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Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a leopard for a day or an owl for a night? 3rd-graders in Amy Long’s class at Montgomery Elementary School have; and they’ve taken it a step further. With guidance from their classroom teacher and me, students created papier-mâché wearable sculptures of various animal adaptations. This was an 8-week long project that started out with a mask-making activity using paper and simple collage techniques. I intentionally gave limited direction when I told students to make a mask using animal and plant pictures as inspiration for the face design. Let’s see where their creative minds take them, I thought. Some students expressed uncertainty at first—what should they do? I reassured them that they could take ownership of their imaginative instincts. The students rose to the challenge.

The next two classes I surprised everyone with a wagon full of animal specimens from the Natural History Museum, which are available through their Nature to You Loan program. I brought an owl, lizard, frogs, leopard fur, duck, squirrel, and fox. With their classroom teacher, they had been studying animal adaptations such as a frog’s smooth skin, a fox’s long and bushy tail, a bird’s talons, the scales of a lizard, a duck’s webbed feet. The students were definitely surprised and had many many questions. Where were the animals from? Were they alive? Did their faces express anger, sadness, or happiness? Such curious minds!

Students began to ponder the adaptations of these creatures. What would a fox need its fur and bushy tail for? Why would it need sharp claws? Why would the owl have such fierce talons? The children drew and wrote observations in their journals, as professional scientists and artists might have done. Students made preparatory drawings of the animal adaptation that they chose, and, when approved, began sculpting the shape of the tail or claw or beak, etc…,out of foil. I had told students to create an extra large shape so they could wear it on their bodies. They were also given time to think of the possibilities of how it could be worn. Some students chose to make an arm cuff or chest plate.

Over the course of the next few weeks, students learned papier-mâché with brown paper and watered-down white glue. Sticky brown paper went over the foil in layers. After some form perfecting, the students painted a base color on their sculptures. Finally, students looked carefully at their color samples and used oil pastels to draw the pattern and details of the animal adaptation. The final step was to use yarn to make the pieces wearable. The pieces were displayed in a classroom that wasn’t in use (the computers were cleared to make space for the art and large black cardboard fold-outs brought in).

When the students walked in, I hoped that they had a similar reaction to mine—awe and gratitude! It looked like a professional art gallery and I felt so proud! Students had the opportunity to view their artwork and other CoTA collaboration work and then they could wear their pieces. A transformation took place when they wore their artworks. They suddenly felt much more like the animal they had studied and began to embody their creatures! Some ran and chased other children-transformed-into-animals. They play-fought, and I saw how they really deepened their understanding of the animals and the adaptations. How else might they be able to imagine that their fox claw could pierce the smooth skin of a poison-dart frog? But the poison-dart frogs knew that their smooth skin signaled the frightening reality of their toxicity, and that, though small, they were mighty and dangerous.

Dia Bassett is a CoTA teaching artist. Find out more about Dia’s work by checking out her website: