Resources Details

Rocks and Sand as Art Objects

This is a multi-activity lesson on soils and rocks that teaches students about diversity in the natural world. Students collect and examine rock and soil samples, then describe those samples in individual and group activities. Students also make science-based decisions when sorting soil components into organic and inorganic forms. Rock drawings and sand paintings encourage science-based creativity, while written and oral descriptions strengthen individual communication skills. A narrative about Navajo and Apache sand paintings demonstrates the artistic use of naturally occurring objects by native cultures.

Key Concepts

Earth Science, Rock and Soil, Form and Composition


Multicultural Classroom Activities  View All »


3 - 50 minute periods




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sand sculpture


Earth Science

Resource Type

Extended Lesson Plan





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In the American Southwest, Navajo and Apache peoples live in very arid regions covered by vast expanses of sandy soil. As part of their cultures and ceremonies, both groups have long-standing sand painting traditions. Ceremonies are significant aspects of Native American life throughout the United States. These ceremonies might be public, where the entire tribe is involved, or secret, where just men or women take part. Among the Navajo and Apache, only one individual sand painting is done during a ceremony, made by the tribe's medicine man. The Navajo and Apache ceremonies might last as long as nine days. Several days after a curing ceremony begins, the medicine bundle is placed outside the ceremonial house and stays there until a sand painting has been completed inside the building.

Sand paintings are dry pictures made of sand, said to absorb whatever bad influences might surround the sick person. Five figures commonly depicted in the sand paintings are: (1) Spirit from Shooting Chant, (2) Spirit from Mountain Chant, (3) Curer of Disease, (4) Father Sky, and (5) Mother Earth (the last two usually shown together). No two sand paintings are alike. The medicine man and his assistants make the paintings on clean sand, buckskin or cloth spread in the middle of the house. The colored sand flows through their fingers onto the ground or material, requiring great control by the artists to make the lines, dots and circles. When the sand painting is finished, the sacred bundle is brought in and the patient is placed in the middle of the sand painting.

After the healing ceremony concludes, the medicine man gathers the remaining sand and goes from house to house scattering the sand -- first to the East, then to the South, then to the West and to the North, finally to Father Sky and Mother Earth. Each direction is represented by a different color of sand: (1) East - white; (2) South - blue; (3) West - yellow; (4) North - black; (5) Upper World (sky) - blue; and (6) Lower World (earth) - black with white spots. The backgrounds of the sand paintings are always beige or sand color.

In the past, the sand paintings drawn during ceremonies were considered very sacred and kept secret. Today many are made public and sold as a result of interest raised by scientists, artists, and historians. Some early exhibits of sand paintings educated the public about Indians and their art -- to create a market for quality Indian art, to encourage Indian artists, to prevent traditional craft and skill from disappearing, and to teach outsiders about the Navajo religion.

Sand is just one component of the soil that covers much of the Earth's surface. Soil in general is a mixture of sand, gravel, silt, and organic material called humus. Humus is the dark-colored material containing decomposed plants and animals; it provides nutrients absorbed through plant roots. Humus also provides food for bacteria and other soil microorganisms that decompose dead organic matter. Soil also typically contains some amounts of water and air necessary to plant life. Different types of soil contain different relative amounts of these and other components.

The texture or feel of a soil sample depends on the particle size of any sand, silt, clay or rock in the sample, as well as its relative amounts of organic and inorganic materials. Organic materials consist of living and once-living things, while inorganic materials are particles of rocks and minerals, substances not formed from living things. Soil contains many livings things, from the plant roots that help prevent erosion to the mice, squirrels, and moles that burrow beneath the surface. Other animals feed on organic matter in the soil, for example, beetles, ants, slugs, earthworms, and spiders. They all contribute to the decomposition of decaying materials, releasing even more nutrients for plants and animals. Almost all soil samples contain a complex combination of living and non-living materials.


The purpose of this lesson is to give students an introductory understanding of soil composition and of the diverse form and appearance of the Earth's rocks. Students collect rocks and describe them by drawing, writing, and verbal reporting to the class. Students also collect soil samples and sort the organic and inorganic materials found in those samples. Classroom discussion of these collections reinforces the concept of diversity among soils and rocks. Student-made sand paintings utilize natural materials to create art objects. This lesson also relates the use of sand painting by Native Americans as having ceremonial and artistic significance.


Kathryn Ferris
Cultural Consultant - Eastern Shoshone

I'm an enrolled Eastern Shoshone from the Wind River Reservation. I'm widowed and have four grown children. I have taught school for twenty -two years and have a Bachelor of Arts Degree and a Master of Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction/ literacy. I'm currently working on my Doctorate of Education in leadership at Bozeman. I serve on the Wyoming Education Association Board and was reappointed to the United Civil Rights Commission for a fifth term. For sports I down hill ski, snow machine, aerobic dance, country-dance, love to read and follow the Bad Boys of Bull riding for fun. I belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and have very strong ties to my native religion and culture. I have a zest for life and have a good time doing it. I'm happy and love people, kids and I love to tease. I think I'm a cool person. And if you don't like me you missed out on an opportunity of your life to meet a real neat person.


