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Botanica: Simulation as One Model for Education for Sustainability in Botanic Gardens

Contributed by Peter Batty, Education Development Unit, St Martin’s College, Ambleside LA22 9BB, U.K., and Susan Baughan, Support for Education in Environment and Development (SEED), Leicester University Botanic Garden, Stoughton Drive South, Leicester LE2 2NE, U.K.


Botanica is an exciting approach to using the botanic garden as a resource for learning in the widest sense. It involves creating a scenario within the garden and inviting participants to step into the minds of the people concerned; seeing life as they would see it, interacting with others from their perspective, tackling issues from their viewpoint.

Imagine this: in one area of the garden a group of eleven year olds is busy building a shanty town from cardboard boxes and old tarpaulins. An argument breaks out between two of them and a journalist from the Botanica Daily Record about the way the newspaper handled some recent interviews with members of their community concerning the government’s resettlement plans for them. Meanwhile, over by the pond, a group of scientists from the Botanica Institute of Scientific Research is collecting species to identify and illustrate in the new edition of the Flora and Fauna of Botanica. Colleagues of theirs are in the seed store sorting seeds of rare plant species from Botanica to send to sister research institutes around the world.

At the other end of the garden a small group of traditional herbalists prepare herbal remedies to sell at market, while on the cut flower plantations (on land where locals used to have their own small subsistence farms) the workers are busy spraying the crops under the eagle eye of their supervisor. A deputation from World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) arrives and is horrified to see the workers handling strong chemical pesticide with no protective clothing while their boss is fully kitted out. There is a heated exchange.

At 10.30 a queue of citizens forms outside the offices of Botanica State Security (BoSS) to ensure that their identity cards are stamped on time.

Botanicans going about their daily business…

At 12.00 Radio Botanica broadcasts an interview with the President about the country’s bid to host the World Cup in 2010. It is a knotty issue: Should Botanica tender for the contract – or should it leave the World Cup well alone? Will being host country help to accelerate appropriate development in Botanica – or simply put money into the pockets of a few, at vast social and environmental cost to the majority? The interview is broadcast live across the garden on a network of loudspeakers. FIFA representatives being entertained regally by the Ministry of Special Events, with the help of the Botanica Catering Corporation, lend a keen ear.

The next day at school the representative committee will meet to determine the people’s verdict: whether to support their government’s bid or vote against…

How Botanica Started

SEED (Support for Education in Environment and Development) is the education arm of the Leicester University Botanic Garden. Over the years, SEED has developed a number of core programmes (the Whole World Cake Treasure Hunt and the Global Christmas Pudding for instance) for pupils, teachers and parents as learners. The programmes provide the opportunity for fun through interactive learning experiences that challenge those who are new to the garden; young people and adults alike.

Our next step has been to design a programme for garden veterans; we wanted to build on their previous learning experiences at the garden, in a way that not only inspired the children and taught them more about environmental and development issues, but took them further and actively engaged them in grappling with the issues themselves. Simulation seemed a possible way of doing this. Not only does it provide a forum where participants are forced to consider issues from different perspectives, which may differ radically from their own, but it also enables them to practise, use and sometimes acquire the skills necessary for tackling similar issues in real life.

When SEED was approached by an education officer organising a day’s event to develop the problem solving, decision making and team working skills of Year 10 participants, it was seen as the perfect opportunity to move this idea forward. One thing led to another and over the course of a year we devised and ran two major simulation exercises, Special Report and World Cup Twenty Ten, as well as a workshop for teachers and educators based in botanic gardens. These collectively have come to be referred to as the Botanica project.

The Botanica Project

Special Report was initially designed to support learning within the Leicester Vocational Framework for Key Stage 4 students at Fulhurst Community College. When it was piloted in September 1998, we invited a range of professionals and volunteers to become involved, including teachers, youth and community workers and gardeners, to work alongside the group of thirty two 14-15 year olds. Feedback from all participants strongly reinforced our belief in its potential as a rich and flexible educational experience and we sought new opportunities to develop it.

We approached the Year 6 teacher team at Folville Junior School, a school that used the Whole World Cake Treasure Hunt as an integral part of its curriculum for Year 3. Their initial response was interest tinged with apprehension, especially as the school was awaiting notification of the date of their inspection and was also still finding ways to cope after the tragic death of their head teacher. However, their commitment to developing interesting ways of working with children and their previous positive experiences of the project enabled them to agree to be involved.

