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Visualization Embodied: Art Students Explore Metaphor Through Kinesthetic Learning

Thirty-five first-grade students stand beside bright yellow chairs in a tightly packed art classroom, stretching their limbs high, low, wide, and winding to represent the growing branches of their own distinctive trees. Instead of sitting with their hands folded on the tables with their eyes on their teacher as they often do in other classrooms, today they are free to stand, sway, and move their bodies to act out  their rapidly progressing thoughts. Ooohs, ahhs, and giggles mix with hushed thoughts and deliberate movements as each student visualizes and performs a growing tree that tells the story of their life. This is a glimpse into a visualization exercise that empowers early childhood students to respond kinesthetically to deepen their thinking and inspire personally meaningful artmaking.

Kinesthetic Learning and Visualization

Kinesthetic learning engages students by bringing abstract ideas to life. This physical, hands-on engagement makes complex ideas accessible to early childhood students. “Children of this age range are active, hands-on learners. They have short attention spans, cannot sit still for long periods of time, and learn best through hands-on exploration and manipulation of materials from the world around them” (College Board, 2012). Many students are able to engage in higher-order, complex thinking by participating in kinesthetic learning compared to other learning styles.

Visualization is a powerful teaching strategy that guides learners to think critically to create a detailed mental image. This is a complex and abstract skill for young learners. By incorporating movement, an abstract process becomes a tactile experience. This visualization strategy was adapted from an exercise Aileen Pugliese Castro describes in Introducing Metaphorical Thinking to Children (2004). In this exercise, students are prompted to imagine trees that represent their lives. Sensory questions guide students to envision a descriptive metaphor. Castro uses these prompts to guide students through this visualization:

“Think about the day that you were born. Somewhere on this earth a tree started to grow. That tree has been growing since the day you were born. We don’t know where that tree is, but it is as old as you are today. If you were to see your tree today, what would it look like? Think about the kind of tree it is. How big is it? Where is it growing, and is there anything nearby? What color is your tree, and does it change colors with the seasons? What makes up your tree? What kind of leaves does it have? Does your tree grow fruit or flowers? How does your tree feel? How does your tree smell? How is your tree like you?” 

This visualization strategy can elicit meaningful responses from many young students, but Castro notes that some first-grade learners found the complexity of this exercise challenging. Adapting her strategy to allow students to move and perform rather than remaining seated can help engage young learners in this exploration of metaphor.

Use the following prompts to guide your young students to use their bodies to represent their unique tree:

  • Curl up your body and make it as small as you can. You are a tiny seed ready to grow.
  • Imagine when you were a brand new baby. Your seed is new, too. Move your body to show your seed beginning to sprout.
  • How did you change as you grew older? Your tree is growing older, too. Move your body to show how you have grown.
  • Every person is different, and so is every tree. Shape your body to show what makes your tree special.

Lesson Sequence

Day 1:

Tree Visualization Embodied: Have students find a place to stand where they have room to move while listening. Guide students through embodied visualization.

Drawing strategy: Use your body to model the parts of the tree. Young students often struggle to represent the trunk of the tree and instead focus on many lines representing branches. Compare the trunk of a tree to your torso, and compare the branches to your arms. Model drawing a thick section for the trunk, then lines extending from the trunk as branches.

Artmaking prompt: Create a tree that tells the story of your life. Students create their drawing that they will paint in the following lesson.

Day 2:

Painting: Students engage in hands-on, exploratory painting with an emphasis on personal expression. Have students consider how color represents a mood when painting their tree. To encourage students to use color symbolically and expressively, consider a warm-up activity where students dance or perform the feeling they get when looking at different colors. Not only will this activity engage students, but it will remind them of their goal for the day—using color to show mood.

Day 3:

Revisions in Pastel: Students share, revise, and adjust their work using oil pastel to add final details to their paintings. The pastel medium allows more precision and detail for young students than paint, and students are able to manage pastels independently. This will give you time to offer additional support to individual students.

Artist Statements: Allow students to write freely, to the best of their ability. Encourage them to focus on meaning not spelling accuracy. For emergent writers, you can scribe the statement for them below their writing. Use these simple prompts to help guide your students to write their artist statements:

  • Tell me about your work.
  •  Describe your process. (How did you make it?)
  • What does it mean to you?

Encourage Divergent Responses

This unit is designed to build upon students’ prior knowledge and interests, engaging all learners in this creative task. It is important to reinforce your students’ efforts by welcoming divergent responses. Zimmerman (2009) uses historical research to show that all students varying in skills, interest and motivation are all capable of creativity. The artmaking prompt is open-ended by design, opening up possibilities for students who did not consider themselves creative or artistic. This allows students with a wide range of skill levels to be successful. Provide a safe environment for creativity by encouraging unique or novel responses.

Take time to celebrate your students’ work by displaying their paintings and artist statements in a prominent location in the school or classroom. Be sure to display all of your students’ paintings, not just a pristine selection. Your students will feel proud when they see that you value their work enough to hang it on the wall. Typing students’ artist statements and posting them below each painting is a wonderful way to make learning visible to students, teachers, and community members. Your showcase of distinctive and expressive trees will acknowledge the efforts of all of your students and foster a culture that supports creativity and divergent thinking.


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.



Carlos, A. P. (2004). Introducing metaphorical thinking to children. In London, P. et al. Toward a holistic paradigm in art education. Baltimore, MD: Center for Art Education, Maryland Institute College of Art.

Zimmerman, E. (2009). Reconceptualizing the role of creativity in art education theory and practice. Studies in Art Education, 50(4), 382-399.