Playground art: More than meets the eye

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 10/20/2016

 Contributed: Art teacher Sue Friedland engaged 35 young students in painting a 25-by-36 foot map of the United States in the middle of their asphalt playground at Our Lady of Angels School in Burlingame.

Contributed: Art teacher Sue Friedland engaged 35 young students in painting a 25-by-36 foot map of the United States in the middle of their asphalt playground at Our Lady of Angels School in Burlingame.

Just weeks before the start of October rains, art teacher Sue Friedland engaged 35 young students in painting a 25-by-36 foot map of the United States in the middle of their asphalt playground at Our Lady of Angels School in Burlingame. They are now embellishing the map with paintings of all the state flowers. But this is not graffiti!

“This project teaches children some basic geography and nature observation skills,” said Friedland, “and they learn to work together.”

Friedland, who has taught art at the school for five years, explains that the students — first- through eighth-graders — have worked as a team on this project. The older children, who were studying United States geography, were given a homework assignment to look up on Wikipedia the state flower of each state. Then they drew a sketch of the U.S. map along with a corresponding list of all the state flowers.

They used their sketch along with a big stencil of the U.S. to chalk in and paint the playground map. Then Friedland assigned each of the younger children a flower to paint. She took care to choose an appropriate paint for this use — an outdoor patio acrylic paint. She then had the paint store add a special non-slip component, given that children would be running and playing over the finished painting.

I realized I didn’t know much about U.S. state flowers, so I went online to read about them on Wikipedia. Each one has its own story. For example, Ohio’s state flower is the carnation. It was officially designated to honor William McKinley, who was an Ohio governor and later a U.S. president who was assassinated in 1901. McKinley regularly wore a scarlet carnation on his lapel.

State flowers have been named as early as the 1880s. Montana’s state flower, the bitterroot, was designated in 1895. This native plant that was a delicacy to the indigenous Shoshone tribes. During the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805-1806, Meriwether Lewis ate bitterroot, hence its scientific name: Lewisia rediviva.

While some state flowers like Montana’s bitterroot are native wildflowers, others are not. The state flower of Florida is the orange blossom, designated in 1905. The orange is native to China and was not introduced to Florida farmers until 1872. Shortly afterward, the orange became the foundation of Florida’s orange juice industry.

Finally, I looked up the California state flower, which of course is the native California poppy, designated in 1903. The California poppy is familiar to all who travel California highways, as its picture graces our state’s official Scenic Route signs.

But I digress. Sure, as an adult, I enjoyed learning something about state flowers and their connection to state history. But, for children, creative art projects like Friedland’s are more than just fun diversions; they are fundamental to child development.

In recent years, school curricula in the United States have shifted dramatically toward reading, math, and science, while art education has been largely left out of the picture. According to Dr. Kerry Freedman, director of art and design education at Northern Illinois University, “Children need to know more about the world than just what they can learn through text and numbers. Art education teaches students how to interpret, criticize, and use visual information, and how to make choices based on it.”

As I consider the world that we are leaving to future generations, I’m convinced that a strong art education is key to teach children to collaborate with each other and to prepare them for making tough choices.

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who can be contacted through her website at www.betsyherbert.com. She serves on the board of Sempervirens Fund and on the board of Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council.