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Learning Activity

Trees and Circles of Life


Art Forms
Draw, Paint, Sculpt
Science, Art, Dance
Grade levels
You will need
draw/paint supplies, collage tools, glue, scissors
Two hours



Seeing Life on Earth as a whole is crucial to understanding ecology. Life on Earth is an Interlocking Living System in which all kinds of life play their roles.

Humans have known this basic truth for thousands of years.

There are two worldwide images for this recognition that life is One.

They are found in folklore, in carvings and paintings, in puppet shows and dramas, and dances from most human cultures: the Tree of Life and The Circle of Life.

Organisms try to stay alive—organisms enjoy being alive. Humans are able to celebrate their love of life. Sometimes we make art to Celebrate Life.

To make art we paint, construct, sculpt, dance, sing, act, write poems and speak stories.

Making a Tree of Life or a Circle of Life will give students a way to celebrate their own joy in life, see Life as a Whole, and help them begin to grasp our interconnections with everything on Earth.

After brief introductions of the Tree of Life and Circle of Life options, students each choose between making a Tree of Life or a Circle of Life. They may also be given the option of making any piece of art that shows that Life is One.

Students also choose what art forms to use. This may also be a way of choosing to work alone or collaborate.

If a teacher wishes to emphasize group formation and process for this activity, two extended all class variations are offered below.

Student choice is a crucial part of this activity.

There are several copyable Student Source Sheets for this activity.


The Process is to make Trees of Life and/or Circles of Life, and present works of art in any of several forms.

The Rationale is to help all concerned to begin to see life on earth as one Whole iinterlocking System, the Whole we call Nature or the Biosphere.

Choose: Make a Tree or Make a Circle

Pass out Student Source Sheet One.

Whether a student opts to make a Tree or a Circle, he or she should consider whether the finished art is going to be a color poster, a collage, or a cover illustration for their Journal, or a performance, a poem, a song, or a sculpture. Students are encouraged to choose what they think they can handle.

Making a Tree of Life

Pass out Student Source Sheet Two with the graphic of the Shaker Tree of Life.
• Suggest that whatever form their own tree takes, they might consider using Shaker-style fruit and leaves as hollow outlines that they can fill in with the names of species they especially wish to honor. It is OK to honor extinct species.
• Remember that each leaf or fruit on the tree represents one species of animal or plant.
• Suggest making the Tree personal by including the artist’s very own leaf in the final result.
A Tree of Life sculpture could begin with a small dead tree or bush in the classroom. Or a small fabricated tree—paper mache’ on a wire armature?
• For some images of Trees of Life go Here.

Variation: An All-Class Tree of Life

(especially for younger students)

You will need: scissors, glue, colored paper or fabric scraps, paint, a tree.

Art Form: visual arts; sculpture

• Collect (with kids if possible) a dead bush or small tree with lots of branches.

Make sure it is not alive—check for buds. A dead tree branch can work as well, if it has many branches and twigs. Or create a tree, out of any material. Wire? Wood? Or make your Tree a hanging mobile.

Secure the tree in a stand. A 5 gallon bucket of sand? a Christmas tree stand?


• Each student then creates leaves for the Tree of Life.
• Leaf making is the place for individual creativity to shine.
• Use a material you can glue or fasten to a twig of the Tree. Leaves can be made of paper, fabric, or?
• Leaves don’t have to be green. Ask students what colors suggest celebration of Life.
• Leaves may be painted—for color, for vein lines.
• Leaves can be ‘glittered.’

• Show students real leaf shapes (see Source Sheets), suggest they can use those or invent a new personal leaf shape if they want.

• Or students can collect dead leaves, press them flat, and use them as templates for cutout leaves.
• encourage students to free cut leaves rather than trace and cut to lines. Free cut while looking directly at the leaf pattern while cutting. Many will discover a skill they didn’t know they had.

• One leaf each student makes represents the maker. (name, small photo?)

• the rest of a student’s leaves are labeled with names, stickers, or small pictures or drawings of life forms the leaf-maker wants to especially honor and celebrate by including them on the Tree of Life.

Remind them of the great variety of life—Lives from ocean, forest, lake, air, grasslands, soil. Suggest they strive for diversity, but student choice here is essential.


Making a Circle of Life

The Circle of Life can be created in many art forms.

It might be a painting, or it might be a sculpture or a braided or woven hoop or a stone circle on school grounds.

Remember that the goal is to celebrate the unity or Oneness of all life on Earth.

• Paint a Circle of Life, or Weave or Braid a circle.
• How can you show the enormous variety of life? What can your Circle contain? How can you use shape and color?
• If your Circle is a collage or wreath, what natural materials could you attach to it to suggest the diversity and oneness of Life?

• What is available in winter? Dried weed bones and seed husks from gardens & fields. Consider such materials as seeds, pebbles and antlers, cleaned bones, feathers, cattail leaves. Consider vines (wild grape Virginia creeper) Look under the snow.

• Don't limit yourself to natural materials—use things like yarn, macramé–style twine, ribbons, natural fiber rope.

Caution: If you use natural materials, be sure you have permission to collect, and don’t take everything. If you use an uncommon vine like bittersweet, do not take it all, and do not uproot it.

A branch-armature tree, gr. 4 A Braided Circle of Life, gr. 2
A Web of Life, gr. 3
A Wreath of Life, gr. 1

Variation: An All-Class Braided Circle of Life

You will need:

Phase 1: colored ribbons or fabric strips
• Phase 2: “streamers” of crepe paper or fabric or plastic tape


Class as a group is going to make a braided Circle of Life, then re-create that Circle of Life as a movement/dance activity.

