Coral Reef Sculptures

Updated: Aug 30, 2019

First grade students created these Coral Reef Sculptures! Styrofoam was up-cycled! First the styrofoam was carved and then spray painted to look like coral. Students used markers and crayons to color tiny animals, underwater plants, and seashells. Using a variety of materials students attached plants and animals to the coral, building a colony of underwater animals often called, “the rainforest of the sea.”

These are the supplies necessary to create the styrofoam coral reef structure.

Supply List

Styrofoam pieces (Styrofoam from boxes of tvs or printers)

X-acto Knife

Utility Knife

Spray Paint in neon (highlighter) colors

Working with first grade students I don't want them using knifes in the classroom so I sculpt the styrofoam coral reef shapes for my entire class and spray paint them ahead of time. The Sculpting part is quick! Packing Styrofoam from one giant flat screen tv is enough styrofoam for a class of approximately 20 students! It takes me about an hour to carve and spray paint 40 coral reef shapes but I'm not really keeping track of time.

This is a great lesson for older students too. Older students are able to work with utility knives responsibly to carve their own styrofoam sculptures, and spray paint.

Monday is recycling day in my neighborhood. I can usually find an assortment of free styrofoam Sunday evenings. My favorite kind of styrofoam is from TV, computer, and printer boxes. On recycling days it takes me twice as long to walk my dog around the block. There is so much exciting potential for up cycling in recycle bins!

This video explains my sculpting process. I start by finding styrofoam in a recycle bin, carving it, and finally spray painting it...

On day one of the lesson I show students my Coral Reef Sculpture. We talk about the coral reef and the animals you might see there. When they look at my sculpture and I explain to my class that because it is a sculpture ALL sides need to be interesting. I slowly turn the sculpture to another side and students discover there are surprises on every side! A fish might be peeking through a hole in the coral on one side. A crab might be hiding behind a sea shell on another side. Usually there are several surprise happening on all sides and we take a moment to find them all. I want students to understand that sculptures need to be just as interesting on all sides.

Day 1 Supply List

Lots of visuals of coral reefs for students to refer to when drawing the animals of the coral reef

This CORAL REEF coloring book is a great reference!

Google How to draw animals of the coral reef for many great classroom resources


black permanent markers

assortment of magic markers

coloring pages of fish and plants printed on card stock as an option for students that prefer to color. Card stock is important because it's a stronger paper and when the fish are cut out and attached to the sculpture the fish need to stay straight not curl up!

scissors to cut out fish, plants, shells for sculpture

envelopes with students names on them. The envelopes make it easy for students to keep their cut out pieces together.

I offer a drawing guide of fish and plants and I also have coloring sheets of fish, plants, and sea shells that are printed on card stock available for students that prefer to color. Some students want to draw a few animals and then they say they are finished. To make this sculpture project a success (like a healthy coral reef) I tell students they need to have at least 20 items in their envelopes before we build our sculptures. Remember there should be surprises on all sides of the sculpture!

Day One Students draw and/or color animals of the coral reef. Drawings are cut out and students put their cutouts into envelopes with their names on them. If you have a projector its great to show coral reef videos while students are working!

This is the Coral reef video that I showed my class

Three hours of stunning underwater footage with relaxing music helps students to get into the creative zone!

Next art class is when the magic happens!


The carved styrofoam is arranged on a table maybe in the colors of the rainbow, maybe not. Students are really excited to see the brightly painted styrofoam selection. I hold one up and tell the class that each piece is unique just like real coral. I spin it around slowly and talk about how each side is unique. We examine the carved styrofoam shapes and notice places where a fish might want to hide from a shark. We find the places that an octopus might live. I will pick up several pieces at random just to reinforce to the class that all of the pieces will work and they are all unique and interesting shapes. I usually keep a few out of view incase I have to add more to the table later.

Now I announce that I'm looking for the quietest table because that table will walk up first and select the piece they want to build from. Another way to distribute the carved styrofoam is to pull names out of a container randomly. After students select their styrofoam pieces they carefully examine them while envelopes with sea life cutouts are passed out

Supply List Day 2

-The best place to find most of these supplies is the dollar store!-

clear tape

tooth picks

popsicle sticks

wooden skewers

green pipe clears (to make sea grasses)

plastic plants (cut into smaller pieces)

sea shells to add to sculpture (optional)

This video shows students assembling their sculptures

Students were excited! They worked very hard to bring their sculpted coral reefs to life.

I love the possibilities of turning trash into treasure.

Finished Grade 1 Coral Reef Sculptures

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