Teacher mixes art, math and PlayDoh for colorful lesson

Art and math blended as well as two primary colors in Ashley Carter’s classroom at Sterling Elementary School.

Carter, the art teacher at Sterling, created a unique lesson last week that taught students in second through fifth grades not only about the basics of color theory but also the principles of adding unlike fractions, like halves and fourths.

The lesson was held together by homemade PlayDoh Carter created using a recipe of flour, salt, cream of tartar, warm water and vegetable oil.

She began each class by passing out popsicle sticks — used for measuring and cutting the PlayDoh — along with worksheets for the day’s assignment.

The students received portions of red, yellow then blue PlayDoh, which they partitioned and distributed on their hand-drawn color wheels. Later, they mixed the colors to explore in a tactile fashion some fundamentals of color theory.

Carter said she hoped the lesson, which incorporated state-required standards for elementary school math and art, would create connections and foster creativity for her students.

“I wanted them to have something to do with their hands,” she said. “It had to relate to my standards so it started with art standards. In the last two weeks, we learned about the elementals of art, so they’ve been talking about the color wheel for a couple of weeks and (last week) they actually made it with PlayDoh.”

Like the PlayDoh the students molded, the lesson was malleable and could be repurposed for all ages. The youngest students focused on primary and secondary colors, while the older ones spent more time discussing the real-world applications of color theory.

“There are people who are paid big bucks to know color scheme and color theory, and they’re hired by companies to design interiors to buildings so that customers will come and stay and spend money,” Carter explained to a fourth-grade class, while the students rolled and mixed their PlayDoh to create secondary colors or, for some, blobs of gray.

Carter asked the students to picture the interior of their favorite coffee shop. Likely, she said, it’s done in neutral or cool colors that will encourage people to spend more time inside calming space.

“There are actual artists — not just artists, but designers — who are paid to know color theory and know the color schemes so they can design and make great buildings to make you feel a certain type of way,” she said. “So just like if you were to watch a sad movie it might make you cry or if you were to listen to a happy song you might feel like dancing. If you’re in a room full of certain color schemes it can actually subconsciously affect the way you feel.”

It’s critical that students are able to connect what they learn in school to what they experience outside of the classroom, Carter said after class, especially as they begin setting their sights toward college or first jobs.

“I think about the way I learn. If I can make a connection with what I’m learning to what I’m going to use in real life then it’s going to make an impression,” she said. “I wanted them to have fun, and I wanted them to remember a little bit of art and a little bit of math … I want them to love learning.”