ART TEACHER Betty Bott stood in front of a classroom of Fairfax County first-graders and ordered them to imagine they were playing in a pile of leaves. "Let's all try to throw the leaves up," she said, flinging her arms in the air, as 29 youngsters from Chesterbrook Elementary School in McLean followed suit. "You bend at the shoulders. You've got loooong arms."

For Bott, this exercise was at the heart of the art lesson she conducted that day. The children's assignment was to paint a picture of themselves playing in the leaves, but, more important, Bott wanted them to paint a mental picture. "Eyes closed," she said. "Think about how your body is in those leaves. Are you lying in the leaves? Throwing the leaves? Imagine it in your mind." Only then did she allow them to get down to painting.

In an interview later, Bott said she uses art as a technique to teach children how to see. "My big thing is visual awareness," she said. "Children look all around them, but they don't really look. My theory is that everybody can draw. You just have to look. They have to think about it. Thinking is a big process."

Bott, an art teacher for 14 years, divides her time among four Fairfax County elementary schools -- an itinerant existence that allows her to get to each classroom only once a month. It can be frustrating because the infrequent visits limit her ability to undertake big projects, but Bott said she likes the wider view of life she gets from being a part of more than one school.

Art still does not have the priority in elementary school that academic subjects do, but conditions have improved since six years ago, when Bott was assigned to rotate her time among 13 different elementary schools in one year. Bott stores her supplies at each school, wheeling a tall gray metal cart piled with paint, paper and brushes as she makes her rounds from room to room. She also teaches children about cut-out murals, puppets, clay, printmaking, weaving and stitchery, drawing and other techniques.

Bott said she tries to integrate her lessons with the children's other classroom subjects. Last year, for example, she led a pottery lesson on Egyptian jars for a class studying ancient Egypt. "You have to relate on their terms, their grounds," she said. "Otherwise, how are you going to make any connections? Then they get excited about it."