Susan Riley | March 2018

Place Value Picnic STEAM Lesson

Ah, place value.  This can be such a difficult concept for students to understand in elementary school.  I remember sitting in on my daughter’s 2nd grade math lesson and seeing the teacher masterfully sharing 3 different strategies for showing place value in a math problem.  Remarkably, when I came into her 3rd grade classroom, I saw yet another way to work break apart place value.

Obviously, this is a skill that we all need in order to do basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.  But it’s also foundational to fractions, percentages and number sense. So it’s no wonder this can be a topic where students need more practice and application.

Today, we’re sharing a lesson preview from our March IntegratED Curriculum lesson pack for 3rd grade.  In this lesson, students are using the work of Paul Gauguin to study place value and 3-digit numbers.



Explain to students that scale is the relationship of one object to another. Demonstrate this concept by drawing a shape on the board, and then drawing that same shape larger, so that the first shape does not seem small in comparison. Then draw a tiny version of the shape, so the first shape once again seems larger.

Next ask students to examine the Artful Thinking exercise and to analyze two pieces of artwork by Paul Gauguin.

Ask: What do you notice about the placement of the fruit (overlap, going off the page, shape)? Which fruit appears to be in the front? In the back?

Explain that artists use overlap and size to give the illusion of space, to allow some objects to come forward and some objects to recede in space.


Next, have students use their resource page to decide what types of fruit they will include in their fruit bowl artwork.

Explain to students that in their artwork, the large fruit will represent the hundreds place, the medium size fruit will represent the tens place, and the small fruit will represent the ones place.

Students should decide what fruit they will use to represent each place value. Then they should cut out their fruit and put it to the side. They will use it to trace onto their final artwork during Step 4.


Next have each student write whatever 3-digit number they would like on their paper.

Have students hold up their papers and check to confirm that each student does in fact have a 3-digit number written down.


Project the image Still Life with Fruit and Lemons by Paul Gauguin on the board.

Provide each student with drawing paper and pencils. Have students draw a large, bowl in the center of their page. Then add a table or a blanket underneath the bowl to show the location of the “picnic.”

Next, instruct students to trace the fruit they cut out onto their artwork. Explain that they must use the correct amount and types of fruit to represent the place values of their number. Encourage them to have some fruit that overlaps and some that is not completely on the page.

Explain that smaller fruit must be placed in front of larger fruit. Inform students that all fruit must be showing so that the number can be read. Once fruit is drawn in pencils, color it in using colored pencils.

When students have finished, have them write their three-digit number on the back of their paper.


Have students share their artwork with a shoulder partner and ask the partner to identify what number it represents.

Ask: If you were to re-do this artwork, would you place the fruit in the same place? Or would you change something? What would you change?

Love this lesson?

This is such a fantastic way for students to explore place value, 3-digit numbers and visual art.  If you enjoy this lesson, then you’ll want to check out the IntegratED Curriculum.  The full lesson is available there – which includes the assessment and student reproducibles – along with 18+ other arts integration and STEAM lessons per grade. It will save you so much time and planning!

About the Author

Susan Riley is the founder and CEO of The Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM. She focuses on teacher professional development in arts integration, STEAM, 21st century learning skills, and technology. She is also a published author and frequent presenter at national conferences on Arts Integration and STEAM education. Susan holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education from the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ and a Master of Science in Education Administration from McDaniel College in Westminster, MD. She lives in Westminster, MD with her husband and daughter. Email Susan