Art & Poetry Contest

Yet despite its importance, environmental and arts education is marginalized in the United States. This sorry scenario is increasingly true in other countries as well.

River of Words was founded to give new life to the teaching of art and poetry through watershed exploration. Our innovative Watershed Explorer Educator's Guide brings together sketching and botany, nature journaling and poetry writing. Students who participate are encouraged to submit their work to our free international art and poetry contest, held annually since 1995 in conjunction with the Center of the Book in the Library of Congress.

Contest Rules and Form in English

Contest Rules and Form in Spanish 


  • US entries must be postmarked by December 1, 2015.
  • International entries must be received by February 1, 2016.

Entry Forms & River of Words Classroom Poster (2016 poster coming soon)

You can now submit your poems online. (Individual entries only)

Individual Entry Form 
Facilitator Entry Form  (Facilitator forms must accompany group entries)
Group Entry Form

Individual Entry Form (Spanish)
Facilitator Form (Spanish)
 (Formas para facilitadores tienen que acompañar entradas del grupo) 
Group Entry Form (Spanish) 

Mail entries to:
River of Words
1928 Saint Mary's Road PMB 5060
Moraga, CA 94575

Nature has been the greatest source of inspiration for artists and poets since humans began drawing on the walls of caves and singing sagas. 

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Art and Poetry Tips

Nature, especially the parts that are untamed, provides great inspiration for writers.

Art tips

Here are some tips to help you grow as an artist:

  • Always carry a sketchbook and pencil or camera. The sketchbook can be small enough to fit in a pocket. You want to be prepared when you see something you want to remember.
  • Be patient. Making art doesn’t “just happen.” Even experienced artists have false starts and scary moments.
  • Draw what you see. “Copying” can be a good thing—it teaches us to closely observe a leaf, a shell, a stream and then translate its nature onto the page.
  • When you use a pencil, draw lightly. You can always go back and darken your lines. 
  • Cut out a rectangle from a piece of cardboard or paper in the proportions of your paper. Hold up the paper and look through the “window” at the tree or rock or mountain you’re drawing with one eye. Keep it steady as you draw what’s in the “window” with your other hand. 
  • Blur your vision. If you wear glasses, take them off. If you don’t, cross your eyes slightly until your vision blurs. Now draw what you see—the general impression instead of the details.
  • Use your pencil to estimate. Hold it up to the item you’re drawing and use your fingers to mark off the size of what you see. That flower may seem huge, but once you “measure” it you may be surprised to learn it’s only half the size of the leaf next to it.
  • Try using light-colored chalk on dark paper. You’ll be forced to focus on the highlights of what you’re drawing.
  • Remember that shadows are never gray. They’re usually the opposite, or complementary, color of whatever is making the shadow. For example, a green-leafed bush will cast a shadow that contains a lot of red.
  • Think in terms of foreground and background. Elements that are close to you will need more detail. They’ll also appear darker. Backgrounds tend to be lighter and less detailed.
  • Think in terms of warm and cool colors. Reds and yellows tend to come forward; cooler blues and greens recede. But not all blues, greens, and violets are cool. For example, yellow-green is warmer than mint green, even if they are equally light or dark.


Poetry tips

 Here are some tips for young poets (and older ones, too!) from Robert Hass, River of Words co-founder and United States poet laureate from 1995 to 1997:

  • Get something down on paper. Waiting for inspiration is like waiting to be asked to dance. Inspiration will come more often if you show you are interested.
  • Pay attention to what’s around you. Teach yourself the names of some of the birds and trees in your neighborhood. Learn the names of the stars overhead. Look at the way light falls on your street at different times of day.
  • Pay attention to what you’re feeling. A lot of poetry has to do with discovering what you feel. Sometimes, if you notice what you’re feeling, a phrase or an image for it will come to you out of nowhere. It will be a place to start and the result may surprise you.
  • Pay attention to your own mind. No thought is too weird for poetry. And everyone has weird thoughts all the time. 
  • Say your poems out loud to yourself until you’re pleased with how they sound. A poem isn’t finished until it’s pleasing to your ear. 
  • Read lots of poetry. It will give you ideas about what poetry can do, techniques you can try. And real feeling will put you in touch with real feeling. Someone else’s originality will make you feel yours.

And here are some tips from our own Watershed Explorer curriculum:

  • If you get stuck on one thing, go to another. Don’t erase—you may want that word or idea later.
  • Sound out difficult words and don’t worry about spelling. You can look up the spelling later.
  • If you want your poem to have a title, wait until you’ve written the poem.The title may be a word or phrase from the poem, or something completely unrelated. Wait and see!
  • Try a collaborative poem. This works best in a group of five or more. One person creates the poem’s first line, the second person builds on that line to create the next line, and so on.
Drawing and painting the natural world is a great way to remember a beautiful scene—and to create a new one.

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Welcome to your own local environment on the River of Words website! Whether you’d like to make art, write poems, or learn more about the natural world around you, this is the place to be.

Check out our international art and poetry contest, open to youth age 5 to 19 around the world. It’s free to enter, and you could win a trip to the awards ceremony in Washington, DC! To get started, discover your local watershed. Get art tips and poetry tips from our experts. 

One of the best ways to learn about art and poetry is to look at a lot of it. Take a moment to look at the amazing art and poetry created by youth around the world

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Regional Coordinators

Regional Coordinators

Here in our California headquarters we don’t pretend to have that knowledge about every watershed on our continent—or our planet. Our Watershed Explorer Educator’s Guide is merely a foundation; to complete the structure we rely on our invaluable team of Regional Coordinators.

These unpaid volunteers work at the state or regional level to bring cultural and natural history alive for students and community members. Some administer state-level ROW contests in conjunction with our international contest. Others conduct teacher-training workshops, create state-specific teaching materials, or host traveling ROW exhibits.

