Developing an Environmental Education Strategy for Botanic Gardens

Julia Willison

Botanic Gardens Conservation International,
Descanso House, 199 Kew Road,
Richmond, Surrey TW9 3BW,


Botanic gardens hold the trump card when it comes to environmental education. But how can they use this card to their own and their public's best advantage? This paper presents the rationale behind the first draft of the BGCI education strategy.

The aims of the strategy are to:

This paper presents a draft of the strategy. It acknowledges the enormous task facing botanic gardens in educating the public about conservation. It argues that more resources need to be allocated to education, both from inside and outside the garden.

Introducing an education strategy

Strategy. I am very pleased to be given the opportunity to talk about the first draft of the BGCI Environmental Education

How importantly do botanic gardens view education now?

We have gathered here today representatives from botanic gardens all over the world and I thought it would be interesting to start off by doing a quick survey among ourselves:

Well it is interesting because there seems to be a sharp contrast between what we feel about education and what we are actually doing.

Just to give a quick overview of the present education situation in botanic gardens. There are currently about 1600 botanic gardens and arboreta in the world. Of these about 34% run an education programme. This includes all botanic gardens that run education programmes for university students. If we look at the numbers of botanic gardens and arboreta that run education programmes for the general public and not university students (tours, teacher training, school programmes) the number drops drastically to around 6%. You can see that we have got a long way to go. We agree that education is important but we are not doing enough about it.

So why do botanic gardens need to be involved in education?

To begin with, botanic gardens are at the forefront of conservation. They are the only institutions in the world with the mandate of saving wild plant species. No other organisations have this immense responsibility. Over the last couple of days we have heard the extent to which botanic gardens are involved in conservation. Their existence is vital for the conservation of plants. So we have something unique to teach.

To exist, botanic gardens need funding. So who funds them? The public, the government, the private sector? How does a botanic garden justify its existence? Especially when there are so many other worthy projects to fund ­ crocodile research and trade control, effects of deforestation on chewing gum, effects of selective logging on mammals. If your funders do not know what you are doing or why what you are doing is important, then why should they fund you? We live in a competitive world and it is a sad fact that only a few of the hundreds of worthy projects ever find funding.

Basically, it does not matter how wonderful and important your message is - unless you get it across to those people who hold the purse-strings you may as well be whistling in the wind.

We also need to show the local community that their botanic garden is a valuable resource, and one way of doing this is by running education programmes. If people can come into the gardens and learn about conservation then they will understand for themselves why the gardens are important and relevant to them. But education is a long-term process. Tomorrow's decision makers are today's children.

So education is important for the economic survival of the gardens.

So why else do botanic gardens need to be involved in education?

The state of our planet affects us all. It does not matter how wealthy you are, what religion you practise, or what colour you are. Plant conservation is everyone's concern. We are not mere observers witnessing the inevitable destruction of our planet. We are the key players in its future.

Our attitudes, our behaviour, the decisions that we make, affect the environment. The very fact that we have all travelled here by air and car has had an effect on the environment. In fact it is rather worrying to think that this presentation is probably worth an acre of rain-forest. I just hope that it is worthwhile.

To be responsible citizens, we need good clear information about the environment, and we need to examine many of our long-held attitudes and ways of behaving. The way we live needs to be in keeping with a future that is sustainable. The only way to achieve this is through education.

So botanic gardens clearly need to get involved in education if they want to survive and they want the planet to survive.

So what can botanic gardens offer in terms of education?

'Plants are boring': ­ an all-too-familiar cry from people who do not know much about plants. But consider the sheer diversity of plants that botanic gardens have and think about how plants touch every area of our lives ­ food, clothes, medicine, music, building, the air we breathe, even the water cycle. You can see that the scope for education is endless. Imagination is the only thing that limits what you can teach.

Botanic gardens are ideal places to teach people about:

Botanic gardens provide a wonderful opportunity for people to understand more about plants ­ where they come from, what they are for and why they are important. They give people a chance to see plants, not only from the country they live in, but also from other countries.

For many people living in urban environments, botanic gardens offer a window to nature. They are tremendous places to help people get in touch with the wonders of nature; to understand that everything is interdependent and that we are an integral part. Botanic gardens give people a chance to reclaim their unity with nature.

So we agree education is important and that there is a lot botanic gardens can offer for education, but:

How big is the task of education?

Developing an education programme is an enormous challenge for a botanic garden. So how do you start?

This question was one of the prime reasons for developing the BGCI Environmental Education Strategy. The Strategy will not provide botanic gardens with prescriptive answers, as every botanic garden is different. Rather it is intended to help botanic gardens focus on the issues they need to address to develop an effective education programme. The aim of the Strategy is to give help and guidelines for educators setting up education programmes.

To start with, botanic gardens need to develop an education plan that will fit into the overall garden strategy. So who should be involved in its development? Everyone who will be involved in education ­ the director, curator, education officer, gardeners, volunteers, local people. They all have different experiences and views on how the garden functions, and involving everyone is one of the ways to make sure the education programme will be a success.

So once you get everyone together what are you going to discuss?

What are the conservation messages of the botanic garden?

It is important that the education programme is delivering the same messages and this will, of course, vary from botanic garden to botanic garden depending on their circumstances. A botanic garden could, for instance, be concerned with conservation messages at different levels: local, national or international.

