Playing with Leaves and Sticks

by Joanna Pritchard

[Ed. note: this article is part of our series of weekly family activities called Family Fun, published on Fridays]

Andy Goldsworthy, Rowan Leaves and Hole

Andy Goldsworthy, Rowan Leaves and Hole

Did someone paint these leaves? Take a close look at the rainbows on this page. They are composed of unadorned autumn leaves, carefully selected and arranged to create a perfect spectrum. These are examples of “Land Art”, a movement made famous by the work of British artist/sculptor Andy Goldsworthy. Land artists go to a natural area – a patch of trees, a riverbank, a shoreline, or an open field – and create there an astonishing, implausible, graceful work of art, made from the natural things found in that place and time.

Richard Shilling, Leaf Fade

Richard Shilling, Leaf Fade

The work with fall leaves is particularly stunning, and yet a very simple concept which our family has enjoyed imitating in our limited way, both in our backyard and further afield. Try one!

Supplies Needed: Backyard/local park/woodland area with fallen leaves or other natural objects


  1. Look at these pictures with your children, and search for more by typing “Andy Goldsworthy” into Google Images. Ask them what they think they are made of, and how they might have been constructed. Watch their faces, look for what sparks their interest, and follow their excitement in choosing your own activity.
  2. Head outdoors to look for your raw materials, in this case leaves in a variety of colors. See if you can create a smooth transition from one color to the other, or from light to dark, like in the photos. It could be a line, a circle, a spiral or another shape.
  3. If fall leaves are gone in your area, try creating a twig, pebble, or acorn design, or whatever natural object you can find. See the photos below for other ideas. You can arrange things by size, or it could be a square, a spiral, or a “drawing” done with natural materials instead of pencil and paper. Use your imagination!
    Children need to mess around in nature

    Children need to mess around in nature

  4. Let your children be the artists – try not to overly script their creativity. If you’re getting all excited about it and are running the risk of taking over, do your own. Kids love to see their parents creating for the fun of it.
  5. Take a photo of it before you leave it to the elements. Leaving the work there for the place to reclaim is part of the project. (This is good if your house is like ours, and you already have kids’ art poking out from every corner.) It begs the questions, what forces of nature will work upon it after we leave? How might God’s creatures make use of it? How will the elements reshape it? What might we find here after a day, month, or season has passed?
  6. Send us your photo and we’ll post it on our website!

Kids (and Grown-Ups) Need to Mess Around in Nature

The project appeals to children because of the simple pleasure involved in following the shapes and colors of nature and using their hands and imaginations to create something new. God gave children a desire to explore their surroundings and sort things into classes, shapes, colors, and so on. Making a temporary collage on the spot like this is a lot of fun, a way to go deeper in that one place, and, as we’ve found, young kids want to do just that.

Kids may not want to climb a mountain, but playing around creatively for a while with some loose things they find on a short hike helps to engage them in their surroundings. And it’s something they’re likely to remember.

Let your children be the artists

Let your children be the artists

Our powers of observation are sharpened and our appreciation for the variety of shapes and colors in God’s handiwork are deepened by this simple exercise. As Cindy Crosby says, “the more I pay attention, the more I find to pay attention to”. Observing, finding patterns, analyzing color and form: these activities are common to both an artistic and scientific appreciation of nature. They wake us up from our usual take-it-for-granted kind of attitudes to our surroundings. They propel us into a new love for the marvels that go un-noticed around us and the God who created them.

Children like to sort natural objects

Children like to sort natural objects

More on the Goldsworthy Approach…

Typically, Goldsworthy chooses one medium, such as petals, icicles, twigs, pebbles, leaves, or even boulders, and constructs something suggested to him by the shapes and colors around him. He uses no other materials except those he finds there in that small area, and yet constructs astonishing, poetic arrangements.

This method deepens his sense of place. He focuses on working with what is at hand, without tools or outside materials. His creations are vulnerable to the conditions, whether wind, rain, tide or temperature, and working under these constraints deepens his experience of the locale.

Andy Goldsworthy, Pebbles Around a Hole

Andy Goldsworthy, Pebbles Around a Hole

Often fragile and delicate, the work itself may last only a few minutes, or days, so he records his creations in simple, unfiltered photographs. Accepting the transience of the piece is another way of connecting with the place itself: incorporating a sense of time into the work, embracing the true nature of the materials, and knowing that the work remains there in some new form after the elements have worked upon it.

Go Deeper

It’s not our intention at Flourish to encourage you to experience nature by watching movies about it, but an outstanding exception is Rivers and Tides, a documentary about Goldsworthy (it’s available on Netflix!). You can watch it in segments. It’s a visual feast for anyone; our preschoolers watched it with us, fascinated by the artist’s painstaking process and remarkable, powerful finished products. You’ll be inspired to get out there and try it, as well as getting a deeper sense of what Goldsworthy and fellow land artists are trying to accomplish, and how challenging the projects are. Look for the gorgeous books of Goldsworthy’s photos at your library.

Related articles at Flourish: Cindy Crosby, The Virtue of Paying Attention

Many words have been written on the benefits of children engaging with God’s creation. A national movement on the topic has been spawned by Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder.

See more of Andy Goldsworthy’s work.

Look for more articles here in future on the science, theology and fun of connecting children with creation.


  1. Michael Abbaté says:

    Get a copy of the movie Rivers and Tides. Here’s a great excerpt:

  2. Joanna Pritchard says:

    Thanks Michael! I love that piece. BTW very inspired by your No Waste November!


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