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What If...

Age: 0 to 8+
Time: 1 hour+
Materials: water, dirt, objects from nature

How can we create art without art materials? In this activity, inspired by the book What If... by Samantha Berger, kids explore this question and put their problem-solving skills to the test as they create art using only the objects they can find in their outdoor spaces.

The Guide

Set-up play: Watch the read-aloud of What If... by Samantha Berger. Invite your child to share what they noticed about the story. What materials did the main character use to create art? What was your child’s favorite way that the main character created art? Then, ask, “Should we go outside and create some art together, too?”

Support creativity: Once you have arrived in your outdoor space, notice aloud that you forgot to bring paint, markers, paper, etc. How can we create art without art materials? What could your child use instead? Welcome any ideas your child shares about what materials to collect or how to use them to create art. Search around your outdoor space together for materials you could use for your creation.

Support the creative process: While kids create with their materials, remain available to help them if they ask, but let them do as much as they can. As adults, it can be tempting to focus on an end product or on making art that looks a particular way. For kids, the more immersed they are in the process, the more joyful and engaging the experience will be. To support this, find moments to compliment their focus and invite them to talk about their choices in colors and materials rather than asking what they made or suggesting that it looks like something specific.

Need ideas? If you need a creative spark, try out one or more of these ideas together:

  • Make a nature display: Arrange colorful nature treasures into a design on the ground or create a 3-dimensional sculpture with rocks, wood and other found objects. Kids can also use mud to stick nature objects together as they build their designs.
  • Draw in dirt: Use a stick to carve shapes and designs into the dirt. Experiment with sticks of different widths. Add water to the soil to see how this changes the appearance of the shapes on the earth. Decorate your outline by placing nature treasures along the lines of the design.
  • Paint with water: Find a puddle or bring water outside with you and dribble water on dry soil or pavement to make a design. Use leaves and sticks as paint brushes to “paint” the water on. Wait a bit to see how the design changes as the water evaporates from the painting surface. Then, paint again!
  • Mud stamps: Dip leaves and other objects into mud and stamp them on pavement to make different shapes. Make handprint (or footprint) art with mud or water.
  • Shadow play: Have kids find their shadows, then give time to play around to see how their shadows move and behave. Note: shadows are larger and more pronounced at the start or end of the day, so morning or late afternoon are ideal. Join other shadows to make a shape (circle, heart, square, triangle, etc) or cool designs. Arrange sticks, branches, leaves and other natural props around your shadow to help make your shadow transform too.

Why is this activity great for kids?

You may have heard the phrase “it’s the process, not the product that matters,” and when it comes to kids’ art-making, that couldn’t be more true. When kids direct the creative process and make their own choices about what materials to use and how to use them, play is more joyful and tends to last longer, because it’s open-ended and kids feel in control. When kids are invited to create using only the objects they can find around them, they are developing flexible thinking and problem-solving skills. Using objects from nature in their art also activates the senses, supports observation skills and helps kids tune in to the colors and textures of nature.

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