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Working with Science, Games and Values in Environmental Education

Contributed by Camilla Djurberg, Naturens Hus, Bergius Botanic Garden, P.O. Box 50017, S-104 05 Stockholm, Sweden


Naturens Hus (Nature’s House) started its work in 1989 with the goal of developing people’s knowledge about, and feelings towards, nature and to engage people in working for a sustainable future. We hope that people will develop a stronger interest, increased consciousness and maybe change the way they value nature. Our main target group is the younger generation and others working with them such as teachers and their families. An important part of our work is to develop methods in environmental education. Naturens Hus also links everyday life and the continuous environmental research undertaken at Stockholm University, and other universities in Sweden. The activities offered to schools include pupil programmes in the botanic garden and the surrounding natural areas, teacher training courses, and the production of material such as a newsletter with information from scientists working with environmental issues. We are not only developing experimental and interactive activities, but also games and exercises that enhance children’s positive experiences with, and relation to, nature. Since 1997, Naturens Hus has formed part of the Bergius Botanic Garden in Stockholm at Stockholm University.

Bergius Botanic Garden

Bergius Botanic Garden dates back to the late sixteenth century. The two brothers, Peter Jonas Bergius and Bengt Bergius, wanted their garden to serve as a school for gardeners and horticultural experiments. Today, the Bergius Foundation still exists as a research institute and runs the Edvard Anderson Conservatory. There are over 9000 plant species from all over the world in the Bergius Botanic Garden, and as our pedagogic arena it enables us to offer the unique opportunity to help people study plants and understand their importance on earth: ecologically, systematically, and geographically. The garden contains a variety of trees and shrubs from northern Europe, Asia and America as well as flowerbeds with examples of Nordic flora. There are also Mediterranean perennials, rhododendrons, a Japanese garden, and the Victoria house with tropical plants, organic garden plots and a great deal more.

The Bergius Botanic Garden is situated on an inlet of the Baltic, and its undulating landscape provides attractive walks all year round. The garden lies in the heart of the National City Park, a big green area conserved for the future. The National City Park, located only 3 km from the city of Stockholm, has unique cultural and natural values and is an important place for our natural and environmental studies. In 1990, the Swedish Government decided that the botanic gardens needed economic support to work with information concerning environmental research.

Naturens Hus - Pedagogic Centre for Natural Science and Environmental Education

Our goal is to develop people’s knowledge about, and feelings towards, nature and engage people to work for a sustainable future. We believe that we have to focus on more than just knowledge. There are several other important steps that lead people to become engaged in environmental issues. Today environmental issues force people to make difficult choices and maybe change their way of living. It is therefore important to teach children about their own rights, and to ask critical questions. Working with values is also important, it makes people aware of themselves and what they do and think. It is difficult for people to care about nature if they don’t have any positive nature experiences, therefore we are working to develop people’s experiences by providing activities that involve simply walking and climbing as well as exercises and games.

Setting a good example is important and we try to have ongoing discussion about our role as adults. Learning by doing is a well-known theory and our students undertake practical environmental work including taking tests in the organic garden plots and investigating what their school consumes in energy consumption. We believe knowledge about biological processes such as decomposition, photosynthesis and pollination can make it easier for people to understand environmental problems and how they affect the earth. In our new project Experiment Garden, people can interact with these processes. We also think it is important for teachers and students to meet scientists working with environmental issues and we want to create a meeting place for the general public and experts.

Our Activities

Our education programme has many components:

Programmes for Children and Youth
We have different programmes and tours for pre-school to upper secondary school focusing on botany, environment, natural science etc.

Teacher Training Courses
In our teacher training courses we have teachers from pre-school to upper secondary school. Examples of courses include The Garden as a Pedagogic Arena; Environmental Issues; and Research and Knowledge about Natural Science. Every term we conduct two day ‘environmental days’, where teachers can meet scientists, get information about their research and receive educational tips.

Tours and Hikes
We have environmental tours in the garden where we demonstrate how we work with the environment. We also conduct hikes in and around the National City Park.

The newsletter is written for schools and contains current environmental research information, and educational tips for teachers that they can use in their classrooms.

Environmental Consultants
We provide support to schools and companies in their environmental work. We hold courses and develop special programmes as requested. We also coordinate a programme for schools who want to work with their own environment called Green-schools.

Ask Naturens Hus
We have a question box on the internet where we answer children’s questions about nature and the environment. Our aim is to create curiosity for the scientific world and the scientific way of thinking.

Outdoor Exhibitions
In the Bergius Botanic Garden, Naturens Hus develops and cares for the organic garden plots, flowering road edges and the wildlife garden. Here people who walk by can learn about organic gardening and organic food. Our new project, the Experiment Garden, is a hands-on garden with living plants. The goal is to promote an interest and an understanding of biological processes like decomposition, photosynthesis and pollination. In the future we plan to do a study to see if girls and boys interact differently in the Experiment Garden.

Using Games

Using games in education can enhance the visitor’s experience in nature and increase understanding. Games usually form part of our programmes. We work with two different kinds of games firstly sensitization games that try to bring the person closer to nature, stimulate observation, and add to their enjoyment of the place. Secondly there are knowledge games which also help to enhance observation skills but also lead the visitor to deduce and form opinions on issues. We have been cooperating with an education project in Argentina and some of the games we use originate from that project.

Life Net
This is a game that aims to increase comprehension about food chains; how plants, animals and humans are interconnected; and how all life depends on the sun’s energy.