For example, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in Scotland has spent the last couple of years running a project on the Rainforest. Children spend a day at the Garden learning about how people of the Rainforest live and how importantly plants feature in their culture. The Rio de Janeiro Botanic Garden, on the other hand, has concentrated on an issue closer to home: the Atlantic Forest. It has developed an exhibition targeted at the general public.

It is really important for botanic gardens to examine what issues they want to address, to make sure the education programme fits in.

The Strategy helps botanic gardens to focus on their conservation messages, whether they are on a local, national or international scale. Through discussion botanic gardens will come to their own decisions about their priorities.

The messages that botanic gardens want to get across will have an affect on who their target audiences are. For example, several botanic gardens are concerned about the depletion of the soil and are therefore working with farmers to develop sustainable farming methods. This leads me on to look at:

Who are you going to educate?

Let us consider for a minute the number of people your botanic garden could reach if it were to develop its education programme. Multiply that by the number of botanic gardens represented here and you can see the enormous potential we have to influence millions of people. When you think about this we have every reason to be optimistic.

But let us not get carried away, the problem as always is that botanic gardens have limited resources and so will be unlikely to educate everyone. The Strategy asks botanic gardens to identify their priority groups in the local and wider community.

Botanic gardens need to decide how they will reach all their priority audience, even if this is at the expense of another audience. lt may be that the priority audience does not visit the botanic garden, in which case the garden will have to go to them.

let us consider a hypothetical town with a population of around a million people. Like most towns, there is one botanic garden with one education officer.

The botanic garden has decided to address one of its conservation messages to the under 15 year olds. Its aim is to reach all that audience in 3 years. That is half a million young people.

There are several ways in which the botanic garden could do this:

If we take the first option, the garden will have to receive about 16 groups per day ­ 560 children. The second option would mean that the education officer would have to visit 16 groups per day. And with the third option the garden would have to receive about 80 teachers per week. As you can see option 3 sounds more realistic.

Whichever way the garden chooses to reach its audience, there is a lot of work involved, leaving very little time for the educator to do preparation work or follow-up work, let alone educate any other group or do any other activity such as sign writing or making education packs etc.

Reaching all of one audience is a full-time job for one education officer. It is not reasonable to expect one education officer to reach every target audience. Botanic gardens need to be rigorous in their approach. There are different ways of targeting the education programme, but the important thing is to be clear about what your overall aims are. Botanic gardens need to decide whether they are going to concentrate on one section of the community, for example school groups, or whether they are going to try to run several programmes at the same time.

If education officers do work with a variety of audiences, botanic gardens still need to consider whether the education officer has the experience, knowledge and qualifications suitable to meet such a wide spectrum of needs.

Of course all botanic gardens will say: 'Yes, we want to target everyone but we cannot because we do not have the resources'. This is exactly the reason why it is so important to look at the resources you have got - the education staff, the collections, educational material, education budget, volunteers ­ and decide how you are going to use them most efficiently.

Having prioritised your conservation messages and your target groups and having assessed your garden's facilities, it is time to be thinking about what you can teach and how you are going to get your message across.

But before you do, it is worth thinking about whether you want the target group to do anything as a result of your programme.

Botanic gardens are excellent at providing information to people either in leaflets or on tours. This is great. We now need to think about what we want them to do with this information. Giving people information is just part of environmental education. We need to be in the business of changing attitudes, encouraging new behaviour and teaching new skills.

How do you learn to communicate, for example? Not by reading about it, but by actually doing it. How do you change your attitude about something? Again, not by reading about it but by being in a situation where your existing attitude is confronted and you have to evaluate it. This work is challenging and exciting and is at the heart of conservation.

What form is the education going to take?

This is the fun part. We can see the numerous ideas that botanic gardens come up with to get their message across ­ exhibitions, classes, courses, drama, posters. With all these activities going on, it does not take much to realise how important it is for botanic gardens to network with each other and other institutions ­ to share ideas and materials. This is emphasised in the Strategy, and several programmes have been included so that botanic gardens can take those ideas, use and adapt them.

As we develop education programmes, botanic gardens need to develop an effective way of monitoring them. One of the important functions of the proposed Strategy is to suggest ways in which this can be done. Evaluation is crucial for the development of an education programme: we need to make sure that our results are fed back into the network so we all learn from each other.

Once you have developed your programme, how are you going to publicise or market it?. Publicity can be used as a tool to get your conservation message across and is also important for the success of your programme. There is no point after all in spending months developing an exhibition which no one visits!

The Strategy helps botanic gardens to look at how they are going to advertise their work and suggests creative and inexpensive ways in which this can be done. Glimpsing at the amount botanic gardens need to discuss, I hope you will agree that we need to develop an environmental education strategy.

The Strategy is still in its infancy and begs input from botanic gardens. So far, we only have a first draft. This will be discussed at the education workshop to which you are all welcome to come. The final draft of this Strategy will be presented to the Congress on Education in Botanic Gardens, in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Spain next May. We want as many botanic garden educators as possible to come. Their input is vital to the success of the Strategy.

Over the last few years we have seen a real surge in enthusiasm by botanic gardens wanting to develop their education programmes. We want to embrace this enthusiasm and help botanic gardens use it as effectively as possible. A strength of botanic gardens lies in their ability to work together. We believe that through education, botanic gardens are a very powerful force for conservation.

Preface  |  Contents List  |  Congress Report  |  Workshop Conclusions  |  List of Authors