My youngest child loves Van Gogh’s Starry Night. In fifth grade, he picked out a t-shirt that had Albert Einstein’s head superimposed on that image. An aunt gave him a 4’ x 5’ blanket with the painting on one side. He would wrap himself up and listen to Gustav Holtz’s The Planets when he needed a break from homework. Van Gogh’s image of bright stars radiating through a dark night, paired with music that expressed what he heard in the painting, spoke to his spirit.
Landscape images can be powerful catalysts for spiritual awareness. A painting, drawing, or photograph can spark the imagination and help us see beyond the everyday realities of our lives. Yet many children have little experience with art as a spiritual medium. Given cuts in funding for arts education, they may have few opportunities to see and talk about artwork. Or they are accustomed to art being used as an illustration for stories or ideas rather than as a means of communication in its own right.
Fortunately, the internet makes accessing art as a teaching tool relatively easy, with high quality images only a click away. That means you can introduce children to spiritual reflection using landscape images you (or they) download and print for individual contemplation. Or you can project images on a wall or screen for group contemplation.
There are multiple approaches to guiding children’s art reflections. One of my favorites comes from Lori Brenneise, an elementary language arts teacher. She uses landscape images and the five senses to teach creative writing. RKRF has adapted her method to encourage spiritual connections with self and the natural world.
Invite children to select an image of a painting, drawing, or photograph. You can preprint several images from museum or other art collection sites or provide children with a list of curated sites you have previewed so they can find their own image.
Once each child has made their selection, ask “What do you see in the image?” Encourage them to say or write down not only an object that they see, but also what that object reminds them of or how they feel about the object. A child might say or write, “I see a big white bird flying through the sky that looks happy to be floating on the wind. I wish I felt that light and happy.”
Then ask “What do you hear in this image?” If children seem confused by the idea of hearing an image, invite them to put themselves somewhere inside the picture and imagine what they might hear in that space. They might hear the wind or water, a cat’s meow or dog’s bark, a bird chirping or thunderclap. Invite them to share how they feel when they hear these sounds.
Next, ask “What can you touch?” and “What is touching you?” Encourage children to imagine touching and being touched by things in the image. Some things, like wind or temperature, may be invisible but still have an effect on them. Visible things, like sunlight or darkness, may cause sensations of warmth or prickles on the back of the neck. Invite them to talk about how the image touches them.
Smell and taste often go together for people, so encourage using these senses next. Ask “What can you smell?” and then follow up with “Does that smell lead you to taste something?” Maybe the smell of honeysuckle leads to memories of tasting a hotdog on a family picnic. Or smelling wood burning elicits the taste of s’mores. Invite them to tell stories about the tastes prompted by what they smell.
As you guide the children’s reflections, resist the temptation to tell them what they should be sensing. If one sense doesn’t evoke much of a response, reassure them that their other senses will compensate. Share what you are sensing in your own image to model the process. Then let them discover for themselves what their own image might have to say to their spirit.
- How to Use Images to Teach Creative Writing in Elementary School
- The Collection Vincent van Gogh. The Starry Night. Saint Rémy, June 1889
- National Park Service Treasured Landscapes: Art Collections Tell America's Stories
- The World Outside: Landscapes
- Guidelines for Spiritual Reflection with Landscape Images