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The Plants Around Us: A Science and Art Lesson

EducationWorld is pleased to present this lesson shared by the Get to Know Program, which inspires youth to discover the natural world by providing innovative programs, resources and events. The original lesson plan was developed in consultation with acclaimed artist and naturalist Robert Bateman and science consultants from the California Department of Education. The lesson appears on the Get to Know Program’s Best Practices Resource Page, which provides teachers and parents with free, cutting-edge lesson plans, videos and interactive activities designed to connect children with nature through art, music, drama, writing, photography, video and nature journaling. Find more information, including a large selection of lesson plans, here.

See another Get to Know lesson on EdWorld: Sustainable Products, Consumer Responsibility.


--Science as Inquiry
--Life Science
Fine Arts
--Visual Arts



Brief Description

Students get to know one or two plant species by reproducing them as works of art.


Students will

  • Learn the name of one or more plants.
  • Describe or draw a plant, pointing out features that distinguish the species and individual plant from others.


Science, art, spring, plants, botany, nature, outdoors, contour drawing

Materials Needed

  • Drawing paper or sketch book
  • Pencil or pen
  • Local plant guides with pictures
  • Access to the schoolyard or a nearby park

Lesson Plan

In this activity, your students will be focusing on getting to know one or two plant species by reproducing them as works of art. Youth can learn to see detail that would otherwise escape their attention by focusing and recording the characteristics that distinguish one plant from others. As your students work on this activity, it is important that they learn the name of the plant they are drawing, and that they use the opportunity to spot clues about the life history of each plant – such as where it grows, what animals depend on it for food, whether it is a perennial, has a woody stem, and other features.

Prior knowledge
What do your students know about plants? Test their comprehension with basic questions to see what level of understanding and appreciation they have of plants prior to going outdoors to draw them.

Here are some questions to help you assess your students' prior knowledge:

  1. What is the largest plant you can think of? Trees. (Students may think that plants are herbaceous, and may not include trees within the plant category.)
  2. What are the smallest plants you know of? Single-celled algae. (Students may not know that many microorganisms are plants.)
  3. Can you name some plants that might have been part of your breakfast or lunch today? (Students may identify fruits, or vegetables like celery or lettuce as plants, but may not think of grains, which are the main ingredient in bread.)
  4. What makes plants different from animals? Animals can move, plants can’t; animals must consume plant material or other animals as food, whereas plants can make their own food using sunlight, water, and air (carbon dioxide). Animals’ cells lack a stiff cell wall, whereas plant cells have a rigid cell wall made of cellulose.

Introduce contour drawing
The perception of shape is a complex neurological process that is fundamental to how we make sense out of what we see. Together with color, location, and other cues, we use shape to classify objects in our world. Learning how to see the nuances hidden in shapes takes concentration and practice, though, and contour drawing is a wonderful way to hone this skill. The beauty of contour drawing is that it allows us to focus on one aspect of a subject, namely its shape. It lets the observer focus exclusively on the structure and outline of the subject, which helps to reveal to the observer subtle details that make the subject distinctive.

How it’s done
Contour drawing is done by moving your pen or pencil very slowly, using simple continuous lines to capture the nuances that give an object its distinctiveness. It encourages the artist to draw blindly as much as possible, by having them focus more on the subject and not on the paper and letting the hand do the work while the eye searches for details on the subject. Ultimately, the most important outcome from contour drawing is not what appears on the paper, but what happens inside the head: it is all about deeper appreciation you gain when you concentrate on shape and details of something as you draw its shape on paper.

It is important that each student have his or her own materials and that they try this as a solo exercise.

Introduce the idea of plants by asking your students what a plant is, and how it differs from other kinds of living things. Be sure they understand that plants are essential to life in that they use sunlight to make oxygen, and are the source of all of our food, directly or indirectly. If necessary, go over some details of plant basics before going out to draw and identify individual plants. (See Get to Know Plants: Background Information, below.)

Explain the purpose of the activity: To get to know just one plant by drawing only its shape. The idea is that plants can usually be identified by their shape, even if you do not know their color, where they grow, or other details.

Explain the drawing process to your students:

  1. Find a single plant. It can be grass, moss, a flower, tree, or shrub, or even just a part of a plant. Look for something that you find interesting.
  2. Use the pen or pencil to draw the plant, moving the pencil very slowly. By going slow, you will have time to follow the shape of your plant more accurately.
  3. Do not add shading or color. You are to use only simple lines to capture the shape of the plant.
  4. Draw only what you see: do not add details that are not there, and do not omit details that you think will detract from the image. For instance, if you are drawing some leaves and one looks bug-eaten, draw them that way.
  5. Your drawing does not need to be artistic or beautiful. We are simply trying to capture the shape of the plant, not create a piece of finished artwork.
  6. Do not worry about what others are drawing or how well. It is only important that you see the shape of the plant, and make some lines on your paper that show its shape and some of its special features.
  7. Pay special attention to how the leaves or other parts are joined to the stem, the shape of edges, whether they are smooth or jagged, if there is insect damage, and other interesting details. If you’ve found a flower, draw in its parts, counting them to make sure you have the right number.
  8. Add some observations and notes. Next to your drawing, feel free to write down feelings, features, or other observations that will help you remember this plant. If you know its name, make a note of that too. Record things you see on this plant that make it unique, such as if an insect comes to it while you are there, or something interesting about where it is growing.
  9. Plant identification: During or after your students’ drawings are made, you should have them identify their plants. Pass out copies of various plant books and let them page through them to identify the plants they are drawing. If they cannot find the plant’s name, let them know that they should be able to capture enough information on their page so that someone with wild plant expertise can help them identify it later.