  • Organic - living materials
  • Inorganic - not living, made of minerals
  • humus - the organic part of soil that comes from decomposed plant and animals
  • sand - small grains of rocks or minerals
  • silt - fine grained mud or clay particles
  • gravel - small stones

Learner Outcomes

  • Recognize that there are many types of rocks and soils.
  • Examine soil samples to identify organic and inorganic components.
  • Collect rocks and explain why they selected those particular rocks.
  • Understand that natural substances (sand, in this case) often become the basic materials in creating Native American art or ceremonial objects.

Content Standards

  • Physical Science Content Standard B: Property of objects and materials
  • Earth and Space Content Standard D: Property of earth materials


  • Resource book (Everybody Needs a Rock, Byrd Baylor)
  • Drawing paper (two sheets/student)
  • Colored pencils, crayons, or markers
  • Snack-size plastic baggies (one/student)
  • Magnifying lens (one/student)
  • Colored sand (at least three colors/group) in easy-to-use containers (available at craft stores, or add powdered tempera paint to sand)
  • 4x4-inch cardboard squares (one/student); 4x4-inch sandpaper squares (one/student)
  • Glue (one that dries clear)
  • Toothpicks or other tools to spread glue
  • Newspapers

Lesson Procedures

  • Day 1
    1. Read Everybody Needs a Rock to the class -- the story of a child searching for his special rock (includes illustrations of rock formations). Ask students to share their thoughts about the story and why the boy chose that particular rock.
    2. Lead students on a mini-field trip to the playground, to search for their own special rock. Have students notice where they found their rocks and what else was lying on the ground near the rocks.
    3. Return to the classroom and, gathered in a large group, let each student share his/her rock with the class, explaining why the rock is special. Have students also say something about the area where they found their rocks.
    4. Distribute drawing pencils, etc., and a sheet of drawing paper to each student at his/her desk.
    5. Ask students to draw their rocks and write on the same sheet of paper the reasons why the rocks are special to them.
  • Day 2
    1. Have students meet in a large group and discuss the areas of the playground where they found their respective rocks. Make a list of the items that the students saw on the ground where they collected their rocks. Divide the listed items into living (or once living) and non-living things.
    2. Give each student a snack-size plastic baggie.
    3. Return to the playground and let students collect some soil from the areas where they found their special rocks.
    4. Back in the classroom, give each student a magnifying glass, a sheet of drawing paper, and a piece of newspaper.
    5. Instruct students to fold their paper sheets in half and label one side "living" and the other side "non-living."
    6. Have students look at their soil samples with the magnifying glass (dirt can be left inside the plastic baggie for this step, or poured onto a piece of newspaper for easier access).
    7. Ask students to find one living thing (living things include grass, dead grass, wood, etc.) in their soil sample and glue it onto the correct half of the paper (don't let them glue live insects to the paper; have them draw the insect and release it outdoors).
    8. Have students then find one non-living item and glue it to the other half of the paper.
    9. Let students continue with this sorting process, after first making certain that they are correctly differentiating between living and non-living things.
    10. Return to a large class group and see who found the most items. Discuss all of the items and what makes them "living" or "non-living."
  • Day 3
    1. Read aloud the background information on sand painting and encourage students to discuss the Native American tradition.
    2. Divide the class into groups of 3 or 4 students.
    3. Distribute baggies or jars of colored sand to each group (at least three different colors).
    4. Give each student a sheet of newspaper, one cardboard square, and one sandpaper square.
    5. Direct students to sketch their sand painting designs on scrap paper (roughly sizing the sketch-designs to fit the sandpaper squares will simplify the following sand painting process). Emphasize that different areas of the design represent different colors of sand (a teacher-made demonstration example might be useful).
    6. Have students glue their sandpaper squares, rough side up, onto their cardboard squares.
    7. Ask students to carefully spread glue onto the sandpaper, over the area to be covered by the first color of sand. Caution students that very little glue is necessary and too much glue will flow outside the design.
    8. Instruct students to carefully pour the first colored sand onto the glue, let it sit briefly, and then pour the leftover sand onto the newspaper. Carefully pour the collected excess sand back into its original container.
    9. Repeat with the remaining colors of sand (paintings might have to dry briefly between colors, to avoid color contamination of previously glued areas).
    10. Dry the sand paintings overnight. Have students share their sand paintings with the class as a whole and explain why they chose their designs.


  • Soil contains many types of things, both living and non-living.
  • Rocks come in many shapes, sizes, and colors.


  • Individual rock collection, drawing and description
  • Individual soil collection, living/non-living sorting activity
  • Individual sand painting
  • Participation in group discussions


  • Start your own rock collection, looking for different types of rocks in different locations.
  • Share with the class any family trips that included either collecting rocks or looking at special types of rock formations (e.g., hikes in the mountains or canyonlands).
  • Think of examples where dirt/soil is important (e.g., in your yard or potted houseplants, in the farmer’s fields, in road or house construction). Why is it important?


  • Baylor, Byrd. Everybody Needs A Rock. New York: Macmillan, 1974.
  • Baylor, Byrd. The Desert is Theirs. New York: Macmillan, 1975.
  • Hall, Churchman, et al., American Indian Life Environments. Tribal American Children's Center 1975.
  • Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 10, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1983.
  • Gladys A. Reichard, Navajo Medicine Man Sandpaintings. Dover Publications, Inc., 1977
  • Nancy J. Parezo, Navajo Sandpaintings: From Religious Art to Commercial Art.
  • Encarta World Dictionary (