Braiding suggests the intertwined relationships of all life forms.

The Activity Phase 1

First, have students decide what colors are going to stand for what kinds of lives, or what aspects of Nature they choose to include in the Circle.


• Ecologists recognize five “Kingdoms” of Life. Five colors of Ribbons may each represent one kingdom:


1. Procaryotes (bacteria & archaea, single-celled; microscopic)
2. Protozoans and algae (single-celled; mostly microscopic)
3. Fungi (many-celled; some visible to our eyes)
4. Plants (many-celled; mostly visible)
5. Animals (many celled; mostly visible)

Or, for younger kids, each color may stand for ‘important’ (to the class) groups of plants and animals, such as:


• insects
• flowers
• trees
• whales & dolphins
• birds
• reptiles
• frogs & toads
• mammals

Or, ribbons may represent both earthlife and the necessities of earthlife


• sunlight
• animals
• plants
• air
• water

Process: The whole class, or small groups, then braid the ribbons or tapes into a braided “rope”, which they then make into a Circle of Life. If the class makes several “ropes”, join them all into one large Circle.

Suggestion: Point out (and demonstrate) that the braid is strong—life is much stronger intertwined into One than as separate strands.

The Activity: Phase 2

Class now makes their Circle of Life into a simple dance or movement exercise.


• Use “streamers” of crepe paper or fabric or plastic tape. Make them long enough to ‘flow’ but not so long that they tangle.
• Class works in small groups. Each group is one strand of life (one color). Each member of each group has a colored streamer.

Warm-up: Have each group stand in a circle, then:

1. practice walking in a circle with streamers flowing, all in clockwise direction.

2. Then two kids walk counterclockwise while the others walk clockwise; practice weaving in and out like slalom skiers. Goal here is fluid ‘braided” motion with streamers flowing.

• Performance: All groups perform in one large circle, some groups walking clockwise and some the opposite. Everyone weaves in and out with streamers flowing. Practice and perform for another class.

The goal here is Process, not a perfect performance. The goal is to Celebrate Life. Take pictures.

Student Source Sheets Trees And Circles of Life

Biosphere: All the life on Earth plus where it lives; the layer of life enveloping our planet.

Ecology: the science of all the relationships among organisms, and between organisms and their environment; the study of how life on Earth works.

We are One

• All living things on Earth share a common origin. We all have bodies made of Earth. and share the same life-materials.

• We are all made of stardust. We all have bodies made of six elements which were born in the heart of a dying star—atoms of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur.

• We all share sunlight energy; we all share the same water. We all live in communities.


The Tree of Life is one of humanity’s old and powerful ideas. The Tree of Life represents all life on Earth, the full flowering and diversity of Earth’s species.treeglass
The Tree of Life shows up in stories and religious myths from around the world, both in words and pictures.
In the tree-of-life stories, the tree is planted at the center of the world and is protected by supernatural guardians. It is the source of terrestrial fertility and life.
Today the Tree of Life idea lives on in the science of Ecology.

Picture the entire Biosphere as an enormous Tree of Life. Surrounding and nourishing the roots are Earth’s generous conditions for life: liquid water, reasonable temperatures, sunlight, a good mix of nutrients dissolved from Earth’s rocks.

The roots and lower trunk of the Tree are the first single-celled organisms that began life—the bacteria. Just up from the lower trunk are a large variety of single-celled organisms, protozoans and algae. Here the Tree begins to branch, and then those branches branch.

Once the Tree of Life began branching, it became a wildly growing tree that still branches and branches endlessly, each leaf of each twig of each branch a new form of life.

The tree began to branch about 600 million years ago and has never stopped. Many leaves have fallen (gone extinct) during the wild growth of this incredible tree; probably 95% of all leaves that ever greened on Life’s tree have fallen away. When leaves do fall, the Tree just keeps branching and twigging and making more leaves.

Right now there are about 100 million species of living organisms on Earth. Picture a Tree with 100 million leaves. Each leaf is unique, different from all the other species.





Trees and Circles of Life: Source Sheet 2

• The Shakers were a religious group of the nineteenth century. They are remembered for their many inventions and brilliant designs. Here are examples of Shaker Tree of Life versions. In the actual painting, some of the fruit is red and some is other colors.
• This shape of tree is only one possibility. You are welcome to borrow this design. Or find your own ways. There are many ways to depict trees. All you need to remember is that your tree is trying to represent all life on Earth.
• Suggestion: If you use fruit or leaves similar to these, leave them empty (unfilled) so there is room to insert the names of some species you want to especially celebrate. Some species may be fruits, some may be leaves.

Here are a few typical tree shapes:

And some typical leaf shapes:

Note on Circles

Circles have always been a way of suggesting wholeness and completion. Circles have no ends or beginnings. They are self-contained, and therefore whole.

Many peoples have portrayed the wholeness of Nature as a circle.

• Many Native American tribes showed the Whole of Creation as a Medicine Wheel.

• Ancient MesoAmerican cultures showed wholeness in Sunburst designs—a central circle with rays radiating from it.

Many Asian peoples depict the Universe as Mandalas, Circular designs painted or made of colored sands.

• Wreaths suggest wholeness and completion. Ancient Greeks and Romans honored victors in sport and war with wreaths of laurel leaves on their heads. Hawaiians honor guests with wreaths of flowers called leis.

In the science of ecology, life is often shown in circles. Many processes of life are circular. The sense of wholeness that a circle carries makes a circular representation of Life have powerful meaning. Look Here