Indoor option
If you are unable to go outside to do this activity, you can easily bring plants into the classroom for your students. Pass around blossoms from a bouquet, potted houseplants, or even dried plants.

Tips and enrichment

  • You may need to prepare your students with a bit of indoor practice. It can be surprisingly difficult to consciously look for and record shapes or outlines, especially if this is the first time your students have done this kind of work. Before taking your class outside, have them try drawing the outline of a leaf or some other shape, just to help them get the idea of contour drawing.
  • Emphasize the need to slow down. This is important. By moving the pencil very slowly and deliberately, your students will be more able to capture little details that make each plant special, and will be able to do so more accurately.
  • If you have done this activity outside, ask your students if they can find their original subjects a day or two later. Ask them to find the exact spot where they sat, and the original plant they drew. Get them to report on what changes may have take place: was the plant still there, or was it gone? Had it changed in some way? If so, what might have happened to it?
  • Practice true “blind” contour drawing by having the students not be allowed to look at their paper while drawing the object. Also, try drawing with blindfolds on by feel and/or memory.

Get To Know Plants: Background Information

What are plants, anyway? What do you think of when someone asks what a plant is? A potted house-plant? A garden flower?

You would be right, of course. But plants are much more than this. Basically, plants are living organisms that make their own food using only sunlight, water and air. Plants come in an amazing range of sizes and shapes. Some are microscopic, and others are over 300 feet tall and are among the largest organisms on the planet. They are found in all kinds of habitats, from open oceans to plains and mountains.

The thing most plants have in common is their ability to make their own food. The food they make is a sugar called glucose, usually made in the leaves. They do this through photosynthesis—a complex process that uses sunlight to make the glucose out of water and carbon dioxide, which the plant gets from the soil and air. The process happens inside leaf cells in special parts called chloroplasts. If you see chloroplasts in a microscope, they appear dark green. This is because of a green-colored chemical called chlorophyll, the chemical that lets plants absorb useful energy from sunlight.

Another thing most plants have in common is something called cellulose. Cellulose is a tough fiber made from glucose. It stiffens the cells of plant tissues, making them strong enough to stand up under their own weight. Cellulose, and another substance called lignin, is the main ingredients of wood, the material that lets trees grow tall. We use wood as a construction material, and we extract cellulose from it to make paper.

Kinds of plants
When you think of a plant, you normally think of something that has leaves, stems, roots, flowers, etc. These are called vascular plants. “Vascular” refers to the system of thin tubes that carry water from the roots to the leaves, and sugars from the leaves to the stems and roots. Most of the plants we are familiar with are of this type. Flowering plants, shrubs, trees, ferns, vegetables and grasses would fit this category.

Vascular types of plants can even be found in harsh desert conditions. The cactus, smoke tree and ocotillo, just to name a few, have learned to adapt to the extreme cold and hot temperatures, and the lack of moisture; the needles on a cactus, for example, help shade the plants from too much sun and help keep the cactus cool by acting like the fins on a radiator into the air. The desert really comes alive with plants after significant rainfalls, when hundreds of wildflowers make the desert floor an exhibition of vivid colors.

In addition to vascular plants, some plants are single-celled organisms that are too small to see individually without a microscope. These are called algae. You can find algae in lakes, rivers, and oceans, where they form easily seen colonies. Sometimes they become so plentiful that they pollute the water they grown in.

Another classification of plant that is common but often overlooked is moss and its relatives. These plants have no vascular tissues (veins), and simply absorb water through their tiny leaves. Without stiff stems, these plants cannot grow very large, and so we find them on the soil, and on logs and other surfaces, sometimes in dense colonies.

How plants help us
Everyone knows plants are important to us as food. Either we eat plants, or we eat beef or other meats from animals that ate plants. The plants we use as food are mostly grains (seeds from various kinds of cultivated grasses such as oats and wheat), fruits, and vegetables such as celery and potatoes.

There are additional ways plants help us that are not so obvious. Natural forests, meadows, prairies, and other habitats provide us with clean water and air, and have the ability to soak up some of the wastes we produce. Plant-filled ecosystems are part of the biosphere, making food and creating habitats for all other life forms on our planet, including us.

This is why it is so crucial that we take care of the plants around us, because they are so important to the way we live, to our economy, and to the animals that depend on them for food and shelter.

National Standards

Grades K-4
NS.K-4.1 Science as Inquiry
NS.K-4.3 Life Science- Characteristics of organisms, life cycles of organisms, organisms and environments

Grades 5-8
NS.5-8.1 Science as Inquiry
NS.5-8.3 Life Science - Structure and function in living systems, diversity and adaptations of organisms

Fine Arts
Visual Arts
Grades K-4
NA-VA.K-4.1 Understanding and Applying Media, Techniques, and Processes
NA-VA.K-4.2 Using Knowledge of Structures and Functions

Grades 5-8
NA-VA.5-8.1 Understanding and Applying Media, Techniques, and Processes
NA-VA.5-8.2 Using Knowledge of Structures and Functions

This lesson also conforms to Environmental Principles and Concepts laid out by California’s Education and Environment Initiative, and correlated with California Science Standards.


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