The Natural World

Sketchbook Scavenger Hunt

posted on Oct 9, 2019

In the decade or more that I’ve been leading my school’s art program, I’ve never been able to take my students on a field trip. The administration has approved visiting artists and guest speakers, but field trips come with a unique set of problems. How will students get to the location? Where will they eat? Who will supervise them? The answer to each of these questions comes with a monetary cost.

Illustration by Rama Hughes.

I see each of my classes once a week. How can I justify taking students away from their other classes for half a day or more? It’s a shame because drawing on location is a world away from drawing in a classroom.

Happily, I’ve found a way to offer these experiences to my students. Several years ago, I got approval from my school to invite my students to draw with me at the Los Angeles Zoo, the Natural History Museum, and the L.A. Farmer’s Market.

At the Zoo
The activity began when I volunteered to chaperone a third-grade field trip to the zoo. I got the homeroom teachers’ permission to add a few of my own objectives to their lessons. In addition to identifying and describing predators and prey, we invited students to draw those animals. We asked them to use their drawings to augment their written descriptions.

We challenged students to observe the important traits that made each animal unique. What details should they include in their drawings, for example, to show the differences between a bongo and a gerenuk? The outing was such a success that I volunteered to chaperone again the following year.

After-School Alternatives
When it was made clear that I could not lead my own school field trips, I requested an alternative. Instead of a school-sponsored field trip, I got permission to invite my students to join me for extracurricular activities on the weekends and after school. Some of those events include portrait parties, adult art classes, and art talks. The most successful are the annual sketchbook scavenger hunts.

Making Adjustments
Students and their families are invited to join me at the Natural History Museum in the fall and the Los Angeles Zoo in the spring. Because the events are optional and because we meet at the venue instead of the school, they are not technically field trips.

Parents pay for admission and supervise their own children. The activities are designed so they cannot be completed without parental participation. That wasn’t always the case. Originally, I walked families from exhibit to exhibit and we drew as a group. Parents attended, but often left a few students in my care. Inevitably, one student wanted to race ahead while another wanted to take time for a long, detailed drawing. The guided tour became a disorganized mess, so I made adjustments.

The Sketchbook Scavenger Hunt
In the new and improved sketchbook scavenger hunt, students are given a mini-sketchbook with a list of items to find and draw before the end of the day. Parents need to participate if a student wants to find them all. Students can race ahead with their parents or meander with me for a while. Most families do a combination of the two. When they run into me, they often show me their drawings and ask if they can see mine. It’s a fun, low-key approach.

The following year, I added a thirty-minute sketching lesson to the beginning of each event. Families who want to come early can meet for a few minutes to learn how to identify the simple shapes that make up animals and how to sketch those shapes quickly until they create a satisfying drawing. Through trial and error, our art events get better each year. They are now a selling point for our art program. The headmaster mentions them during every school tour. Because of their success, I was invited this year to pitch my other ideas for community art projects. My next ambition? An in-school art fair!

Rama Hughes is an art teacher at Yavneh Hebrew Academy in Los Angeles, California.

Author Website:

View this article in the digital edition.