A Study of Youth Art on Environmental Concerns

Given the recent uproar surrounding Swedish student, Greta Thunberg, on climate change, I was interested in how environmental issues are being addressed by student artists. As mentioned by Louis (2005), art education is shifting focus from “internal and individual dimensions of representational activities and towards an increasing concern with the social, political, and institutional determinants of children's experience” (p. 339). Twenty-first century skills, and frequent topics in schools today, are to encourage our students to be globally responsible citizens by practicing communication and collaboration (Zook, 2019). As evident by the passionate speech given by Thunberg at the Opening of the Climate Action Summit 2019, it is taking hold. My Pinterest board is curated with a variety of student art covering environmental subtopics that include calling attention to the consequences of environmental hazards, suggestions for how people can make a change, and using recycled or natural materials as the medium.

Something I noticed while collecting imagery for my Pinboard was that students from all over the world are taking part in the topic of environmentalism as it transcends the cultural divide. Burton (2001) says, “Because artistry is imbedded in our shared humanness, its outcomes are trans-cultural and trans-historical and permit public discourse and conversations across national boundaries and time” (p. 36). I have included artworks by students from the United States, China, and Russia, to name a few. While environmentalism and climate change are broader topics in their art, each display something specific to their direct region or culture. In Hanging by a Thread (2019), 16 year-old Olivia from California, known for having frequent wildfires, composes an image resembling that of Frida Kahlo’s style and wrought with symbolism (See Figure 1). A girl’s face is aflame as she holds woodland creatures and plant life hanging by lines of thread (Euse, 2019). Sixth grader, Charlie, calls attention to marine pollution in his drawing of plastic bottles and netting in the ocean with sea life. Charlie attends school along the gulf coast of Mississippi (Artsonia, n.d.).

Environmental Activism

The students from Berkeley High School, Olivia, as previously mentioned, and Sophia were presented activist artwork by Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado on genocide and environmental destruction. Their teacher, Gabriel Berent, explains that by showing visuals rather than reading about it in a textbook, it yields a deeper meaning for the students. Their work was presented in a multidisciplinary showcase Art/Act: Youth that ran through September of this year. Sophia created a grid with repetitive printed images of Smokey the Bear gradually being burned away in each frame, aptly titled Smokey the Bear (2019). Olivia, who had three pieces in the show, states that she intends her art to draw attention to the issues at hand and to be more than just something pretty to look at (Euse, 2019).

Symbolism appears to be a common theme in the examples I’ve included which demonstrates a higher level of development in these children’s abilities to communicate ideas. Eisner (1978) explains that first, consciousness must be acquired in order to articulate what is to be communicated. Once a concept is formed, the process of symbol-making abstracts or transforms one form into another. 10-year-old Mexican student, Laura, paints an image of the sun. However, the sun contains a wall outlet, and a plug from below reaches up to connect with it. Laura says,

Through my painting, I would like to transmit to all people, including the world’s leaders, my hope and desire to stop global warming by promoting the use of our sun because it is powerful, clean and practically endless. So far it is misused but if we want it could be our everyday energy source. (“Child’s Eye,” 2008, para. 3)

Figure 1. Hanging by a Thread. Olivia Tong, 16. Berkeley High School, Berkeley, CA. (Euse, 2019)

Figure 1. Hanging by a Thread. Olivia Tong, 16. Berkeley High School, Berkeley, CA. (Euse, 2019)

Acting on Empathy

Eisner (1978) continues that the creation of art and imaginative play helps children “empathetically participate in the life of another” (p. 7). Gloria, a 14-year-old from China, shows a number of hands reaching to pull back presumably jail cell bars to free planet Earth, which is depicted covered in lush greenery, calm waters, and active sea life (See Figure 2). Each of the arms symbolically represents the various ways to, “Make greenhouse gases zero” (“Child’s Eye,” 2008, para. 7), according to Gloria, by using wind turbines, solar panels, and picking up litter. Russian student, Guzel, oozes empathy in her artist statement as she says, “In my picture, the penguin is losing its family members as the ice suddenly broke. They cry to each other but they have drifted so far that their voices cannot be heard...just think about those little animals and you will know what to do” (“Child’s Eye,” para. 5).