With World Cup Twenty Ten we sought to build on the lessons of our first attempt. It differed from Special Report in a number of ways including the greater involvement of teachers in the initial planning process. At each stage ideas were brain stormed and checked out at teacher meetings. Students involved in Special Report had said that it would have been better if they had been more prepared before the day itself and we felt we must incorporate a considerable preparation period for the children into the programme. We also wanted to give those Year 10 students who had expressed a wish to do a similar thing again a chance to be involved. This fitted in well with one of the aims of a participating teacher, which was to help prepare Year 6 children, most of whom would actually be moving on to Fulhurst in the Autumn, for transfer to secondary school. The other main aims of the programme were to:

  • provide an opportunity for the whole of Year 6 to work together in developing a range of life skills, and to feed into a number of curriculum areas in particular the Key Stage 2 Geography curriculum (a locality study in a developing country);
  • develop the simulation approach to using the botanic garden as an educational resource in Leicester for a wide range of pupils and in collaboration with local community organisations/ agencies.

So World Cup Twenty Ten was devised and designed to bring together the entire Year 6 group of about 100 pupils from Folville with a variety of other participants, including volunteers from Year 10 in Fulhurst, in order to work through and resolve a complex development issue.

Because of the intentionally open ended nature of the approach, we expected there to be a wide range of outcomes for individuals and groups that we could not anticipate. Specifically, however, what we hoped the exercise could help to achieve was:


  • an increased self-awareness, awareness of others and greater confidence;
  • an understanding of the importance of process (how you do things as distinct from what you do) and improved process skills, including communication, team-working, organisation, decision making;
  • a better understanding of development and environmental issues and aspects of global citizenship; and
  • a renewed awareness and appreciation of the botanic garden.

for the SCHOOL:

  • an enhancement of National Curriculum work on Place and Thematic Studies in Key Stage 2 geography;
  • an exciting mechanism for delivering personal and social education; and
  • better liaison with a local high school.

for SEED was:

  • the development of a programme which could be offered to other groups; and
  • an enhanced local profile and an extended network of voluntary and professional supporters.


If our aim was to have an impact on the attitudes of learners as well as to contribute to the development of the skills and knowledge they need for global citizenship and environmental sustainability: How successful were we? What difference did we make?

We argue that it is impossible to be conclusive in pin pointing specific connections between the Botanica experience and long term learning except on an indicative, anecdotal or impressionistic level. Our belief is that the complexity of the learning process in the human brain puts building an empirical case beyond our capability. One person might conclude (as he did) I didn't learn anything but I had a good day, whilst the next asserts, of the same programme, I learned to be responsible, to be independent and to manage time sensibly.

Who is to say that two weeks, two months, twenty years down the line, the fun element of Botanica will not have provided a trigger for specific development; or even a platform for fundamental change, in the former; or that the latter goes on to lead a life in which dependence on others features significantly, in spite of perceived immediate learning? Yet Botanica in any of its forms represents a serious investment of time, energy and other resources and we also believe we need to be accountable for this. If we are unable to claim, with confidence, that indeed the experience does, or at least CAN, make a significant difference, our conclusion has to be: think again.

So, how did we resolve the dilemma? The key for us was to resist the call of a summative approach to evaluation and throw our lot in with a formative style that was integrated into our thinking and planning as well as our management of the exercise itself. The main thrust of Botanica is an attempt to help young people and others to become reflective, responsible global citizens. So what we did was to try to build and exploit a framework for thinking about learning into the process itself. We did this in a variety of ways, not always systematically. For example:

  • We took care to clarify and agree what the exercise was about (its aim and intended outcomes) in advance, to communicate these appropriately to all involved and to use them as a point of reference for planning and reflection.

We knew we were only partially successful with this; the logistics of briefing all adult helpers, for example, meant that a good number came to their first contact session with little concept of what they had let themselves in for; and with both sets of pupils we were heavily dependent on teacher colleagues to interpret and reinforce the purpose and connectedness of the exercise following our initial briefings and we were unable to monitor the consistency or effectiveness of this process.

