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Positive Visits for All Through Differentiation

Volume 3 Number 1 - April 2006

Cat Heale





All students learn in different ways.  By ensuring activities are differentiated - that is by offering a variety of ways in which children can achieve the same educational goal - the experience of a visit to a botanic garden will be enhanced for all and in particular for those with special needs.

The main considerations should be of forward planning, physical access, structuring of the visit, providing novelty and excitement, especially at the beginning of the visit, and the provision of a multi-sensory experience. This might include activities to embrace and enhance the senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. A positive and inclusive visit is then guaranteed for all children.


All students learn in different ways and if great care and thought can be put into practice, when thinking about children with special educational needs, the outcome of their visit to a botanic garden will be greatly enhanced.

No two children with special educational needs will share the same profile and all special needs are on a continuum from mild to severe. Some children may have a physical difference, for example they may have lost a limb or been born without sight or hearing, while other children may have specific learning difficulties, such as dyslexia (a learning difficulty which impacts on a learner's ability to read, write and count) or dyspraxia (a learning difficulty which impacts on a learner's ability to think out, plan and carry out sensory/motor tasks).   The most important thing to remember is that it is very often these learning differences that have provided them with their greatest traits of appreciation, sensitivity, artistic gifts and unique view of the world.  By introducing any new experience in a novel, structured, well thought out and multi-sensory way, these children can gain just as much as anybody else.

When children go on any excursion, it is always best to prepare both the child for the situation and the situation for the child.  On the physical side, for example, botanic gardens need to consider whether they can provide suitable access for children who rely on wheelchairs and whether facilities, such as cloakrooms, can be accessed by everyone.  Ideally, before a visit to a botanic garden, the education officer should discuss with the teachers or parents the special needs of the children who are visiting and what the botanic garden has to offer.  Equally the children should be prepared for their visit: maybe showing and explaining a map, giving them an idea of some of the things they might expect to see and do, and how plants need to be loved and respected.  It is important to remember that if a botanic garden educator is unable to have prior contact with a teacher bringing children to the garden, it is difficult for him or her to prepare a well integrated visit for all children, particularly for those with special needs. 

At the beginning of any visit, as with any good teaching practice, it is important to use novelty and excitement to engage the childrens' imagination and attention.  This is particularly important for children with special needs.  First stop might be to an extraordinary or fantastical plant that is in the botanic garden’s possession:  a plant that only flowers every 10 years, a passion flower where the reason for its naming could be explained, giant water-lilies or an early-morning ‘dew garden’.

If worksheets or quizzes are going to be offered, then consideration should be made as to whether the activities involved are truly multi-sensory; there might be different sections of plants to look for, noises to listen to, edible plants to taste, special plants to smell, tactile plants to touch, fallen leaves to collect and directions to an area where they can actually garden themselves.  Depending on the group, if some children find it difficult, for any reason, to write, other methods such as using a tape recorder, a camera or collecting box, could be used to record their visit.  Worksheets of differing ability could also be available.  The more structured and well organised a visit, the more likely is the chance of a successful and memorable day.

A tour of some of the fragrant plants could be a wonderful introduction to botanic gardens, or if it is not possible to take children to the plants then maybe a row of potted fragrant plants might be more accessible - some children would even enjoy being asked to close their eyes and guess the smells of plants. The same ideas of course could be applied to the senses of taste and touch.  When it comes to appreciating the noises to be heard in a botanic garden, thought could be given to the addition of various kinds of wind chimes, a water feature, exotic sounding birds and even the sound of wind in ornamental grasses.

The end of a trip to the botanic garden could include the experience of ‘real’ gardening -  there is nothing as therapeutic as getting one’s hands dirty and covered in earth. There could be a small garden laid out, in raised beds, with continuing projects for the children to work on, or if that is not feasible, then the children could plant their own seeds or bulb in a pot to take away with them. The importance of using all our senses cannot be underestimated.  The educationist, Edgar Dale, through his research developed the 'cone of learning' which illustrated that we only remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear and 30% of what we see; but we remember 90% of what we say and do! 

Botanic gardens are the perfect place to engage children in the wonderful world of plants and as can be seen, by these simple suggestions: a few accommodations, a little advanced thought and detailed planning, can lead to a positive experience for all children; not just those with special needs.


Dale, E., 1969. Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching (3rd Edn.), Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Orlando, Florida, U.S.A.



Chaque étudiant apprend d’une manière différente. En s’assurant que les activités sont variées, c’est-à-dire en offrant aux enfants différentes façons d’atteindre le même objectif pédagogique, la visite d’un jardin botanique sera améliorée pour tous et en particulier pour ceux qui ont des besoins spécifiques.

Les préoccupations principales doivent être la préparation, l’accès physique et l’organisation de la visite qui doit offrir nouveauté et sensations, surtout au début de la visite, et qui doit apporter une expérience multi-sensorielle. Celle-ci peut inclure des activités qui développent le sens de la vue, de l’ouïe, de l’odorat, du goût et du toucher. Une visite positive et généreuse est alors garantie pour tous les enfants.



Todos los estudiantes aprenden en diferentes formas. Para asegurar que las actividades sean diferenciadas, se tiene que ofrecer una diversidad de vias en las cuales los niños pueden alcanzar los mismos objetivos educativos, la experiencia de una visita al jardin botánico sera realzada por todos y en particular para todos aquellos con necesidades especiales. 

Las consideraciones principales deberian ser de planeación futura, acceso fisico, estructuración de la visita, proveyendo novedad y motivación, especialmente en el principio de la visita y la proporción de una experiencia mutisensorial. Esta podria incluir actividades para abarcar y resaltar los sentidos de la vista, oido, olor, sabor y tacto. Una visita positiva e inclusive es entonces garantizado para todos los niños.

Cat Heale
Visiting Lecturer in Special Educational Needs
Roehampton University
Erasmus House
Roehampton Lane
London SW15 5PU