Child health: Learning about plants could make kids happier

Academics are starting to examine the benefits of 'botanical literacies'

A favourite story for Ann Halley, manager of Chicago’s Botanic Garden Nature Preschool, is about a boy who studied at the nature-based learning centre, which educates kids aged three to five.

One day the child came to show her a “wonderful surprise”, she said. It turned out to be a small plant growing through cracks in paving stones. “We did not plant that seed, it rolled there or the wind blew it there,” the boy told her.

“This made me smile because it showed he had learned about travel of seeds,” she said, “but what he said next totally made my day: ‘Miss Ann, who will take care of this plant? It’s by the door and someone might step in it. How can we help so they don’t hurt it?’”

Opened in 2016, the preschool hopes to instill “this sense of caring for plants and the natural world… in all our little ones,” Halley said. It’s just one example of initiatives worldwide which aim to bring children closer to nature, on the understanding that an increased knowledge of plants and wildlife has a range of benefits for early childhood development.

What are “botanical literacies”?

The concept of “botanical literacies” — knowledge of the names and uses of plants and flowers — as it relates to children’s education is fairly new in academia. Kimberley Beasley of the School of Education at Murdoch University estimates that her upcoming study into the botanical literacies of children and educators is the first in Australia, and the second globally.

But concepts such as “ecological literacy” and “environmental education” have similarly explored the benefits that an increased knowledge of plants, nature and wildlife can have for kids.

Maria Hammarsten of Sweden’s Jönköping University is part of a research team that observed children in Sweden’s Holma forest garden in order to understand the benefits of ecological literacy among seven to nine year olds.

The study found three key aspects of learning by the children: practical competence; learning how to co-exist and care; and biological and ecological knowledge.

“Previous studies indicate that children’s visits in forest environments have been halved in Sweden in the 2000s,” Hammarsten said, pointing to increased urbanisation and the disappearance of green public spaces. “This can lead to a lack of awareness and knowledge of the role of plants in ecosystems and, in the long run, endanger humanity’s survival.”

Other studies and campaigns to introduce gardening into curriculums have also pointed to the health and wellbeing benefits, and the development of other skills — language, numeracy and oracy — through education about plants.

What does it look like in practice?

“A decline in botanical literacies seems to be a worldwide issue” said Kimberley Beasley. While the early education curriculums of many countries include some commitment to connecting children with their surroundings, these are often vague. In practice, many initiatives are spearheaded by external campaigns and organisations.

In France, the “Budding Botanist” program from the Klorane Botanical Foundation reaches an estimated 20,000 children a year by providing toolkits to teachers to aid in botanical education.

Botanical gardens like Chicago’s also tend to offer educational programmes both within and outside of school environments.

And the “forest school” concept has gained increasing popularity. Children arrive complete with wellies and outdoor clothing to spend their entire day exploring a woodland classroom: discovering plants; learning about trees; listening to bird song — whatever the weather. In the United Kingdom, Forest Schools provided training to countries including Thailand, Canada and New Zealand last year.

Like Chicago’s Nature Preschool, the model puts exploration and discovery at the heart of learning in order to improve wellbeing, something both organisations say can be neglected in traditional policymaking.

Lessons for policymakers

“Political priorities [tend to] focus [on] economic productivity, so that enabling children to safely explore their environment is seldom high on the agenda,” agreed Hammarsten. She said governments should focus on making land available and accessible for children and ensuring that planting is well planned within it, as well as providing tools for outdoor education with a focus on plants.

For Kimberley Beasley, external projects such as botanical gardens, tree planting programmes and national parks should be well-funded and maintained. But she believes the curriculum is the best tool for increasing botanical literacies — which can even be embedded across various subjects:

“Children could sit under a tree to write a story or poem in English” she said. “They could look to the plants’ leaves and flowers to study symmetry in maths, or go outside for inspiration in the creative arts. If plants and plant names are used across the whole curriculum children’s botanical literacies will certainly develop more strongly.”

(Picture credit: Simone Anne/Deathtothestockphoto)

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