Understanding Nature Through Dance

From IslandWood Education Wiki
Jump to: navigation, search

Lesson Summary:

Students will create a sketch of a tree. The sketch will be used to inspire the creation of a dance about that tree’s life after exploring elements of movement as an artistic medium. Over the course of the lesson, students will develop an understanding of how art can be utilized to develop and communicate understanding of connections within the natural world. 

Objectives:  Students will be able to…

  • Describe and demonstrate three elements of dance
  • Explain how dance can be used to communicate
  • Demonstrate the ability to communicate, problem solve, plan, and make decisions within a group
  • Explain their personal connection within the natural world



  1. Determine student’s previous experience with sketching and dance before the lesson. Suggestion: When going over the schedule for the day use a “thumb-o-meter” for students to tell you whether they have a lot of experience dancing or very little.
  2. If students seem to have a high degree of experience, ask them what elements or techniques of sketching or dance they are familiar with.


  1. Student performances:
  2. Are students using the three elements introduced in their dances?
  3. Are students creating a dance with a clear beginning, middle, and end that communicates a story/understanding?
  4. When students work in groups, are they utilizing elements of all group members’ dances and communicating effectively?
  5. Student performance debrief:

Are students verbalizing greater understanding and connection with the natural world as a result of their movement explorations?

Age Group:    3rdgrade and up



1.“Wild Zone” or other space where students can get up close and personal with trees

2.Indoor or outdoor large, empty space with soft, even, and easy to move on ground, ideally a private area where students will not be observed by anyone not    participating in the lesson 



1.Student journals or sketch paper


3.Music player & speakers (required music: folk dance music, instrumental music of various tempos)

4.White board or large paper & markers

5.Optional: Nature sketch example

6.Optional: Handkerchiefs or similar item for students who do not wish to hold hands while dancing


Duration:.5-.75 hours for sketching section, 1.25-1.75 hours for dance section (do not need to be completed on the same day)

The lesson:


  1. Optional: Prepare a sample nature sketch of a tree illustrating techniques you would like the students to focus on (for example, contour/shape, texture, shading, proportion, etc.). This is especially helpful if you have already introduced your students to nature sketching and would like to expand on what they have learned. If the students do not have previous experience with sketching, it is not important to introduce any specific techniques, though a little technical instruction can help hesitant students find a starting place.
  2. If possible, prepare the venue where you will do the dancing portion of the lesson before you arrive with the students:
  3. On a white board or large paper, write the title of the lesson, learning objectives, “Elements of Dance: Pathway, Shape, Tempo” and “Folk Dance: Mayim Mayim.” (Or the title of the folk dance you will teach). See Figure 1 for an example.
  4. Do a “sound check” on your music equipment and ensure that all the music you wish to play during the lesson is working
  5. Double check the safety of your venue for dancing; i.e. sweep the floor, check for rocks and other tripping hazards, etc.
  6. Learn/review the folk dance you will teach and its cultural significance.


Sketching: “If you were exploring this area more than 200 years ago, with no iPhone and no camera, and you needed to tell everyone at home who had never seen this place what it was like, what would you do? How do you think scientists communicated what they learned about plants and animals in new places before cameras were invented?”

Dancing: Folk Dance: “We’re now going to explore a different way of communicating understanding about the world around us. I’m going to teach you a dance that people in Israel have done for a very, very long time. While we learn the dance and have fun doing it together, I want you to think about what the people who created this dance might be trying to communicate.”


  1. Optional: At the sketching location, use the “Meet a Tree” activity to pair up students with a tree.
  2. After discussing the sketching “hook” question, instruct students that they will be getting to know a tree using this method of nature sketching. Let them know they will have 15-25 minutes (give a specific time that fits within your plan) to sketch their tree, and encourage them to keep adding details until time is up. They should sketch the tree from where it meets the ground to as high up as they can see.
  3. Optional: Introduce specific sketching techniques if desired.
  4. If you have not done the “Meet a Tree” activity to match students with a tree to sketch, you can ask students to choose a tree at this time. Give boundaries as to where in the space students can be while sketching. It is helpful to remind students that sketching is a solo and silent activity, so they should be at least 10 feet from other students while working. It is ok if students sketch the same tree, as long as they are doing their own work. Explain the callback signal you will give to return to a common area when time is up and release students to sketch.
  5. While students are sketching, circulate and offer encouragement.
  6. When time is up recall students for a debrief of the first section of the lesson. If you are not moving directly to the dance portion, you may choose to do a longer debrief. If you are moving to the dance section immediately, some questions you might ask as a quick debrief include:
    • Did anyone discover something new about their tree after sketching for a while that you didn’t notice right away? How did the process of sketching the tree help you make this discovery?
    • What do you think the life of your tree has been like? Did you notice any clues that might tell you about something that happened to your tree?
  7. Transition to your dance space: “We’re now going to explore the lives of our trees even further using a different medium, or type of art. To do that, we’re going to need a change of venue!”
  8. When arriving at the dance venue, give students a few moments to prepare for dancing (i.e. if indoors, remove gear/shoes, if outdoors, put on gear, etc.). While students are preparing you can hook up music and cue up the track for the folk dance you will teach.
  9. Present your dance section hook: a folk dance that communicates something about the cultural or natural world. The Israeli dance called “Mayim Mayim” is ideal for this purpose, but you can choose any dance that fits within the lesson.
  10. Gather students at the white board or paper and introduce the lesson and objectives. Explain that dance is a way of communicating just like other art forms, and that it has certain elements, almost like words in a language that help get the message across. Introduce the three elements of dance: pathway, shape, and tempo (or speed). (You can also choose different elements of dance, though these three seem to work best for this lesson.) Pathway is path you take through space while dancing, shape is the shape your body makes (introduce round and angular body shapes), and tempo (or speed) is how fast or slow your movements are. For more information on elements of dance, see Creative Dance for All Ages by Anne Green Gilbert.
  11. Have students identify how these elements of dance manifest in “Mayim Mayim” to check for understanding. In this dance, pathway is circular or wheel-like, shape is mostly round but with some angular shapes, and tempo is medium to fast. See Figure 1. (It is ok if students have different responses, as long as their responses show understanding of the elements. Creative Dance for All Ages includes many quick activities that can be used to reinforce understanding of the elements if needed.) Ask students, “What might the dance ‘Mayim Mayim’ be trying to communicate?” Discuss the cultural origins and significance of the dance.
  12. Warm up the students’ bodies and prepare their brains for thinking in dance: “A dancer’s body is their instrument, so it is very important to keep it safe by warming up. We got our hearts pumping dancing ‘Mayim Mayim,’ now we need to stretch and wake up our other muscles by moving in different ways. To do this, we’re going to explore how some of the wildlife we’ve seen this week at IslandWood might move through the world. While we move, think about how these creatures’ pathway, shapes, and tempo compare to your own.”
    • Turn on instrumental music with a medium to slow tempo
    • Instruct students to lie on their backs at least ten feet from anyone else, and pretend they are a tidepool. With every exhale, a wave falls into the pool and they become deeper and deeper.
    • When students are relaxed and ready guide them through exploring the movements of the following creatures (and/or others that you have seen with the students)

