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Botanical Boats

Jenny Stuart
Brisbane Botanic Gardens, Mt Coot-tha, Brisbane, Australia


To showcase some novel and interesting methods used in one of our successful holiday programmes, in an attempt to provide inspiration and food for thought for other botanic gardens educators.


The Brisbane Botanic Gardens regularly runs holiday programmes for children aged 6–12 years. The aims of the programmes include:

  • introducing children to the wonderful world of plants using the medium of the creative arts
  • raising awareness of environmental issues in a relaxed, hands-on context
  • developing relationships with local artists and giving them the opportunity to work under the auspices of the Brisbane Botanic Gardens1 to source inspiration and materials from the plant world.

In this workshop I would like to introduce you to a particular holiday programme we ran called Botanical Boats. After a brief explanation of the aims and organization of the programme, we will watch a video produced about the programme by Totally Wild and then have the opportunity to do some boat-building. The session will conclude with questions and general discussion. At this stage I would appreciate your comments and recommendations.

Botanical Boats Programme

The Botanical Boats programme was developed to raise awareness of the importance and value of plants in our lives and the fact that many plants are in danger of extinction as a result of our activities on earth – land clearing, weed invasion etc. We wanted to emphasize the vital part plants play in everyday living and to encourage the children to see that they can have an important role in protecting and conserving them.

Our artist-in-residence at the time, John Fitzwalter, was invited to mastermind the project and to work on the preparation and presentation team along with the Garden’s education staff. It was decided to use storytelling and the visual arts to interpret and communicate our ideas in a novel and engaging way. The programme consisted of 4 linked strands:

  1. Taking his theme from the story of Noah’s Ark, John wrote a story called ‘The Botanical Ark’ which highlighted the problems of the modern world and their effect on our natural environment. Although many of the children were familiar with the biblical story of the Ark, the non-religious reworking that John wrote allowed us to introduce the concept of endangered plants and their need for our protection. Whereas in the traditional Ark story the Flood posed a threat to the continuation of animal species, John’s story challenged the children to think of modern-day threats to plant species. The story was used to introduce the session.
  2. Following a reading of the story, children were introduced to the real-life Botanical Ark, the frame and roof of which were constructed prior to the programme from cane, bamboo, paper and flowers. The children were invited to help weave in the body of the Ark using palm leaves, bark and other waste plant material. Some also helped to add to the paper and dried flower roof. In this way the children were able to become a part of the story they had listened to. The Botanical Ark became an ephemeral artwork in the Gardens for the succeeding few months, drawing visitors’ attention to the issues through its visual impact and interpretive signage. In this way the children contributed to a piece of community art as well as making their own artwork. The Ark was later modified and used in the art programme that the Education Unit ran in conjunction with Jeannie Baker’s touring exhibition ‘The Hidden Forest’.
  3. The children were then involved in the construction of their own miniature botanical boats, using plant materials collected in the gardens. Hulls were made from blackbean and crows’ ash pods, masts from bamboo twigs and sails from dried flowers pressed between wax paper. During construction there were opportunities to discuss these materials and how useful plants are in our everyday lives. As most of the materials were recycled we were able to emphasize the part that recycling can play in conserving our plant heritage.
  4. The programme concluded with each child being given an Australian native plant, suitable for gardens, to take home and care for. This emphasized the message that everyone can be empowered to make a difference and help in small ways. By reaching out to the child’s home, it also extended our message in time, location and audience.

Findings and Recommendations

  • Through stories, children can be introduced to complex and important environmental issues.
  • Holiday programmes can involve children in the construction of large sculptural artworks that become part of the garden display, giving them the chance to become community artists.
  • Simple art and craft activities can be used to teach design principles and problem-solving, to explain the workings of nature and be used as symbols of personal stories and journeys.
  • The theme of ‘boats’ can be used as an analogy in terms of what we bring or carry in them and what we take away. These types of activities could be used to encourage migrant children to tell the stories of their journeys.
  • The reworking of traditional stories can be an effective hook, and hence a powerful tool, for communicating environmental messages.
  • Children can be empowered to make a difference: from little things big things grow.
  • There is huge scope for the involvement of community and local artists in botanic gardens; this can give both parties fresh inspiration.