describe your technique of placing the objects, waiting for the sun to expose the paper, then rinsing the paper in water. Give students plenty of time to practice arranging objects on white copy paper to create their compositions. When students are ready, they can raise their hand for the special sun paper. Once you take the sun paper out, the sun will start exposing the print immediately, so encourage students to work quickly to transfer their objects to the sun paper. Make sure students know that it is okay if they don’t recreate their practice composition perfectly. Use a large bucket to rinse the exposed prints with water, and watch as vivid blue prints appear like magic.

Lesson 3: Gallery Walk and Reflection

Set aside a day to present and discuss the completed sun prints. Students can prepare their work for presentation by creating a mat by using a glue stick to adhere the print to a larger piece of black construction paper. Find a place to display students’ artwork for the gallery walk. Your "gallery" could be as simple as a bulletin board in the classroom or the hallway outside your classroom. Hanging the finished artwork will give your students the chance to look closely at each print, and it validates each student’s effort.

Facilitate a conversation around the big idea of exploration. Use scaffolded questions to lead students toward a deeper understanding of their artistic process. Simple questions like “How did you get your objects for printing?” could lead toward more complex questions like “What surprised you when you were searching for objects?” or “What did you learn while you were creating your print?” By circling back to the big idea, students will deeply understand the process of exploration that they engaged in throughout the unit which will foster their innate curiosity about the world around them.


Written by Danielle Dravenstadt

Danielle is an artist and art educator in Alexandria, VA. She specializes in student-centered learning, arts integration, and contemporary best practices.