To see whether your area has a ROW regional coordinator, please check our directory.

Environmental literacy—the concept on which ROW is based—depends on deep and intimate local knowledge.
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Our services for educators include:

Educator-training workshops. Our dynamic sessions, held throughout the United States and abroad, teach classroom teachers, park rangers, 4-H and Scout leaders, and other educators how to to use their own homegrounds as a context for learning. The curriculum integrates outdoor observation, investigation, and poetry writing with core subjects like English, math, science, social studies, and the arts. Workshop info.

The Watershed Explorer Educator’s Guide. Incorporates language skills, art, science, history, and culture into activities and exercises for kindergarten through high-school students. Order it now.

Free poetry writing guide. This full-color, 75-page guide helps students get beyond impediments to creativity and expression. Developed by Louisiana teachers Connie McDonald and Harriet Maher, in conjunction with River of Words and Milkweed Editions. Download it now.

Free curriculum guide, Teaching the Poetry of Rivers, developed by the Colorado Center for the Book, Colorado Foundation for Water Education, and the Colorado Endowment for the Humanities. Download it now. Integrates poetry, water resource science and the humanities.

NOTE: If your submission was returned to you, please double check your entry forms. If your forms list a Berkeley PO Box, those forms are out of date. Each year we mail out new forms, and new forms are always available here. Throw away your outdated forms and please download the new forms for your files. **For more information re: returned submissions, see here.**Teachers are the key to River of Words’ success. From the beginning, we have supported their work and furthered their professional development and connection to their communities.

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One Square Block

Every block tells a story—of plants and animals, history and culture, soil and water. One Square Block™ invites students to explore a single square block in their community—their own neighborhood, a local park, the schoolyard—and create poetry, art, and reports about what they find there.

Younger students may create field guides to plants, trees, and animals on their block; they’ll learn where their water comes from, where the rain runoff goes, and who lived there a long time ago. Older students may investigate land use, transportation, zoning, and other specifics; they conduct oral histories and learn to identify architectural details, weather patterns, and geographic information systems (GIS) coordinates. Each block project will post a detail-rich, standardized “block print” online and compare its block with other blocks from around the world.

We have developed and piloted about ten activities for One Square Block with great success. We are currently working with both Saint Mary's faculty and community partners to expand our offerings, which will eventually include a full K-12 range of exciting and interactive place-based classroom and field activities.

One Square Block is designed to hone students’ skills of observation, critical thinking, and problem-solving, all necessary tools for effective watershed stewards.

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Educational institutions and nonprofits may rent high-quality laminated color reproductions of art from our collection. They are lightweight, easy to display, and inexpensive to ship. We charge a negotiable, nominal rental fee. Contact The Center for Enviromental Literacy at 925-631-4289 or [email protected] for more details.

Museums, galleries, and other venues that can guarantee round-the-clock security may rent original art. Fees are negotiable.

We also offer special themed exhibits, including:

  • Birds! Birds! Birds! from River of Words
  • In Praise of Water: Images and Poetry from the River of Words Collection
  • Children of Chernobyl
  • Frogs and Amphibians
  • The World in their Hands: Earth Images from River of Words
  • Lost Horizons: The Art and Poetry of Gulf Coast Children
  • As Above, So Below: Reflection in the Art and Poetry of Children
  • Art in Exile: The Extraordinary Art of Afghan Refugee Children
If you like the artwork you see in our online gallery, we’d love to share them with you. We offer several options for displaying River of Words art in your community. We also license River of Words art and poetry for use in annual reports, textbooks, online media and other uses.

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In addition to serving educators, we also lead workshops for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. All of our workshops provide ideas and models for integrating nature exploration and the arts into core subject areas, including science, math, social studies, and language arts.

Educator workshops: We offer two-day, one-day, or half-day workshops as well as shorter introductory presentations. The cost is $1,000 per day plus travel expenses. Workshops may be held at your site or at Saint Mary's College in Moraga, California

Student workshops: Our workshops can be tailored to fit into a single classroom period, several periods, a full day (for older students), or a semester. They may be held in your classroom or in an off-campus site, or outdoors.

Topics include journal making; anxiety-free poetry writing; "sightless" drawing; kite flying (to learn about flight, weather, and atmosphere); and information about the local watershed and bioregion. Students also learn how to hone their observation skills; educators learn about classroom resources, new ways to engage hard-to-reach learners, and other invaluable tips.

Presentations: In addition to our workshops, we offer introductory presentations about River of Words.

To schedule a workshop or a presentation, please contact the Center at 925-631-4289 or email Director, Pamela Michael at [email protected]

River of Words offers customized workshops for teachers and informal educators — park rangers, Scout leaders, and others — who work for schools, libraries, museums, community organizations, and governmental agencies.

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What We Do

Our curriculum, youth poetry and art publications, and recognition opportunities for young people nurture creativity and critical thinking.

Our multidisciplinary, place-based curricula — Watershed Explorer and One Square Block — improve literacy, enhance investigation and critical thinking, and nurture creativity.

Our free, annual, international youth poetry and art contest — the largest in the world — inspires children ages 5 to 19 to translate their observations into creative expression. Other River of Words successes include training workshops, traveling exhibits, community partnerships, creek clean-ups and restorations, and two Girl Scouts patches — the Watershed and Waterdrop, developed in conjunction with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

River of Words provides tools for teaching environmental literacy — the understanding of the natural world around us — to children, teens, and teachers through art and poetry.
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Youth Inspiring Youth

Wit & Fright (2009 music, 2001 poem)
Composed by Ryan Harper, poem by River of Words winner Eric Pierson, age 10