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The Whole World Cake Treasure Hunt

Contributed by Sue Baughan, Leicester University Botanic Garden, 28 Westleigh Road, Leicester LE3 OHH, UK


Many primary schools in the UK encourage parents to come into the classroom to share their skills and interests with children. This is the context within which the Whole World Cake Treasure Hunt started. A parent and a schools' worker from Mundos Unidos, a project based at Leicestershire's Development Education Centre (LDEC), worked together to bring some development issues alive for young children using a cake as the stimulus!

The idea was piloted in junior (7-11 year-old) and nursery (3-5 year-old) classes in 1991. Since then it has been adapted for use in numerous contexts and for all ages, and has led to the establishment of a very successful educational project at Leicester University Botanic Garden, based around the Whole World Cake Treasure Hunt.

Initially the aim of the project was simple: to raise children's awareness of the fact that the food they eat comes from around the world, that many people have been involved in its production and that we are interdependent on a global scale. The cake offered a direct link with people on the other side of the globe and children were encouraged to start asking questions about their connections with and responsibilities towards their fellow villagers in the global village.

The move from the classroom to the Botanic Garden added a further rich dimension to the project. It offered the possibility of connecting the ingredients of the cake directly with the plants from which they came, opening up new areas of learning related to the botanical aspects of plants. This is particularly important for children from the inner city, many of whom live a life distanced from nature and who need to develop an appreciation of the importance of the natural world for their own survival. The Botanic Garden also provides an exceptionally stimulating learning environment within which to enhance children’s and adults' experiences.

The Pilot Project - the Whole World Cake in the Classroom

The project was piloted with three different groups; 32 nine and ten-year olds, 28 seven- and eight-year olds and 26 three- and four-year olds. With the two older groups there was an afternoon session once a week for about 12 weeks. The nursery project was contained in two sessions.

The basic format of the project was the same with all three groups:

  • the children ate a piece of cake
  • they found out where in the world the different ingredients had come from
  • they looked in more detail at some of the ingredients and at issues around their production and distribution, and related issues
  • finally the children made a cake themselves in school and ate it.

The sessions included activities and themes such as:

Eating and Guessing

After eating the cake, the children guessed what was in it and where the ingredients had come from.


The children were divided into groups and given shopping bags with various ingredients in packets that clearly showed their country of origin. They were also given world maps, globes and blank outline maps, to map out where the ingredients came from.

Drawing and Public Displays

The children drew colourful pictures of the different foods and made a display for the classroom wall, which was later transferred to a prominent position in the local cooperative supermarket for shoppers and proud parents to see. The managing Cooperative Society also agreed to give the school the ingredients to make the Cake themselves.


Taking Brazil nuts as a starting point, the children focussed on the rainforest, and looked at things such as deforestation, cattle ranching, peoples of the rainforests, animals, global warming, climate, and forests around the globe.

Pupils had the idea of building an artificial rainforest in their own classroom. Their teacher provided a large blue plastic sheet, which she hung from the ceiling rather like a tent, and the children made paper models of monkeys, snakes, creepers, flowers, leaves etc. to hang inside it.

The whole effect was quite realistic as the plastic sheet not only provided a dim blue light but also raised the temperature beneath by several degrees!

When a visitor from the Brazil-nut factories in Brazil came to visit the local Christian Aid office, the class invited her to their rainforest, where she sat telling them about her work through a translator – a very special learning experience for everyone.

Banana Trading Games

Starting with bananas, the class played a trading game where the children were split into different banana growing groups and had to ‘produce’ enough bananas to sell to earn their yearly cash requirements. Each group was given instructions for making the ‘right’ kind of bananas, which would be acceptable to the buyer from the multi-national company. Each group was given the same amount of paper, but different amounts of scissors and yellow crayons; and they then had a limited time to ‘grow’ enough bananas, which were not bought by the company if they were ‘sub-standard’! The process was repeated several times to simulate circumstances over several years, during which time the costs to the banana farmers rose considerably more than the price they were paid for their produce.

Each child was given a card on which was written the task of someone involved in the production and distribution of bananas. They were asked to move around finding out who everyone was and then line themselves up in the correct order from grower to eater.

They then worked on a short play showing the journey of the banana and how the money spent on a banana is distributed between the people and countries involved in its production and distribution.

Flour Production and Energy

The flour used in the Cake was from the UK and had been ground in a windmill; this was used as a starting point to look at different ways of generating energy (including hydro-electric schemes and referring back to schemes in the Amazon).

