Botany for Young Children: A Workshop to Explore Teaching Methods Using Art to Study Plants
Contributed by Dawn Sanders, Chelsea Physic Garden, 66 Royal Hospital Road, London SW3 4HS, U.K.
In her book The Ant and the Peacock, Helena Cronin describes humans as: ‘Walking archives of ancestral wisdom’. She makes the comment that the human eye, our brain and our instincts are ‘embodiments of the cumulative experience of our past’ (Cronin, 1991). For Cronin, part of that embodiment is the legacy of science. For myself, the recording through art of the visual and the tactile, is another legacy. Our work at Chelsea Physic Garden seeks to combine both these notions.
In using the methodologies of art we explore the ideas of science (in the broadest sense). In making leaf-sculptures children gain a wider understanding of natural materials: their tensile strength, brittleness, transparency, fragility and elasticity. By using drawing and magnifiers, relationships of structure and scale can be investigated. By making choices about what kind of marks to use to describe a plant through drawing, processes of decision-making and problem-solving will have been explored.
Approaching the science of environment through the senses provides a whole range of experiences that can be built upon through constructed investigations.
‘We might find ourselves in the vicinity of the garden, the cultural artefact that is ground in the messy, dark, nurturing decay of its own production. In the garden, we are in the space of nature and culture, form and matter, concrete and abstract, exterior and interior’.
The botanic garden is a site of contrasting histories and functions; one of its functions is that of education. Linking art with science can be an important feature of this role, for:
‘Now is a time when creative artists and scientists are needed more than ever to remind us of our immersion in the natural world and to deepen our understanding of it’.
With the new Millenium approaching, children need to be involved in an educational process which demonstrates a working relationship between art and science, in order to encourage a range of perceptions and approaches to the environment. We have been immersed in a culture of separate practices for too long. Botanic gardens, with their intrinsic diversity, contain the perfect ingredients for a more holistic future of inquiry.
The workshop consisted of two ‘hands-on’ activities. Firstly an exercise in using touch to gain information and drawing to record that experience; Each participant was given a small bag containing part of a plant with drawing paper attached, and a pencil. They were asked to draw what they felt. Everyone was surprised when they emptied the contents of the bag and compared it to the drawing, how closely the drawing resembled the plant . The skin ‘reads the texture, weight, density and temperature of matter’ ((Pallasmaa, 1996).
Secondly, participants were given a variety of plant material and asked to construct a simple sculpture. After completion, each participant was asked to share with the group one thing that they had discovered about the plant material that they had worked with. Qualities such as flexibility, strength, versatility and diversity were mentioned. Several people commented that the process itself had nourished their relationship with plants . I hope that this workshop illustrates that studying plants can be approached through art activities and that a scientist’s ‘perceptions of the natural world, as well as her interpretations, come through her senses, herself as a person and her culture’ (Reiss, 1993).
Bloomer, J (1996). The matter of the cutting edge essay. In: Desiring practices: architecture gender and the interdisciplinary. Blackdog Publications.
Cronin, H. (1991). The Ant and the Peacock. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Nesbitt, P. (1989). Leaves - Andy Goldsworthy. Common Ground.
Pallasmaa, J. (1996). The eyes of the skin: architecture and the senses. Academy Editions.
Reiss, M J. (1993) . Science education for a pluralist society. Open University Press.