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Public Education for all Ages at the Singapore Botanic Gardens

Contributed by Hai Wu Foong, Jennifer Ng, Marie Jacintha Nathan, Janice Yau Chew Kuan, National Parks Board, Singapore Botanic Gardens, Cluny Road, Singapore 1025, Singapore


The Singapore Botanic Garden’s School of Horticulture (SOH) has been the seat of formal training in horticulture and landscape design since 1972. In the early days, it was charged with the training of the horticulturists and landscape-designers needed to transform the island state into a “Garden City” and to see to its upkeep thereafter. This was achieved by the 1980s.

In 1990, the Singapore Botanic Garden (SBG) was granted more administrative autonomy as part of the NParks, a new statutory board formed to formulate new policy for the national parks (the SBG and Fort Canning Park) and the nature reserves. The role of the SOH was reviewed in the light of prevailing needs. The outcome of the review advocated the establishment of a public education arm to provide new initiatives and impetus for educational outreach. This agreed well with the ‘quality life-style’ aspirations associated with rising affluence.

In the past, the public education programmes were conducted on an ad hoc basis without much reference to the needs of end-users. Having embarked on a business and market orientation, they are now more user-focused and user-friendly. Programmes are structured to address the needs of target groups.

The Public in General

The success of the ‘Garden City’ campaign has engendered gardening as a national recreational pastime and has inspired citizens to bring greenery into their homes. In the highly urbanised and competitive Singapore environment, many find gardening therapeutic – a refreshing way to unwind from the stress of work. As one participant put it: ‘Sometimes when things go wrong at work, it is nice to come home and see your plants still growing and carrying on’. Whether living on or above ground level (and 80% of the population in Singapore live above ground level) plants have become an integral element of home decor. Notwithstanding the space constraints, undaunted and house-proud high-rise flat dwellers turn their corridors and whatever living spaces they have into their own little gardens.

This group of gardening enthusiasts and hobbyists look to the SBG for tips on gardening. Short gardening courses, mainly of recreational content, such as indoor plant landscaping, indoor plant care, and hydroponics, are designed to meet their needs. A recent survey indicated that the composition of this group had changed from a majority of housewives and retirees to working professionals. Therefore, it is appropriate that classes are held in the evening hours to accommodate their busy schedules.

In 1992 and then again in 1995, the NParks collaborated with the Housing & Development Board (HDB), the Primary Production Department and the Ministry of the Environment in staging exhibitions to promote gardening in high-rise apartments. These so-called ‘Skyrise Gardening’ exhibitions catered to a wide spectrum of audiences, ranging from the novice to the seasoned hobbyist, and featured mock-ups of living rooms, balconies and other living spaces, decorated with suitable indoor plants. Demonstrations, workshops, competitions and a ‘Plant Clinic’ to advise on plant care, were also featured. Visitors to the exhibitions were able to pick up creative and practical ideas about the choice and arrangement of plants for different landscaped settings. The NParks’ public education programmes were publicised and open for registration at the exhibitions. Due to overwhelming response, additional classes had to be scheduled after both exhibitions.

A reference handbook on ‘Skyrise Gardening in High-rise Homes’ was produced in conjunction with the 1995 exhibition. This publication covers all practical aspects of gardening in high-rise apartments. It proved to be popular and is now in its first reprint.

The Public Education Unit maintains a database of regular participants who can be updated expediently on new programmes and events at the SOH. A quarterly newsletter produced in-house also serves to keep our audiences informed.

Residential Communities

In Singapore, the population is distributed among housing estates, which consist mainly of high-rise flats put up by the HDB. Each residential community is served by a community centre. There are currently some 83 community centres, 26 community clubs and 303 senior citizen clubs island-wide. These community centres and clubs are administered by the People’s Association (PA). The PA is an important grassroots organisation responsible for promoting community development through the organisation of social, cultural, educational, youth, sporting, recreational and other types of activities to foster communal spirit.

The PA’s network of community centres and clubs offers immense opportunity and potential for the NParks to extend its educational outreach to the masses. In addition to running our residential programmes in the SBG, the Public Education Unit has recently partnered the PA in jointly organising recreational gardening courses at selected community centres that project a ‘green’ image. While the PA helps to promote our programmes via its established publicity instruments and the community centres provide the necessary classroom venues, the NParks provides trainers, teaching materials and equipment. The selling point of this scheme is ‘we bring recreational gardening courses to your doorstep’. The success of the pilot project has prompted the Garden to expand this service to other community centres, thus reaching out increasingly to the people on the HDB estates.

Through this working relationship with the PA, the NParks has also been invited to participate in the PA’s ‘Hobbycraft Fair’, an annual event to promote popular arts and crafts as hobbies to the public. In 1993 and 1995 eye-catching gardening exhibits were installed at the Fair and attracted sizeable walk-in registration for the courses. In August 1996, the Fair was held in concert with the ‘Family Fitness Festival’, a national event with a theme to promote a healthy life-style among Singaporeans. And what could be more relevant than the plant and nature-related activities offered by the NParks. The NParks’ Public Education was a central feature at this festival launched by the Prime Minister. The large turn-out of some 32,000 people made the occasion an opportune one to publicise the NParks’ outreach programmes at community centres.


There are at present 187 primary schools, 145 secondary schools and 14 junior colleges in Singapore. As with other botanic gardens, schools represent a very important audience of our educational outreach. In this respect, our programmes seek to complement the formal curricula of schools, especially in reinforcing the outdoor and hands-on content of learning.

