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Learning Activity

Recycle an Art Animal

conceived by Kay Grindland


Ecology Principle Life Materials Cycle and Recycle
Art Forms, Media drawing, puppets, mosaic
Multi-Disciplines science, art, social studies
grade levels 2 thru 8
You will need Paper, paint, scissors, sticks (dowels or paint-stirrers), tape, glue. 3 containers.
Optional: paper-making materials
time two or three hours over two days


The central circle of life is the Earth's cycling of Life Materials. These materials are limited to what is here and have been shared and recycled by all lives since the Earth began. This activity explores death as part of Earth's original re-cycling plan. Students will color and cut-out a simple animal puppet, create a story about how it lives and finally dies, tear it into small pieces (decompose it), and use the pieces to create a new animal. Students will explore how death is part of a natural cycle, and that they themselves benefit from and participate in this sharing of life materials.

Doing the Activity


Ask students  what would happen if nothing ever died or decayed? Pretty  soon, living things would run out of food, shelter, water,  air and room-- the stuff we are made of, what we need to  survive. These are called Life Materials and in their most  basic form are elements such as Oxygen, Carbon, Calcium, and Hydrogen.

The Earth is pretty much a closed system. Except for  meteorites, the total amount of Life Materials is limited to  what is here. These same materials are shared by all lives  and have been used over and over again. Have students look  at the fingernail on their little fingers. An atom in that  finger was once part of a dinosaur! Every atom of our bodies  has been part of many other bodies before. Our bodies are entirely made of recycled materials, 100% post consumer  content. Caution: As appropriate, clarify that this applies only to the physical body, not to spirit or soul.

Think of some ways we all cycle life materials through  our bodies: we drink water from the river, eat vegetables  from the garden and then go to the bathroom. We breathe  oxygen in and carbon dioxide out. Our bodies are made  entirely of what we eat and breathe.

Death is Earth's original re-cycling plan. It is the way  that shared life materials become available to new lives. A  tree dies and rots back into soil for new trees to grow. A  deer dies and is food for wolves, crows, blue jays,  bacteria, and beetles. Mice gnaw on its antlers for  calcium.

Decomposition is what happens to all bodies, plant and  animal, after death. Decompose means to break down  into basic elements, to return the Life Materials in that  body to their simple re-usable form.

Teacher: Parts of this discussion may be best done  after the activity, when the basic concepts have already  been inferred by many students.

1) Make an animal puppet. 

Each student should chose an animal from the  local habitat or a habitat the class is studying. Remind  students that birds, insects, turtles and frogs and fish are  animals, too, not just mammals.

On construction paper, students draw the animal's outline  to fill the paper and then paint or color it. Cut it out and  tape a stick or dowel on the back to turn it into a simple  puppet. Save the scraps; you'll use them later.

2) Let the animal come to life 

In trios or pairs, have students do simple play/puppetry/storytelling with their animal-puppets. Focus  on everyday natural doings about its life.

As appropriate to your goals have students research their animal, its activities and  behavior.

3) Enact the animal's death 

Remind  students that most animals that die in nature are not killed by predators. Discuss how their puppet animals might die in ordinary ways--from disease or injury, old age or predation. Most animals just get old, and succumb to diseases of aging.

Suggest to students that they imagine and  enact a non-violent death, but leave the decisions up to  them.

Students then decide how their animal dies, enact/tell that story, and tear or cut  puppet into little pieces to represent its death and  decomposition. All pieces must be saved (see next section).

Decomposition happens to all bodies after death, plant or  animal. Decompose means to take apart into basic  elements or components. Decomposition returns a body's  Life-Materials to their simple state again, so other lives  can re-use them.

Some students may like the option of saying a few words  over the animal's body in farewell.

4) Prepare to Circulate the Life  Materials

Discuss how the life materials from  their animal might change and be circulated throughout the  environment-- eaten and digested by animals, or decay into  soil, taken up by plant roots, or moving through the air as gases or moving through  water as a liquid.

Place three containers at a classroom station labeled SOIL, AIR, and WATER. Students distribute  the Life Materials (pieces) of their animals among the three  containers. Cut up scrap paper from the animals' making to  insure plenty of Life-Materials for the next stage.

5) Create a new mosaic  animal

Each student draws an outline for a new animal. Students collect little pieces (Life Materials) from  the Soil, Air, & Water containers and glue them within the  outline to create a mosaic animal. (Second drawing may be  smaller to ensure plenty of Life Materials for mosaic.)

6) Process What Was Learned

It's now a good idea to return to the original discussion about death that began the activity. Find ways to assess what has been learned. Caution: A few younger students resist having their original animal puppet die. The resistance may be connected to prior experience and must be treated respectfully. We have had success by allowing a few puppets to live on, and using the paper scraps from their making as the Life Materials placed in the three containers. Stress early on that all scraps from the first puppet making must be saved.

Note: Second graders, such as those pictured above, don't like to cut up their animals' heads. Some just don't do it. It works out fine. It's great fun to later discover their turtle's head in the leg of a mosaic elephant. And that's part of the lesson.

Bear in mind throughout this activity that to Americans, talking about death is taboo except when unavoidable. However, many kids who have completed this lesson feel liberated by the understood connection between death and the re-cycling of Life Materials.

Do not hesitate to use this activity with people of any age. Older kids, and adults, love the freedom to play like little kids, and strongly appreciate this ecological perception of death and cycling.

Alternative Ending

Paper-Making: Do Steps 1 through 4, then, Instead of making a mosaic, soak the torn pieces of paper in water, mix in a blender and  lay on a screen to make multi-colored paper. Students draw their new animal on  the recycled paper, cut it out, and mount it on construction paper for display. This method of suggesting decomposition  is highly effective.

Teacher FYI: Most paint stores and/or hardware stores will give you paint stirrers . Use them over and over.