Down the garden path: the use of stories and storytelling to raise environmental awareness

Bill Graham and Sue Bird

Education Centre, Birmingham Botanical Gardens & Glasshouses, Westbourne Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 3TR, UK.

Stories and storytelling are powerful tools for creating excitement, explaining difficult concepts, raising issues and promoting a greater understanding of botanic gardens. This paper outlines three case studies of successful storytelling projects and offers practical ideas for projects that could be used by other botanic gardens.

Using stories as a stimulus

Birmingham Botanical Gardens creatively uses the rich heritage of stories about plants in the United Kingdom and around the world as a central part of its education programme. We hold a constantly-updated collection of story books, selected by criteria which include relevance to our situation, a botanical context and a clear message which offers an explanation or raises environmental issues.

With older children, books can be used to encourage them to start raising issues about the wider world. A resource which can initially be used to help them develop a questioning approach is the Compass Rose (see Fig.1) devised by the Birmingham Development Education Centre. The aim of which is to involve children in creative work which explores ways of bringing a global dimension and a development perspective to the curriculum.

Storytelling Projects

The three following case studies are examples of how schools and botanic gardens can be linked through storytelling.

Fig 1. Development compass rose

Plant folk tales: The Tree of Good Health

There is a rich heritage of folk tales about trees which can be tapped into to stimulate children's interest. Lordswood Girls' School felt that this was a wonderful opportunity for their 14-15 year-old students to collect stories from their wide cultural backgrounds and to produce written stories. The preparing and redrafting of the stories also met the requirements of the English National Curriculum.

In successive stages, the girls collected stories – in many cases from family sources – recorded oral versions; shared andded in the published booklet called The Tree of Good Health. Art students undertook the tasks of laying out, designing and illustrating the booklet.

With the help of support services—members of the local community and the bilingual skills of the students—the booklet was translated into Punjabi and Urdu. It was felt that this project reflected and celebrated the cultural diversity of the school and of Birmingham itself.

Plant folk tales: The Princess and the Jujuba Tree

Fig 2 Illustration used for the story "Guru Nanak and the soap-nuts" from "The Princess and the Jujuba Tree"

This project involved the use of traditional stories to explore ways in which plants play a part in religious cultures around the world. The same school offered its help and the students undertook a similar process. The published booklet of stories was called The Princess and the Jujuba Tree.

Both projects were very fulfilling for the girls involved, who now show signs of being more confident writers. They have also resulted in the production of booklets of tales which are a great asset to all those wishing to use stories to stimulate an interest in plants and awaken a greater awareness of the environment we all share.

People Who Work With Plants

In this project junior-school children created stories to be told to each other about the many and varied ways in which people work with plants; an aspect of life which tends to be forgotten about in an urban context.

The idea of the project was raised at an environmental education teachers meeting at Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Five schools agreed to participate and help with organising this project was offered by the Birmingham Education Business Partnership.

In order to raise teacher competence, a day of in-service teacher training was provided, with input from a professional storyteller. Twilight sessions were also used to ensure effective planning of the project.

Groups of teachers spent a day at the Gardens in order to develop their interest in the project and for them to generate stimulus material for their pupils to work on. Some decided to look at the roles of present-day employees working with plants and recorded interviews with them. Others, for example, took a historical perspective and discovered more about Victorian plant hunters. Professional storytellers were invited into school to help the pupils further refine their stories.

The culmination of the project was a storytelling day involving the pupils in using various locations at the Gardens for telling their stories to audiences made up of other children and adult guests. This high-profile celebration was a great success and was enjoyed by all.

Developing Stories

The Botanical Gardens' Education Centre hasf geography departmenoint of stories which raised issues of development.

Having advertised the idea to schools, five teachers came together to form a project group. After some training and planning sessions with the teachers, students visited the Gardens and carried out a wide range of activities in order to help them create ideas for their own stories. Having worked on their stories back at school the students returned to tell or perform them in the location where they were inspired. For example, one group used an Australian aborigine 'dreamtime' approach to storytelling in order to take the audience on a journey around the Gardens.

The students' outcomes were considered to be far superior in comparison to their usual work in school, especially for those who were less able or who had special needs. Many of these students however, did not raise development issues within their tales and on reflection, this was considered to have been an overambitious objective. Yet through the process of storytelling, all involved gained a greater understanding of how environmental, economic, social and political factors can affect plants and their environments around the world.

In all three case studies there are certain elements which we have found make the projects a success. This success always depends on creating partnerships with schools and other organisations. There is a wealth of expertise in schools which teachers are happy to share with others, providing it has a relevance to the school curriculum and helps enhance the quality of childrens' learning. Often the support of other organisations helps further enrich the project by them, for example, acting as a facilitator, providing funding or offering specialist skills.

Ideas for storytelling activities

Group logistics: Ideal group size – 3 to 5 pupils maximum
Methods of recording: Individuals
One child as scribe and / or narrator for group
Teacher or helper as scribe
Draw up a storyboard
Use a tape recorder
Sharing: The need to set the ground rule that all members of the group must contribute

Using Artefacts

Children in groups are given an artefact to handle such as a seed necklace, food, or a product we use or a musical instrument. They are then asked to discuss:

At this stage a photograph of a single person or group of people could be introduced to act as characters in the story. A visit could also be undertaken to one of the environments at a botanic garden where the story could take place.

Magic Eye

Pupils use a mirror to look up at one small section of the canopy vegetation and try to answer the question: "What is life like up there"? Pupils may wish to imagine that they are one of the plants or creatures living up in the branches and describe life around them. Similar focusing activities can be used for objects such as the forest floor.

Picture Stimulus

Use pictures of the people and/or animals living in a particular environment as the starting point for asking and answering questions. These ideas can then be used as the framework of a short story such as "A Day in the Life of . . . "


Pupils draw an observational picture based on one of the environments and then add a person or animal from their imagination. As a group, pictures are then ordered and a story created, in the form of captions underneath the pictures.

"How did the ...?" topics

For example:

Role play

Pupils may imagine they are explorers or a survivor of a crash or shipwreck and try to answer questions such as:

The pupils may also be provided with a tin containing a collection of items as baggage, or they can choose ten imaginary items to put into their tin, which are then used in their story.


Each group has a sheet of paper, with the introduction to a story on it. Pupils now have to imagine what will happen next. For example:

"The forest was very shady this late in the afternoon and the air was misty with moisture. This part of the forest was new to her and as she leant against a tree to rest, a twig snapped behind her . . . ".

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