Recognising that teachers hold the key to success for the Garden’s school outreach, teacher training constitutes an important strategy for reaching out to the student audience and strengthening ties with schools. Training has been initiated for heads of department of schools. Having gained an appreciation of the relevance of the Garden’s programmes, these key personnel in turn enthuse the teaching staff of their respective departments or schools. They spread the message about the many possibilities and benefits of using SBG’s resources to enrich school-based studies of plant topics and the environment, thus achieving learning beyond the confines of the classroom. Teacher-training programmes are scheduled during the holidays for the convenience of teachers.

In order to sustain teachers’ enthusiasm and commitment to the public education programmes, teacher training needs to be on-going. Also, by involving teachers in joint development of new programmes, the Garden can be assured of their continued support. Once teachers become more confident and take ownership of programmes, the SBG staff need merely provide background support. In other words, they just facilitate. This frees in-house trainers to attend to other aspects of public education e.g. programme formulation.

Garden staff have found teacher training to be a rewarding investment and exercise, since every trained teacher in turn passes on the knowledge and experience gained to his/her charges. Hence, the multiplier effect is considerable. Staff have a strong conviction that their partnership with teachers and schools will go a long way.

School children aged 7-18 are in their most receptive years and, through the programmes, values relating to the environment and nature conservation can be instilled, so that as leaders of tomorrow, they will make responsible decisions on environmental issues. The Garden intends to develop a hierarchy of public education programmes to cater for students at different educational levels. Some of these can be project-based. For instance, the reafforestation project for the four-hectare patch of primary forest within the SBG enlisted the services of student volunteers seeking to fulfill requirements for the National Youth Achievement Award. This community project took place in 1991-93 and was sponsored by the Hongkong Bank. The student volunteers learned to differentiate between native and exotic species of plants in the forest.

There is an increasing number of requests for staff to speak on plant-related topics and conduct horticultural camps/workshops in schools over the holidays. They also participate in scientific/industrial internship programmes for secondary schools and junior colleges. Where appropriate, they also seek to collaborate with environmental and school gardening clubs in educational projects of mutual interest.

Public outreach is not confined to local schools. Educational programmes are tailored for student groups from overseas institutions, adding an international dimension to the programmes. For example, for the past three years (1993-96), the Nishinippon Junior College in Japan has been sending its graduating Diploma classes for a specially arranged one-day tour and lecture programme at the SBG. The purpose is to expose the students to the horticultural practices and landscaping concepts of a tropical botanic garden. On those occasions, the Garden was very fortunate to be able to engage the voluntary assistance of wives of Japanese expatriates serving as interpreters and guides.

Pre-school Children

For this audience group, the Garden staff strives to inculcate good values and habits about plants and nature at a young age. The teaching methods used are different from those for adults. The most effective way to induce children to learn is through interactive play and hands-on activities. Some of the popular childrens’ programmes are Dish Garden, Terrarium Workshop and Rainforest Trek.

The first sponsored production of an activity book in 1994, ‘Sara, the Forgetful Dinosaur’, for children was very well received. This cartoon-illustrated book weaves in Sara’s story with activities that young readers can do in various sections of the SBG. Children are encouraged to use their senses in activities such as smelling flowers or touching tree barks in solving clues in a treasure hunt. They can also draw what they see in the SBG in the book. The book is designed to arouse children’s inquisitive minds about plants and nature, so that they learn while enjoying the outdoors. Many teachers, especially those from kindergartens and lower primary schools, have been trained to use this activity book.

Recently, a series of parenting workshops was organised with a private concern. The objective was to show parents the possibilities of using the outreach programmes, such as nature tours, as healthy and meaningful avenues to spend quality time with their children. Feedback from participating parents was positive.

Future Directions and Challenges

At the SBG, the foundation for public education has been laid. Participation rate has gone up over the years (see Tables 1 and 2). The future looks promising.

As the scope of the Garden’s outreach education expands and becomes more diversified, it will need to look beyond the traditional core of trainers and guides, i.e. in-house researchers and horticulturists, to deliver the programmes. The Garden will need to meet growing personpower requirements as well as provide the required depth and breadth of expertise. Tertiary institutions, gardening and landscaping societies and the private sector will be increasingly tapped for quality trainers. The service of volunteers and the setting up of a ‘Friends of the Gardens’ society are being considered in order to expand the personpower pool that we can draw upon.

The SBG’s public education programmes are mostly run on a cost-recovery basis. Mindful of ever rising staff and material costs, it is necessary for us to seek sponsorships so as to keep fees at an affordable level or a level deemed equitable by the public. With sound economic growth, corporations are forthcoming with funding for community projects, of which our public education programme is representative. Every effort will be made to strengthen partnerships with the private sector.

The SBG’s S$51 million redevelopment plan is in full swing. As new developments such as the National Orchid Garden, Children’s Garden, Sun Rockery and Eco-Lake come on-line, new educational programmes will be developed around them to maximize their value to visitors.

Table 1 Numbers of course participants in 1993/96

Year Adult courses
Childrens’ courses
FY 1993/94 1141 66
FY 1994/95 1488 680
FY 1995/96 1840 965

Table 2 Class participant-hours in 1993/96

Year Adult courses Childrens’ courses
FY 1993/94 2880 55
FY 1994/95 3335 760
FY 1995/96 3863 1248


The SBG’s public education programme will be judged by its ability to convey its intent and services to the community relative to people’s needs. In order to sustain public support, increase participation and be successful, the Garden must be proactive, relevant and innovative.