Symmetry in Children's Art Experiences
Read between the lines of symmetry to make important connections between math, art, culture, and nature.
By Alison Panik
Symmetry is defined as the quality of being made up of identical parts facing each other on opposite sides of an axis. But a child’s understanding of symmetry comes more from personal experience than by hearing and repeating a definition. Symmetry is present in just about every environment a child encounters. Symmetry and the patterns created by symmetry help us organize our conceptual world. Hands-on experiences invite children to be aware of this quality in nature, art, geometry, and everyday objects.
While symmetry is often taught as a topic in math or explored as a feature in nature as part of science studies, the art teacher can offer students the opportunity to pull all of these exposures together to help students formulate an understanding of symmetry as a whole. Providing a variety of avenues to understanding – artistic, mathematical, and scientific – can ensure that all learners have the opportunity to comprehend using their individual learning styles.
It is vital that the art teacher connect with student’s prior knowledge of symmetry by brainstorming, providing hands-on activities, and presenting images to explore and discuss. A lesson on symmetry might begin with presenting the word “SYMMETRY” in large capital letters cut out of construction paper taped to a board. Ask children to share what they think this word might mean. Record their responses around the word. To illustrate the concept take down one letter at a time and invite a student to try to fold it in half so both halves match. As each letter is attempted, invite students to talk about what is happening – which letters can be folded this way and which cannot. Begin forming a group definition of symmetry based on students’ experiences. Assure children that the definition will change and grow as they experienced symmetry in other ways as you lead into your art activity.
The lesson plans below provide a variety of creative ways to explore symmetry, from simple one-session activities to more in-depth, culture-based explorations:
Symmetry in Art Lesson Plans:
I like this lesson because it has so many different ideas, each one a gem by itself. The introductory lesson sets up creating symmetrical designs with pattern blocks as a game that students at all grade levels will enjoy. Included in this lesson plan are the traditional symmetrical name creature idea and the paint-one-side-of-a-butterfly-and-fold activity, both excellent ways to create colorful, unique art while learning an important concept.
Introduce the concept of symmetry to elementary students with this simple folded-paper heart activity. A sunny day and plenty of windows make this lesson work best. And drawing and designing on absorbent paper then dyeing with diluted paint or non-toxic dye creates an exciting resist that emphasizes the symmetry in children’s designs. Timing this lesson in conjunction with a math lesson on symmetry would be most beneficial. Invite the classroom teacher to continue exploring symmetry in nature with children after this lesson.
This activity should follow an introduction to radial symmetry either in a math lesson, science exploration, or formal art instruction. Creating the artwork will take several sessions, as children use just one sand color each day so colors will not mix. I recommend using small paintbrushes to paint glue into the designs, rather than squeezing the glue from a bottle.
This lesson offers hands-on experience with symmetry on a grid, on a computer, and using photographs. Especially of value are the adaptations for students with visual impairments. Plastic or foam alphabet letters can be used as the concrete materials to introduce children to the concept of symmetry, identifying which letters are symmetrical and tracing an invisible line of symmetry on each with fingers.
This lesson for fourth through sixth grades is especially timely for spring. Collaborate with the classroom teacher to schedule this lesson to follow a lesson on the parts of a flower. Calendars can be an excellent source of flower images for this lesson. Since each image will be cut in half, one 12-month flower calendar could provide enough for 24 students.
How do you teach your students about symmetry?