Sean Keller, fourth-grade teacher at Jefferson School, fixing one of the eco-art panels.
Sean Keller, fourth-grade teacher at Jefferson School, fixing one of the eco-art panels that were created by students and are on show at the Rosa Parks School library. Photo: courtesy Ann Kruger Spivack

By Ann Krueger Spivack

While students in Sean Keller’s fourth-grade class at Jefferson School tie broken toys onto a wire mesh panel, Colleen Mahoney is talking about LEGOs. Mahoney nods to a red LEGO brick that one student picks up from a table.

“In 2012, 45.7 billion LEGO bricks were produced. That’s more than 5 million bricks every hour. Right now you could give every person on the planet eighty LEGOs and you’d still have LEGO bricks left over.”

Students stop working to listen to Mahoney, and it’s clear they’re considering how much plastic humans create on an hourly basis, and what this means for the planet. This lesson is a first step in teaching children about plastic, where it comes from and where it goes. Where plastic goes is of particular concern to Mahoney, the founder of A Kid By Nature, the nonprofit group sponsoring this lesson about plastic’s impact on the environment. Mahoney explains what motivates her to bring environmental projects such as this one into classrooms, without any cost to the schools.

This is student Keigen Sueishi-Hague, working on an eco-art panel.
Keigen Sueishi-Hague works on an eco-art panel. Photo: courtesy Ann Kruger Spivack

“Plastic is so common in our daily lives that we often don’t even notice it,” Mahoney said. “It occurred to me that if we pointed out how much plastic we use and what plastic does to our environment, we could influence behavior and maybe inspire the next environmental hero – the next Sylvia Earle, John Muir, Jacques Cousteau or Rachel Carson.”

A full-time architect who owns her own architecture firm, Mahoney has worked on green-building projects for years. While becoming certified as a Biomimicry Specialist, Mahoney felt a deep need to take action, to find ways to connect children to nature, and to somehow reduce the amount of plastic discarded every day. She enlisted help from local artist Jen Burke (whom Mahoney calls “an eco-art hero”).

Burke has made a career of encouraging children to express themselves through art. In 2000, when Burke realized that a building in one of Berkeley’s public parks, Totland, had stood empty for 28 years, she came up with a plan to offer low-cost and no-cost art classes for children. Today, almost 15 years later, her Young Artists Workspace project is still going strong. Named an Alameda County Arts Leader for 2014, Burke was an obvious choice when Mahoney sought an artist and teacher to help with her eco-art projects.

Mahoney spearheaded a toy drive at Rosa Parks and Jefferson Schools, gathered up box loads of donated toys, delivered some of these to charities, and painstakingly drilled holes in many small toys for use in the eco-art panels.

When asked why she goes to all this trouble to bring her message about plastic to elementary schools, Mahoney said, “The next generation will have to figure out ways to repair the environmental harm that we’re doing right now. We have so much plastic pouring into our landfills and waste streams. At some point, we have to take steps to slow it down.”

Burke came up with the idea of color-coding the art panels, grouping together all yellow toys, all red toys, and so on. “It’s visually effective when you group by color,” Burke said. “You can see how the kids create an interesting texture.”

 The people in the top photo are Jackson Smith, Rowan Kennedy, Sydney James and Colleen Mahoney.
Jackson Smith, Rowan Kennedy, Sydney James and Colleen Mahoney with “eco-art students.” Photo: courtesy Ann Kruger Spivack
Jackson Smith, Rowan Kennedy, Sydney James and Colleen Mahoney with “eco-art students.” Photo: courtesy Ann Kruger Spivack

The eco-art, while intriguing, holds a bigger message, explained by fourth-grader Jackson Smith.

“We’re constructing art projects using old plastic toys that we don’t want to just throw into any landfill,” he said. “We want to reuse them. I brought in a ton of toys that I didn’t want anymore. It feels really good to do this when you know each toy you put on [the art project] could be saving a bird’s life.”

As part of this project, fourth-graders saw a documentary called Midway Island by Chris Jordan, which shows how birds, attracted by the bright colors, eat plastic, often with fatal results.

Burke was struck by the kids’ reactions to the film. She said, “I’m holding my computer so the class can see. You can see how deeply the kids absorb this idea of how plastic harms wildlife. The toys these kids fix to the panels won’t be part of the landfill, won’t be part of the plastic ending up in oceans.”

Burke has worked on found-object art projects in the past.

How did Mahoney come up with the idea of working with Burke and eco-art to teach kids about plastic?

“Collaborating on these art pieces gives the kids a hands-on learning experience,” Mahoney said. “We learn better when we can touch and examine the objects we’re discussing. We see the kids make the connection between the environment and plastic products, including toys. The kids know that some toys are never taken out of their packaging, or they’re used for a very short period of time. We talk about the impact all this plastic can have on soil, air, water, and wildlife.”

“This project puts plastic in a different context,” Burke said. “As a result of their work on these panels, the children really see all the plastic in their homes; they have a greater understanding of what all this accumulation means for wildlife and the planet.”

“We owe a big thanks to Sean Keller and Kim Beeson, the teachers who work so hard, and share our concern for the environment. They’re the real heroes,” Mahoney said.

The eco-art panels are the Jefferson School library beginning Tuesday, Dec. 16.

Parents interested in art classes can contact Jen Burke at Burke teaches children ages 4 through 12 at the Young Artists Workspace and works with middle- and high-schoolers, ages 13 through 17, at the Westside Studio.

Teachers interested in learning more about eco-art projects can contact Mahoney at, or email her at

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