Leaf Stenciling

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In this art activity, you and your child use leaves as “reverse stencils” — painting over them, then removing them from the paper to reveal the unique leaf shapes left behind! Leaves are great for exploring shapes and patterns. The Bay Area has a great diversity of native and non-native trees that thrive here, making it a prime place for leaf study. 

What We’re Learning & Skills We’re Building

  • Nature observation – being outside and noticing changes and patterns in nature 
  • Sensory development – using the bodily senses to learn about leaves 
  • Comparison – finding similarities and differences between the leaves
  • Artistic language – learning words/phrases such as “reverse stencil,” “negative space,” and “imprints”

(Note: Don’t pick leaves directly from plants or trees! Fallen leaves collected from the ground work great, as long as they’re not too dry or crumbly. Please ask for permission to collect from private property [that’s not your own], and remember: no collecting is permitted in regional parks. Here’s a list of endangered plants in CA that may not be collected.)



Collecting Leaves and Using Your Senses

As you gather fallen leaves, look closely at their shapes, sizes, colors, and textures. Point out holes, different-colored patches, and interesting vein patterns. Ask, “How do the leaves feel in your hand — smooth, sticky, sharp, papery? How do they smell? When you walk over a patch of leaves, or when you squeeze a dried leaf in your hand, what does it sound like?” Encourage your child to compare the leaves you’ve gathered to find similarities and differences.


Making Leaf Stencils 

  1. Make reverse loops of tape and place them onto the leaves (it doesn’t matter which side of the leaf).  
  2. Press the leaves (tape side down) onto a piece of paper in any arrangement. 
  3. Paint right over the tops of the leaves and around them on the paper. Make sure to cover all the leaves’ edges and curves with paint so their outlines are crisp! 
  4. Let the paint dry, then carefully pull the leaves off the paper. 
  5. Notice the shapes left on the painted paper after the leaves have been removed. These are called “reverse stencils” because the shapes left are empty while the space around them is filled in! Compare the shapes with the actual leaves — can your child match them up?

More Fun – Drawing, Stamping, and Imprinting 

  • Trace around or fill in the empty leaf shapes (which are called “negative spaces” in art terms) using markers, crayons, and/or colored pencils. Draw in the holes, patches, vein patterns, and other details. 
  • Create stamps by painting on top of the leaves, then pressing the painted sides down on a blank piece of paper. Stamping lets you see more of the leaves’ shapes and details while making patterns. 
  • Press leaves into playdough or soft clay to make imprints. Imprinting creates a clear outline of the leaves’ edges, veins, and stems.