Relationship Building

5 Projects to Engage Students Interested in Sports

basketball court artwork

Whenever I am working on a new lesson plan, I try to think of how to make it engaging for each of my students. I want them to have some sort of personal connection to every project. Students are encouraged to use symbols, imagery, and/or text to communicate something unique about themselves. I find that brainstorming ideas with the whole class, or presenting a few examples, can help students come up with their own creative ideas.

I know some of my students are athletes, and others have favorite sports teams. By tapping into this particular interest, students can become more invested and engaged in their artmaking. It’s also worth pointing out that many professional sports teams and organizations have collaborated with artists to design merchandise, uniforms, and more. Presenting these opportunities to students can open their eyes to new possibilities and help get them excited about their projects.

Here are 5 projects to engage students interested in sports.

1. Keith Haring Figure Drawing

Keith Haring Inspired Student Artwork

Keith Haring is one of my favorite artists to teach. There are tons of lessons out there for every age level. He’s a great artist to introduce Pop Art, study line and color, and teach figure drawing! Rather than copying his artwork directly, I try to encourage students to draw a figure that represents their interests.

I’ve had students draw a Keith Haring-inspired-figure playing the saxophone, reading a book, playing with animals, and more. Many of my students choose to create a figure posed to represent their favorite sport: football, volleyball, basketball, wrestling, and gymnastics have all been popular favorites in my classroom.

These not only represent the student but require them to think about an action pose for the figure. I end up with a class collection of unique Haring-inspired art that tells me more about each of my students. I’ve used their drawings to create class murals, t-shirt fundraisers, yearbook covers, and more.

2. Legendary 3-D Paper Dragon

Paper Dragons

In fourth grade, I like to teach students about non-Western art and traditions. When I introduce students to Chinese New Year celebrations, we read the traditional legend of Nian. I even show them a few animated clips from YouTube. Rather than have students copy a traditional dragon from Chinese culture, I ask students to come up with their own dragon, and their own legend or story to help add physical details. Students write a story and then begin building their 3-D paper dragon.

This year I had a student who wanted to incorporate his love for football into his project. His story describes a dragon who longed to play football but couldn’t decide on whether he wanted to be a quarterback or a wide receiver. He put both choices on a dartboard, closed his eyes, and threw the dart. He opened his eyes to see that he would become a quarterback and ended up being a football superstar!

The story and artwork gave this student an opportunity to share his love for football and ended up being one of his best art projects of the year!

3. Starry Night Parody

Student working on drawing project

After years of teaching The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, I wanted to switch things up and do it a little differently to add more opportunity for student creativity. One of my students had gifted me a Mario-themed Starry Night t-shirt because he knew I liked to wear art-related t-shirts for #ArtShirtFriday. This gave me the inspiration to begin a parody project where students could make changes or additions to van Gogh’s famous painting.

There are several parody examples online, but again, I asked students to incorporate their own interests. One of my students was a huge soccer fan and turned his Starry Night into an homage to his favorite team and their stadium. He was extremely proud of his artwork and was happy to tell the whole class about when he and his dad saw them play a match. I love seeing that kind of excitement from my students.

4. Collaborative Basketball Court

basketball court artwork

Last year, I got together with some of my college classmates to visit the Chicago Cultural Center, where we saw an exhibit by contemporary artist, Nina Chanel Abney. I loved the work, and although I wasn’t sure when or how I would incorporate her into my own curriculum, I began following the artist on Instagram.

Soon I started seeing posts about her collaboration  with the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She was an artist in residence working with students to paint a mural on a campus basketball court. Each day I would see more of the mural’s progress, and it gave me an idea for a collaborative project for my students. I printed out blank basketball court diagrams and had students work together in pairs to create a “mural” inspired by Abney. Students identified her use of symbols and brainstormed a list of their own before beginning their project.

This was an excellent opportunity to show students a contemporary artist and a real-world application for art, besides fine art examples hanging on a gallery wall.

5. Remixed Soccer Ball

re-mixed soccer ball artwork

At the beginning of the school year, I like to do a school-wide installation of some sort. Here, I can display all of my students work together as a symbol of working together, and show how each piece is an important part of the larger community. This year I decided to do a project inspired by street artist, Greg Mike. Each student made a paper character inspired by Mike’s Loudmouf design.

Around this same time, Greg Mike had designed limited edition soccer balls to be handed out at a major league soccer game. To add to our study of the artist, and show another avenue for artists to create and collaborate with sports institutions, I had students redesign a soccer ball by giving them a blank template. This helped students further understand the artist’s style, create something different, and engage with students who play and/or love soccer.

Ultimately, my goal as an art teacher is to create a curriculum where everyone can succeed and be excited about the work they are creating. I wouldn’t specifically tailor my curriculum around sports, but I can give students more input to incorporate their interests whenever possible. I believe this makes for deeper student engagement and helps me learn more about my students’ interests.

How do you allow for student input in your classroom?

What other project ideas do you have that help engage student-athletes?

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.


Jordan DeWilde

Jordan DeWilde, a high school art educator, is a former AOEU Writer. He aims to encourage students’ individual creativity through a diverse and inclusive curriculum.

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