                        i.      Anemone (for example, back is attached to a rock arms and legs sway like tentacles in the water)

                        ii.      Barnacle (tentacles shoot in and out of your shell quickly!)

                        iii.      Worm (on tummy, midsection raises to propel you forward)

                        iv.      Salamander

                        v.      Frog

                        vi.      Coyote

                        vii.      Barred Owl

  •  Conduct a brief debrief: For example, “What animal had a really surprising pathway/shape/tempo?”

13.  Transition to creating own dance: “Now we’re all warmed up and have explored some new ways of moving and communicating, I’d like to give you a chance to create your own movements that communicate something about the natural world.” Explain that students will use their sketch of a tree to create a solo dance that tells the story of that trees life. The dance should include a pathway, different shapes, and should have a single tempo or clear tempo changes. If students need more structure, you can instruct them to use the shape of the trunk of their tree as their pathway and the shapes of the branches as their body shapes. Their dance should have a clear beginning middle and end. Let the students know how long they will have to work independently (suggested 10 minutes), and that at the end of the work time, solo dances will be combined, so it is important to keep in mind that other team members will be counting on you to have some material. Emphasize that they will not be required to perform their solo dance unless they would like to. Play instrumental music of various tempos while students work.

14.  Optional: If students are interested and time allows, you can have a performance of solo dances after the first work time.

15. Transition to partner or group dances: “Now that you have created some movement on your own, we’re going to try collaborating to create a work of movement that communicates something about the lives of the trees that make up the forest that we have been studying and enjoying here at IslandWood. Just like how scientists work together to do more accurate research, artists work together to create more thought-provoking art.” Divide students into partners or small groups (2-4 students per group; the larger the group, the more work time and scaffolding of collaboration skills will be needed). Instruct students to combine their dances so that they tell the story of multiple trees, or the forest as a whole. The same guidelines apply: The dance should have a beginning, middle, and end, and include the three elements of dance. Parts of each group member’s dance should be present in the final product. Additional guidelines for working together may be needed depending on the group. Let students know how long they will have to work with their group (suggested: 10-20 minutes depending on group size). This creation will be performed.

16.  Recall students to a central area. Give or review guidelines for respectful audience behavior (sitting up, quiet, silent applause, etc.).


Each group performs their dance.

You can debrief the dances individually or wait until all groups have performed and debrief at the end. It can be helpful to remind students that artists discuss art and its elements, not individual people. For example, instead of saying “I really liked Maria’s             dancing,” an artist would say “I saw Maria using angular shapes. That made me wonder about…” Suggested questions for debriefing an individual dance:

  •    What did you notice about this group’s use of [insert dance element here]?
  •    What did you learn about this group’s trees from their dance?

Suggested questions for the whole group debrief:

  •  What did you learn about your tree while making your dance? Do you feel like you know more about it or understand it better now?
  • What was it like to communicate through dance? What were your challenges and successes?

Transfer of Learning:  Suggested questions:

  • How might exploring the movement of a plant or animal help you understand what it needs?
  • How is movement used in your home communities? When have you experienced communicating through movement in the past? If you haven’t before, could you create opportunities for you to communicate through movement in your community?



Other lessons and activities:

Before this lesson:

Nature Sketching


Meet a Tree

Teams Course (emphasis on moving together, solving problems)

After this lesson:

Teams Course (referencing experience of creating movement together)

5 Trees Story or Song

“Each 1 Teach 1” with trees







  • Videos are set to private to protect students’ privacy



Lou Fish-Sadin’s Creative Movement workshop at IslandWood, January 2017

Gilbert, A. G. (2015). Creative dance for all ages: a conceptual approach. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Wolfe, C. (n.d.). Meet a tree. Retrieved April 05, 2017, from http://wiki.islandwood.org/index.php?title=Meet_a_tree

Created by Sierra Tinhofon April 5, 2017.