The Art of Observation

Vincent's Sunflower Bird Feeder
from Van Gogh and the
Post-Impressionists for Kids

Subject: Visual Arts /
Science / Writing

Grades / Level: 1-6

After making their own Van Gogh-inspired bird feeder, students will experience what it is like to be both a scientist observing birds in the wild and an artist sketching them.

Length of Lesson
Two 45-minute lessons

By quietly watching birds at a feeder and recording their activities through words and sketches students will learn the art of careful observation. To record their observations, they will understand the value of writing for a purpose, as well as making detailed drawings. Vincent van Gogh's sunflower paintings and nature drawings will inspire their attention to detail.

Students will be able to:
• identify the parts of a bird;
• look closely at live events and write notes about their observations;
• make quick sketches to illustrate their ideas;
• use reference materials to pursue inquiry;
• share and present their observations to the class; and
• question their observations and explore the possible conclusions they lead to.

• Image of Vincent van Gogh's Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers
• Image of Vincent van Gogh's nature sketches
• Activity Sheet: Vincent's Sunflower Bird Feeder
• Materials list from Vincent's Sunflower Bird Feeder
• Unlined notebook and pencil for each student
• Color pencils
• Bird Identification reference book
• ID sheet: Parts of a Bird

Day 1
1. Introduce the lesson by asking students to share their experience of bird watching. Ask if anyone has a bird feeder at home and what they have noticed about the birds who visit it. Tell them that they will observe the birds who come to their feeder and will experience being field scientists, like Jane Goodall. Goodall sat in the wild, watching and recording how chimpanzees behaved. Instead of chimps, students will observe the birds who come to their feeder. They will also work as artists, like Vincent van Gogh. Before van Gogh could paint his famous pictures of Sunflowers, he practiced by making sketches of the things he saw. Learning to observe details and render them quickly is an important skill for an artist.

Click HERE to see a sketch van Gogh made many years before he decided to become an artist.
Click HERE is a sketch of birds he made later. Even when he was a professional, he practiced observing shapes and putting them on paper.
Click HERE is one of van Gogh's most famous paintings. This will be the inspiration for our feeder.

2. Demonstrate the making of a Sunflower Bird Feeder then let each student make one on their own. See Vincent's Sunflower Bird Feeder activity sheet for instructions. (Younger children may need help securing toothpicks into the foam petals.)

3. Hang one or several feeders in a location where students can view them. This can be outside your classroom window, or in an area where students can quietly sit outdoors and observe the feeders.

Day 2
1. Announce that the class is a team of field scientists about to make discoveries about the world of birds. Each student will be writing and sketching in their own notebook, then sharing their discoveries with the class. Ask them what they think would be helpful to know about being a field scientist. The list should include:

A. To be able to share their discoveries, they need to know how to describe the birds. To do this, they need to know the names of the parts of a bird.

Give each student a handout and discuss the Parts of a Bird -- click HERE.

B. To record their observations, they need know how to make a quick sketch of the bird, or its parts.

Demonstrate how to draw a shape of a beak, or add color to a simple outline of a body. Add callouts to the illustration, such as "thick, heavy beak" or "slender, pointed beak."

C. They also need to know how to record their observations in words.

Tell students to describe their observations in as much detail as possbile, including color, shapes, sounds, and behaviors. Here's an example:
I saw a red bird land on the feeder's perch and pull a sunflower seed off. He took it to a nearby tree to eat it. The bird had a heavy orange beak, a black mask across his eyes, and a triangular tuft on his crown. Another bird that was the same shape but brownish red landed next to him and made a chirp.

2. Allow students to observe the feeders and make entries in their notebooks. Afterwards, ask them to share what they discovered with the class. Encourage the class to make speculations or ask questions. Show older students how to look things up in a bird identification book.

3. Over the following months, set up an on-going observation and presentation time.