Figure 2. Gloria Ip Tung, 14. China. (The Guardian, 2008)


Figure 3. The Power of Ships. Zeva Kenney, Grade K. Joseph Finegan Elementary, Jacksonville, FL. (Namepa, 2019)

Several pieces from my collection are the result of student showcases or competitions. Kindergarten student, Logan, creates an image of himself planting trees in response to his local Parent Teacher Association sponsored contest to promote environmental awareness. The theme from that 2007-2008 school year was “What Can I Do?” He is shown holding a watering can next to what could be seen as a budding tree (Artsonia, n.d.). North American Marine Environment Protection Association (NAMEPA) also sponsors an annual themed student art contest. Their mission is to preserve the marine environment by promoting sustainable industry practice and educating the public on protecting resources. Figure 3 shows the 2016 winner, kindergarten student Zeva, who paints abstracted ships surrounding Earth for the theme “Ships Bring the World to Us” (NAMEPA, 2019).

Environment as Medium

Further development occurs, according to Eisner (1978), in the form of non-objective representation to convey ideas or feelings. I have a few examples of art in my Pinboard that employ color representative of the green movement and natural found objects to create shapes and patterns. The green monochromatic collage was created by 4-year-old Willa and lead by elementary art teacher and mom, Johnson, who suggests on her blog that the project be used for Earth Day (See Figure 4). What connections Willa made to environmentalism, I’m not sure, but the project itself seems like an engaging way for students to reuse and recycle paper and other products, and be introduced to non-representational symbolism. Seventh-grade students from Connecticut collaborate to create installations using natural items, photograph their work, and return the environment “cleaner than how they found it” (See Figure 5) (Artsonia, n.d.).


Figure 4. Willa, 4. Birmingham, AL. (Johnson)


Figure 5. Nature Arrangement. Cora2329, Grade 7. Henry James Memorial School, Simsbury, CT. (Artsonia, n.d.)


Regardless of cultural background or geographical region, age, or type of media, our youth has something to say about how our earth is being impacted and what we as a community can do about it. I find it interesting to see the variety of specific concerns and suggestions students have based on their respective regions. Coates and Coates (2016) discuss the child’s need to tell a story and how they employ visual means to do so. Through narration practice, they reveal their cognition of the social and cultural world around them. Whether created independently, prompted by an educator, or in response to an exhibition, student art is evident of their acknowledgment that our population plays a significant role in environmental concerns, and provides them with an avenue to be heard.





Artsonia. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.artsonia.com/

Burton, J. M. (2001). Lowenfeld, another look. Art Education, 54(6), 33-42.

Child’s eye: Paintings offer unique perspective on climate change. (2008). The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/gallery/2008/oct/21/climatechange?page=with:img-2#img-2

Coates, A. & Coates, E. (2016). The essential role of scribbling in the imaginative and cognitive development of young children. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 16(1), 60-83.

Eisner, E. (1978). What do children learn when they paint? Art Education, 31(3), 6-10.

Euse, E. (2019). These high school students are addressing climate change through art. i-D. Vice. Retrieved from https://i-d.vice.com/en_us/article/kzmpky/these-high-school-students-are-addressing-climate-change-through-art

Johnson, L. A. (n.d). Monochromatic collage: Green study. The Art Garden [blog]. Retrieved from https://theartgardenblog.com/2018/03/09/monochromatic-collage-green-study/

Louis, L. L. (2005). What children have in mind: A study of early representational development in paint. Studies in Art Education, 46(4), 339-355.

North American Marine Environment Protection Association. (2019). Retrieved from https://namepa.net/

Zook, C. (2019). What are 21st century skills? Applied Educational Systems. Retrieved from https://www.aeseducation.com/career-readiness/what-are-21st-century-skills