Leicester City Farm

Children visited the City Farm to see crops growing and the animals which produce ingredients for the cake. They collected free-range eggs and milked the goat. The farm offered the school a plot in their polytunnel to try growing tropical crops themselves. There was discussion about animal welfare issues and farming techniques.

Sugar and Columbus

Sugar was the starting point for work on the impact of Columbus and his contemporaries in the West Indies, the growth of the slave trade and the impact of modern tourism. It also offered an opportunity to look at nutrition and dietary issues.

Cooking and Eating!

In the final session the children made the cake themselves. This was done in groups; each group having a small supply of each ingredient to chop, mash, melt, mix etc. Then each group's mix was put together for the final baking of one big cake, some of which was shared with parents at an open evening shortly afterwards.

Nursery Work

With three-and-a-half to four-year olds, there were just two sessions on consecutive days for a total of about four hours. On the first day the children were invited to help collect the ingredients for a cake and were sent off to find items from around the world; in reality bases around the classroom. In each area of the world there were activities to do and an ingredient to take away. For example in Tanzania there were musical instruments to play and honey to collect. In the Caribbean there were clothes and masks to see, the children made their own masks out of paper plates and they took away bananas etc. On the second day the children made the cake (very slowly and carefully!), baked it and presented it to their classmates in the afternoon session.

From Classroom to Botanic Garden

Whole World Cake Treasure Hunt

Six schools in Leicestershire were involved in the development of the Whole World Cake Treasure Hunt. Teachers developed the basic idea their own way. One school used it as the basis of a class assembly, another to support their work on the rainforests while another brought the whole staff in for a teachers’ day at the Garden. This resulted in the whole school using the cake as the basis for the first half of the Autumn term's work in every area of the curriculum. It was enhanced by the availability of a new resource, the Whole World Cake Pack, produced by Christian Aid and based on the ideas from the pilot project described above.

SEED- Support for Education in Environment and Development

The Whole World Cake Treasure Hunt proved so popular with all who took part in it that it gave rise to a new education project based at the University Botanic Garden. The project was named SEED - partly because it was given half the existing seed storage area of the garden for its office base, partly because of the educational imagery around the concept of a seed, partly because of the obvious connections with the cake, and partly because SEED stood very neatly for ‘Support for Education in Environment and Development’!

The Whole World Cake Treasure Hunt

Since the first hunt in 1994, hundreds of children from schools and youth groups throughout Leicestershire have taken part. The response to it has been consistently enthusiastic:

  • thank you for my best day out ever’ - an 8-year old
  • I can honestly say I personally enjoyed it more than any other trip (ever)!’ – a teacher
  • another teacher wrote, rather nicely drawing out the ‘treasure’ aspect:

Nothing beats the real thing. Left a good impression with children as science follow-up was nearly a week later and images were well retained. It has also acted as a stimulus for RE work. The children gained from the experience an appreciation and a sense of wonder about the variety of life and an appreciation of the conditions plants live/survive in. In the future I can envisage using the World Cake idea for harvest stimulus, geography, teaching about can certainly be cross referenced with and used to illustrate/remind children of work already done. Just found it a gem. And to think I've been in Leicester for nearly 20 years and hadn't visited it before!’

How the Treasure Hunt Works

So it's fun, but what is it and what do the children actually learn from it? When they arrive at the Garden the children are ushered into the classroom, where they are greeted and invited to help make a cake. Why come to a Garden to make a cake? What is extra special about a lot of the plants in a botanic garden? Is it a race?

The answer to the last question is definitely ‘No’, and to encourage the children to keep their eyes open and senses alert as they go round, their appetite for plants is whetted by a demonstration of the way in which three different types of insectivorous plants work. They are told to look out for the giant redwood tree (a smaller example of the most massive organism the world has ever seen!) and the bristlecone pine. Growing in the mountains of eastern California, the bristlecone pine is probably, at over 4,600 years of age, the longest-living organism on earth.

The Hunt is explained, and the children then set off with their leader, in groups of no more than seven, to find the ingredients of the cake. Each group has a map with a different starting point, but everyone completes the trail through woods, meadows, rainforest and desert, collecting hazelnuts, honey, raisins, walnuts, lemons, sugar, bananas, pineapple and cocoa, which they find next to the plants from which they have come. They return with their ‘treasure’ at an appointed time, and the ingredients are all put into a huge mixing bowl. This is accompanied by a lively commentary, with pictures and objects to look at, and questions and discussion about the plants they originated on, where in the world they have come from, and the people involved in their production and distribution.

