Using Art to Connect Kids to Nature

By Richard J. Dolesh | Posted on April 18, 2016

Art Connects Kids Nature 410

I didn’t know you could get art from nature,” said one participant of the annual Get To Know contest.  Another student from a densely urban community participating in a summer playground program said, “I didn’t know nature was so beautiful.” 

These kids, who participated in the Get to Know contest through the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (MNCPPC) in Prince Georges County, Maryland, have had very little chance to experience nature. But responses like theirs are common when park and recreation agencies initiate their own program to enable kids to enter the national Get To Know children’s art contest held annually by the Wild Neighbours Society. 

The Get to Know program was founded in part with the support of internationally famous wildlife artist, Robert Bateman, who was concerned that kids could recognize hundreds of product logos but were unable to name even the most common plants and animals around their own home. 

The contest runs from May 1, 2016 to November 1, 2016 and is open to all children and youth up through age 18. All entries are submitted online and can be viewed in online galleries and shared with friends and families.  Contest judging takes place after November 1, 2016, and a variety of prizes are awarded to top entrants.

In recent years, many kids have said that their art work has been inspired by nature and wildlife they see in their local parks. Some agencies have recognized the great opportunity this contest offers them to have a ready-made framework to develop their own local contest.  

Texas Parks and Wildlife has expanded their Get to Know contest to involve several thousand kids according to Chris Holmes, Director of Interpretation and Outreach Services for Texas State Parks. They now have 600 entries annually submitted online by kids from their Art in Parks contest.  

“This contest really engages kids’ creative impulses,” Holmes says. He notes that there are many other benefits — the contest brings in new visitors and stimulates public interest in all parks. 

Holmes says that the staff loves the contest as well.  “This is a new avenue for ways that our parks interpretive and education staff can work with youth,” he said.  And when asked if it helped to foster stewardship ethics in kids, he said emphatically, “Absolutely!” 

Texas State Parks now has an opening festival to kick off their contest, and at the end of the contest, they print a glossy annual calendar featuring the kids’ artwork.  “We send the calendar to kids and families, and oh, my gosh, the kids who see their artwork in a calendar are thrilled.”

MNCPPC also conducts their own Get to Know contest for local kids. Stewart Seal, Countywide Arts Manager, says that they hold a gallery exhibition of all the entries and then have a judging of the winners and honorable mentions. This year, 400 entries will be hung in a county arts center. When the entries are hung and the winners are displayed in a gallery exhibition, all participants and their families are invited to an opening reception.  The kids are blown away to see their art work hung in the same manner that famous artists have their work displayed.  

Whether you have the ability to do a countywide or statewide art contest or not, these examples can give you some creative ideas on how to recognize and encourage your kids to artistically express themselves based on their interactions with nature.  

The Get to Know contest is a great way to connect kids to nature and the outdoors. Kids who participate have a deeply personal and satisfying experience, one that can create a sense of nature stewardship for the rest of their lives.

Richard J. Dolesh is NRPA’s Vice President for Conservation and Parks