The group forms itself into a circle around the Leader, who has a ball of string in his/her hand. The Leader asks some questions to the group e.g. ‘What provides life with energy?’ Someone may answer ‘The Sun’, and that person takes the end of the string and represents the Sun – the source of energy. The Leader asks the group ‘Who uses the energy from the sun to make food?’ A child that responds with a type of plant, for example, is given the ball of string by the Sun, a line of energy. The Leader then asks the group ‘Who eats plants to gain energy?’ A child that responds correctly is then passed energy from the ‘plant’ in the form of string. The string starts to unwind as it gets passed around the group when the others in the circle say they are different plants and animals. As more children become involved an intricate web of energy is formed. When all the children are connected by the string the Leader then introduces environmental issues for example ‘What will happen if one of the plants or animals die?’, ‘Will the life net fall apart?’, ‘What would happen if a pesticide was sprayed into our ecosystem?’. Those that would be effected directly fall down and those that feel a tug on their energy line also fall down, as they too would be affected. The only person left standing is the Sun showing that everything is interdependent. Through this activity children begin to observe the interdependency of our ecosystem.

Life Pyramid
This game illustrates the different links in the food chain and their importance in the ecosystem. The participants are asked to be a plant or an animal, they then start to build a living pyramid using their own bodies. The ‘producers’ have to stand on their hands and knees, the ‘consumers’ on top of them and so on. When the participants decide upon which organism they will play there usually ends up being more carnivores. This means the pyramid can’t be built so the group needs to start the activity again with more people choosing to be plants. This gives participants an understanding that there has to be more producers than consumers to have a balanced ecosystem.

Pablo´s Watergame
This game provokes thought about the world’s natural resources. The participants divide themselves into small groups and the Leader places a bucket in the middle of the groups to symbolise water flowing from the tap. Each group has a bucket and something to transport water with.. There can also be a full bucket of water symbolising the world’s water resources. The Leader asks one group to fetch water from the central source using cans, the other to fetch the water using straws and a third group using a broken can and so on. In a limited time the participants try to carry as much water as they can to their own buckets, trying not to spill any. At the end of the game the Leader poses some questions: ‘Which group has more water?’ ‘How much water did the group waste on their way to their bucket?’; ‘Did everybody have an equal chance of getting the water?’ (This game was developed by Pablo Stefano, Fundación Proyecto Pereyra, Argentina).

The Photograph Game
This game develops participant’s perception of nature’s elements. Two people work together. One person closes his/her eyes and pretends to be the camera, the other person is the photographer. The photographer leads the camera to a motif in nature, for example a beautiful view, a tree, or a rock. The photographer takes the picture by carefully pulling the camera’s ears, then the camera opens his/her eyes for a short time, saving that image in his/her memory. The photographer leads the camera away from the area where they took the photo and then asks the camera to find the spot where they took the photo. There can be several variations to this activity, for example children who pretended to be the camera could draw the image that they took a photo of.

Working with Values

People’s values make them aware of themselves and what they think about different issues. These exercises also make people aware of how they are influenced by society, school and parents.

The ‘Hot’ Chair
The aim of this exercise is to challenge people’s values; it forces people to develop an opinion on difficult issues. There are some important points to communicate to participants: ‘nothing is right or wrong’, ‘we don’t value each other’, ‘don’t think to long - act quickly’. The Leader presents some statements and the participants are asked to move when they hear something they agree with, and to sit down when they don’t agree. ‘I want to drive a car’; ‘I want to travel around the world’; everyone starts moving. ‘I want to stop eating meat’; most of the group stays still. ‘I want to ban genetically modified food’; the group starts moving again. The Leader can finish the activity by facilitating a discussion on people’s values.

Four Corners
This exercise makes people think about who in society has the responsibility for environmental problems and it can be conducted in a classroom. Each corner of the classroom is labelled as either industry, politicians, households or shops. The Leader asks the participants a series of questions, for example ‘Who do you think has the responsibility for products in the store which can damage the environment?’. The participants decide on one of four possibilities: industry, politicians, households or shops. When they have decided they go to one of the corners that corresponds to their opinion. The Leader can finish the activity by facilitating a discussion on who has primary responsibility for certain environmental problems in society.

Working with Science

Knowledge through experience is important in our work. We try to work like scientists; explorationally and experimentally. We try not to use too many complicated measuring instruments or expensive materials so that teachers can use our methods in their own classrooms, therefore we try to use things from everyday life. Below are examples of some of our different programmes.

The Closed Ecosystem
One of our activities is the Closed Ecosystem - Nature in a Jar. This activity involves taking a green plant with its roots and soil; putting it in a jar and closing the lid forever. This stimulates lots of questions: ‘Where does the water come from?’, ‘Will the plants die from starvation?,’ ‘Will the oxygen run out?’. The children start to explore the water cycle, how plants can absorb sun light etc, they do their own research to find the answers. We want the children to increase their understanding about the biological cycles in nature. After this activity they can continue to develop their understanding of how different toxic substances poison our earth and how the green house effect is affected.

From the Cradle to the Grave
The aim of this activity is to develop an understanding of which natural resources we use, if they are reusable or if they can be depleted and if we can put the resources back into the ecosystem again.

The pupils start the activity by looking at different products and trying to find out what they are made of, and from which natural resource they originate. They then consider what happens with the product after they have used it. The children also sort different garbage and assess its origin and they finish the activity by making their own art using some of the garbage and making paper and compost.

Food, Environment and Social Justice
This activity aims to enhance the participant’s consciousness concerning the production of food. It involves distributing different types of food amongst the group, e.g. a packet of biscuits or a piece of fruit or a vegetable. Participants are then asked to think of where the food comes from and how was it produced - conventional verses organic. If the vegetables are grown conventionally, they are asked to consider whether it is socially justified that people should live in areas where they use a lot of pesticides. To end the activity the participants are taken to the Victoria House where they can see many of the tropical plants that provide us with food. Undertaking soil and water tests in our organic garden plots is also part of the programme.