At last the mixture is put into the magic oven and two minutes later everyone has a piece of Whole World Cake to taste!

During the two hours of the hunt, the children have great fun in a beautiful environment. They begin to learn to connect the food they eat with the plants from which they come, and with the people involved in its production and distribution:

‘Where do we get chocolate from?’ ..........’The shops.’
‘And before that?’..........................’The factory!’ .............. and so on!

They experience different environments, they practice map reading and working as a team. The potential for learning is enormous. To maximise that potential, each school receives a pack on booking, which assists with the planning. A follow-up pack is being prepared. Christian Aid's Whole World Cake Pack is also a useful resource.

The Treasure Hunt is an excellent activity for youth groups, community groups and the general public. In the summer of 1995 a number of Brownie and Guide groups and a Woodcraft folk group tried it out. A summer playscheme planned all their activities around the Whole World Cake, and a Church Sunday club is experimenting with using it. Recently an adult discussion group put it onto their evening programme.

The following pieces were written by two teachers, the first from a small village school:

The Botanic Gardens provide a refreshingly different venue for a class outing. The wide open spaces give scope for adventurous activities, contrasting well with the enclosed environments of the tropical and cactus houses. It has proved to be a hugely popular place for all age groups in our primary school. We have explored areas of science, art, geography, religious education, P.S.E., and development education in our projects on 'The Whole World Cake' and 'Trees'. The potential is enormous. We have made 4 visits in the last 14 months. Visiting the Gardens has become an established element in our school topic cycle as well as providing a focus for mini-whole-school projects to start the academic year, culminating in a Harvest Festival.

If you haven't yet discovered the 'Gardens', then you don't know what you're missing!’

and the second from an inner-city school:

The quality and range of learning opportunities is exceptional. Children experience the climate of the rainforest and hot desert. Their senses are awakened by the steamy, wet, musty profusion and the sounds of the rainforest tape awakened fear in my 7-year olds:

‘Are there monkeys in there? Are they real?’, said Ashley,backing out of the door!

There was fascination as Sue showed us the shiny, sticky droplets on the insectivorous sundews, silent horror as she triggered a Venus fly trap and loud disgust as she opened a pitcher plant to reveal the remains of ladybirds, wasps, beetles and other unlucky insects within.

The striking contrast of the three major habitats provides a first-hand opportunity to understand that different animals and plants are found in each, showing how they are adapted to there environment.

With permission we gathered soil samples from the rainforest, desert and temperate climates to help with our work on soil back at school.

The Whole World Cake Treasure Hunt is great fun and is a real map-reading opportunity. The search for the cake's ingredients by the various plants – walnuts, raisins, hazelnuts, cocoa, banana, sugar, lemons etc. – adds a further dimension, bringing in opportunities to explore the global origins of food, our interdependence, food journeys ‘from plant to plate’.

Using maps, getting lost, enjoying a ramble in the beautiful multi-faceted garden with its Victorian mansions . . . the quality of the experience is hard to beat - and all within the city boundaries!'

The Way Ahead

The Whole World Cake Treasure Hunt started in Leicester, a multicultural city. At the last census 71.5 % described themselves as white, 22.3% as Indian, 1.5% as Pakistani or Bangladeshi, 2.4% as Black, from Africa or the West Indies and the remaining 2.5% as Chinese or other Asian ethnic groups.

Leicester also won the title of the UK's first ‘Environment City’, showing the commitment of many sectors of the community (business, the voluntary sector, the health authority, the city and county council) to the challenge of environmental improvement and the concept of sustainable development. At present many groups representing the different sectors are drawing up their response to the 1992 Earth Summit's Agenda 21, working on a ‘Blueprint for Leicester’ and are also working within a group called FABLE (Forum for a better Leicestershire).

Many children are aware of environmental issues, and the SEED project hopes to support them and their teachers as they grapple with them, both within and outside the National Curriculum subject areas.

During the pilot project the Whole World Cake Treasure Hunt idea was shared with development education practitioners in five different European towns.

At the 1994 annual conference of the Botanic Garden Education Network (BGEN), a workshop on the project led to Oxford Botanic Garden putting it onto their schools programme. Now there is a workshop at an international congress of botanic garden educators. Is this an idea you can adapt and use in your garden? Could botanic gardens (and schools) running Whole World Cake Treasure Hunts across the world be linked together on a computer network, sharing ideas and resources and up-to-date information? There is the invitation and the challenge. I have given you an idea of the ingredients, now you can create your own Whole World Cake!


I would like to express my thanks to John Ireson for his part in the original project.