  • We encouraged the children to reflect on key concepts and their own skills and personal qualities before their involvement in the exercise as well as after it was completed, and provided a simple framework for doing this in the shape of a Concept Map and Skills/Talent Audit.

For example, Kirklun's conceptual expectation of Botancia as a developing country was to find that ‘…there will be fighting and unfairness, cruelty to people who live on the streets and a lot of arguing’. Her experience was that ‘…there was arguing, there was unfairness, there wasn't fighting and not as much cruelty as I thought’. In terms of skills, Tiffany, before the event thought she was ‘…not at all good’ at asking questions to help or get information whereas after it she rated herself ‘very good’ at the skill. By contrast, with regard to looking after and spending other people's money, beforehand she thought she was ‘quite good’ but afterwards she rated herself as ‘not very good’.

Are these examples shallow or profound? Are they indicative of serious thought or simply trite responses to another worksheet? What do they mean? And do answers to these questions matter, or miss the point?

Communicating with others about both actual life experience in Botanica and opinions about that life experience was built into the process at a number of levels, both within role and outside it, including:

  • small group presentations to the whole group as part of the initial briefing;
  • negotiating, selling, canvassing, interviewing, debating, report writing and other associated skills as essential elements in different roles;
  • consensus building within groups and the delegation of responsibility to a group representative to ensure the group view was properly taken forward
  • the opportunity to vote on the outcome both in role but also out of role
  • involvement in group reporting on the activity after completion.

Of course individual access to, and take up of, such opportunities varied widely, according to motivation and ability; we cannot begin, nor would we presume, to quantify or gauge the extent of impact in these areas.

We encouraged all helpers, and in particular the older students, to think about and articulate what they hoped younger pupils would gain from the experience as well as their own learning from it. Their aspirations for the young generation ranged from: ‘respecting the environment around us’ and ‘learning about all aspects involved with arranging a major event like the World Cup and how it affects people as well as the environment’ to ‘becoming more confident and learning to cooperate with others’, ‘learning a lot about themselves and about other people’, ‘communicating with others’, ‘enjoying working in a team’, ‘learning how to do good timekeeping and to organise themselves’ and ‘just enjoying it’.

In retrospect helpers were able to provide plentiful examples of all these things going on during the exercise. The extent to which the examples provide evidence of learning is much less clear however. Furthermore, many of the individual evaluative comments beg more questions than they answer. For example, take a statement like ‘It could have been fun if there weren't so many rules about travelling’ (e.g. not enough tickets or money). Does this mean that red tape got in the way of enjoyment? that there weren't sufficient resources to do the job? or that individuals or the group did not make best use of the resources available?

And once you have established the meaning: What is the range of learning that can be drawn out? that the importance of the rule itself is variable and questionable? that life can be unfair in terms of the distribution of resources? that ‘doing the job’ may need defining in relation to the resources available? What are the implications for further learning and teaching?


The other major strand of evaluation concerns our own learning based on the feedback of participants as observers as well as on our personal reflection. Although in general the feedback has been very positive from all those who have been involved, constructive criticism has focused on a number of aspects, only some of which we were able to address in planning the second major event. The most important of these concern:

Planning: getting the balance between enough detail and too much detail is significant, even if it is hard to judge.

Implementation: the critical importance of clear briefing as well as of providing adequate space and support for induction into the experience. Too much information to assimilate at one go is off putting, especially if the approach itself is new to participants.

Resourcing: particularly in terms of the human resource, this is a very intensive approach. There needs to be a high level of commitment at school level combined with a vision of the event as integral to the school's curriculum rather than something discrete or additional to it.

Application: off the shelf versions will not work. There are many ways in which people interested in the approach can be saved time and energy by the experience and ideas of others. However, ultimately each event is a special event that needs customising according to the needs of the moment and the resources available at the time.

That said, we are greatly encouraged by the experience to date, summed up no better than in the words of one of our volunteer helpers:

"It was brought home to me that those children really are our future and they need to know what the real world is like. This exercise showed them in a kind way that things are not always what they seem, or for that matter, what we want. To make things better we have to work together".

As a result, our intention is to take the project forward in three ways:

  1. by networking activity with others who have experience of the approach or who wish to develop it;
  2. by piloting the approach further in a variety of ways; and
  3. by writing it up in a generic handbook supported by case studies and actual material on a website for anyone interested to access or add to as appropriate.