Tour + Workshop = DESIGN: Shape

By Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, October 26, 2006

Grade Level

  • Elementary School


  • Other

Subject Area

  • Arts
  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • Social Studies

Lesson Time

One or two 50 minute class periods


Shape is one of the six basic elements of design, as shape is everywhere and all things have a shape. Learning about abstract/free form shapes and common or basic shapes has dual educational benefits as an art activity and as a fun and easy means to teach fundamental geometry. By teaching shape and using observation, kinesthetic and tactile activity, and verbal and visual discussion, students will learn about:
  • man-made and organic/natural shapes
  • negative and positive shapes
  • how shape is a basic element and tool for drawing/design
  • the difference between 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional
  • recognize pattern, symmetry, and free-form/abstraction in shape
The following lesson provides the elementary age student with experience in observing actual objects, creating shapes and forms, and imagining the possibilities of shape for themselves.  

National Standards


Students will:
  • learn descriptive words of basic geometric and organic shapes and use them to identify visual art examples
  • analyze and evaluate shapes in everyday and artistic work
  • ecognize basic mathematical and creative techniques used in creating a geometric or organic shape
  • raw a shape using various media and add 2 2-dimension dimensional media.
  • combine actual created shapes and visual shapes to create a 3 3-dimensional design or artistic representation
  • evaluate peer and individual work using shapes


  • art and design objects from the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum collection which students can examine closely
  • visual examples of everyday objects, as well as basic geometric shapes
  • A book to consider is: MathART Projects and Activities (Grades 3-5) by Carolyn Ford Brunetto
Other examples and information can be found on the following websites:


  • examples of basic geometric shapes in 3D (everyday items)
  • examples of basic geometric and free form shapes in 2D (appendix 1)
  • examples of organic/free-form shapes (appendix 2)
  • design and everyday objects from either the Cooper-Hewitt collection or similar to current exhibition
  • dotted grid paper (see appendix 3)
  • blank paper
  • origami paper
  • origami ship, box, star (see appendix 4)
  • multi-colored soft drawing pencils
  • multi-colored construction paper
  • multi-colored small sponges
  • multi-colored play dough
  • scissors
  • glue
  • tape
  • toothpicks (age specific)


Abstract/Free Form: having an intellectual and effective artistic content that depends solely on intrinsic form rather than on narrative content or pictorial representation Circle: a plane curve everywhere equidistant from a given fixed point, the center Design: to conceive or fashion in the mind; invent: to formulate a plan for; devise Figural: consisting of, or forming a pictorial composition of human or animal figures Form: the shape and structure of an object Geometry: the mathematics of the properties, measurement, and relationships of points, lines, angles, surfaces, and solids Natural: present in or produced by nature Negative Space: “empty” or open space surrounding the shapes Organic: relating to, or derived from living organisms Oval: an egg-shaped or elliptical form or figure Pattern: a consistent, characteristic form, style, or method Plane: a surface containing all the straight lines that connect any two points on it Polygon: a closed plane figure bound by three or more line segments Positive Space: areas that have definite form and shapes Proportion/al: a part considered in relation to the whole Rectangle: a four-sided plane figure with four right angles Shape: the characteristic surface configuration of a thing; an outline or contour Sphere: a three-dimensional surface, all points of which are equidistant from a fixed point Space: refers to the distance or area between, around, above, below, or within things. It can be described as two-dimensional or three-dimensional; as flat, shallow, or deep; as open or closed; as positive or negative; and as actual, ambiguous, or illusory Square: a plane figure having four equal sides Symmetry: exact correspondence of form and constituent configuration on opposite sides of a dividing line, plane, or about a center or, an axis Three-dimensional: having, or appearing to have, height, width, and depth Triangle: the plane figure formed by connecting three points not in a straight line by straight line segments Two-dimensional: having height and width, but no depth; flat  


Introduction - Analyzing
Lead a group discussion about "what is design" using everyday objects as examples: a colored pencil, the shoes on their feet. Even small children can answer the following questions:
  • Did someone or something make this pencil/your shoes?
  • Are there many of these pencils/shoes?
  • Do they come in many colors and sizes?
  • Can we buy this pencil/shoes?
  • Can we use this pencil/shoes?
  • Who’s idea was it to make this pencil/shoes?
  • Does this pencil/shoes have shape?
Older elementary students can also answer these questions:
  • Can I make a pencil/pair of shoes that is one of a kind?
  • Does my special pencil/pair of shoes have to be useful?
Provide students with various 3-D geometric shapes and ask them to name them (circle, square, triangle, etc.) and also describe what they are touching (four sides, three sides, point/angle, circular-shape, etc.). Provide students with actual art/design and everyday objects and ask them to describe the shapes they see. Example of a chair: triangle (headrest), square (seat), cylinder/sphere (legs), rectangle (arm rest). Mosaic Tile: square (actual tile shape), star (mosaic design), circles (mosaic pattern). Provide students with visual images and ask them to describe the shapes they see. Example of architectural rendering of a temple: triangle (pediment), circle (base of column), rectangle (door), square (floor pattern). Example of Winslow Homer painting: oval (human face), triangle (shadow of tree), rectangle (frame).
Activity – Creating
Describe the activity as drawing shapes by connecting dots, then making these shapes 3-D with paper and sponges. Encourage students to think about their “design” and who will see it and why they would want someone to be interested in their design (adapt time and material to grade levels) Connect the dots: hand out dotted paper and colored pencils and have students connect the dots into various shapes. Give each student colored paper and sponges that they can cut out to create their shapes. Ask students to “build” another shape or an actual object with their 3D pieces using glue and tape (Depending on time) Teach students to fold origami paper.
Conclusion – Evaluating
Ask 1-2 students to volunteer their design to show the group. Have students use their new shape and design vocabulary to discuss the object:
  • Does it have shape? What shapes?
  • Is there a pattern?
  • Does it look like something you know?
  • How was the actual object made? By adding shapes? By cutting shapes?
Older elementary students can be asked:
  • Is it figural or abstract?
  • Where might you see something designed like this?
If time allows, ask for other students to volunteer and show their work and explain their design process.


Student Assessment:
Assessment will take place throughout the lesson. While analyzing the subject of shape, the teacher will determine if students comprehend the lesson through their use of new vocabulary, ability to identify shapes, contribution in answering teacher and peer posed questions, and their use of independent questions. During the activity, the teacher should monitor the variety of students’ shapes, images, and objects and determine if individual students are making independent decisions, using peer and/or teacher assistance. During the evaluation, the teacher will see if students can articulate their design process and identify 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional shapes. The teacher can also reinforce the lesson goals by asking what the student has learned or experienced. Older elementary students may be asked to write a description of their own work.   Teacher and Lesson Plan Assessment:  
  • Did the teacher describe and lead the lesson plan in a comprehensive and inclusive manner?
  • Were the lesson goals reached and was the level of student comprehension and participation age appropriate?
  • What objects/shapes/materials were successful as examples and motivators for the activity?
  • Which objects were not used?
  • Did students have enough time to analyze, observe, discuss and create?
  • Were students able to use the evaluation to draw their own conclusions and discuss/present some of the lessons goals?
  • What needs to be changed or adjusted and why?

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