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Does a Visit to the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens Affect School Children's Environmental Awareness?

Contributed by Mary South, The Sir Harold Hillier Gardens and Arboretum, Jermyns Lane, Ampfield, Romsey, SO50 6AN, U.K.

The Context

The Sir Harold Hillier Gardens and Arboretum (SHHGA), like many national and international sites, provides an educational service for schools. The importance of these sites as environmental educators is highlighted in the document Caring for the Earth (IUCN, UNEP and WWF 1991), which specifically cites some of the key institutions for spreading environmental information as:

museums, zoos, botanic gardens and national parks. These are especially effective because people choose to go there and expect to learn.
(IUCN, UNEP and WWF 1991)

Like the SHHGA, many will link their programme to various aspects of their national schools' curriculum, but direct assessment of any resultant influence on the children involved in a visit to a site seems to be limited or non-existent.

The Garden Schools Programme

The garden provides a broad programme of topics all linked to the statutory requirements of the U.K. National Curriculum, and it is this link-up which appears to be the main reason for teachers' support of the programme. It operates a programme of tailor-made activities for every class i.e. all schools have their own individual day plan led and organised by the SHHGA education staff. The garden has a ‘no worksheets’ policy, believing these to be a hindrance rather than an aid to positive learning.

The Need for Programmes with Impact

Since the 1992 United Nations Commission on the Environment and Development (UNCED) summit, governments have continued to reiterate their commitment to environmental education, ostensibly seeing it as of paramount importance as the means towards a sustainable future.

Clearly environmental education far transcends the boundaries of formal education. Work in the field as well as the classroom, bringing in local communities, is an essential part of the process from nursery and primary schools upward.
(British Government Panel on Sustainable Development 1995)

Education is a central means of furthering the Government's commitment to sustainable development. Education can give people that capacity to address environmental issues, which is vital to achieving a sustainable society.
(Government Strategy for Environmental Education 1996)

A great deal of information and advice has been given to schools on the best methods to address environmental education. However, the greatest part of children's social learning will take place outside the school environment. A fact which has direct relevance for educators working in sites outside the school environment which are more likely to be linked with recreation and leisure. This places an even greater pressure upon environmental sites to maximise the effects of a school visit upon the participants.

Teachers are always quick to say how well their needs are fulfilled; but are these the real needs of the children? How much impact can just a few hours make? Has the environmental awareness of the class really been increased? How do you devise a suitable method to evaluate the immediate impact of a visit lasting just a few hours prior to later classroom intervention, by the teacher?

The possibility of devising a method for a simple assessment procedure which would not impinge upon the planned programme could be of value to educators at other sites, giving them a tool to assess their own programmes. This in no way would be a comparative measure between sites, but merely a comparison for each individual site and its own programme of topics.

Palmer and Suggate (1996) investigated early life experiences which produced a lasting effect and direct influence on environmental educators attitudes, subsequently affecting their career choice. Significant amongst these influences was the effect of outdoor experiences during childhood. The on-site environmental educator therefore, already has a good beginning.

At a time when schooling is being restructured to make it better serve the economic and cultural needs of capital, teachers deserve a more realistic theory if they are to practise and defend education FOR the environment.
(Huckle 1992)

More recent research (Palmer and Cooper, in press) recorded only 13% of respondents making reference to formal education as being the most important influence on their attitudes towards the environment. ‘…the influence of structured programmes is certainly not as prominent as perhaps it ought to or could be…experiences in other domains have had far greater influence upon their [people's] relationship with the environment…’ (Palmer 1997). Taking these factors into consideration, it would seem to be dangerous for any site to rely wholly on judging its effectiveness by the reactions of visiting teachers. Some means of evaluating their own methods and approach are imperative.

The Method

One of the most commonly used activities in the SHHGA's EE programme is the Leaf Slide (Pearce 1990). Its versatility ensures its use in virtually all school's programmes. This offered the possibility to produce a breakdown of its use as a teaching tool. The Leaf Slide Activity uses a simple piece of equipment referred to by SHHGA personnel as either a Leaf Slide or a Leaf Window. The second term is used with younger children doing the activity.

Each child collects a leaf, or an assortment of leaves, according to various criteria e.g. shape or colour. Each leaf in turn, is placed between the two halves of the slide frame, covering the 'window'. Holding the two parts tightly together, so ensuring the leaf is flat, the slide is held up to the light. This has the effect of throwing the veins into sharp relief. In summer, using freshly picked green leaves, these are translucent due to the water content; autumn leaves collected from the ground, still demonstrate venation but appear as a darker network against a variety of autumn colours. This activity can be used in a number of contexts and programmes:

  1. leaf shape and form
  2. distribution patterns
  3. discussion of a plant's water needs
  4. photosynthesis
  5. classification and keys (venation is used as a characteristic, including parallel veins for linear leaves)
  6. colour comparisons (used in conjunction with maths)
  7. listening
  8. talking and describing
  9. stimulation for imagination and creativity

Its great advantages are:

  • simplicity, which means it can be used with a wide range of pupils ages and abilities
  • versatility, making it an integral part of many SHHGA topic programmes.

A portion of a large number of programmes contains the Leaf Slide activity. By examining a number of leaves it is hoped that the children's view of leaves and their significance within the environment will be expanded. Therefore, the children's concept of a leaf was decided on as the basis for measuring the development of their environmental awareness.

But what is understood by environmental awareness?

How is Environmental Awareness Understood?

Class teachers completing a questionnaire for SHHGA education service, all recorded environmental awareness as one of their main objectives for visiting the site. But what is the teachers' understanding of the term 'environmental awareness'?

There seems to be two equally valid interpretations of environmental awareness:

  1. what may be termed the superficial consciousness of the immediate surroundings or environment; and
  2. in-depth understanding and insight of the environment. This may be linked to an individual's relationship with the environment (Posch 1988 cited in Elliott 1991).

Are Children Aware of the Natural Environment?

Palmer, Suggate and Matthews (1996) recorded that pre-school children have already learned much, including misconceptions, about the environment. Their research showed that misconceptions could be maintained and reinforced during the first two years at school. Whether the knowledge is accurate or not, these findings indicate children's interest in the natural world.

American research examined children's reactions to vegetation and came to the conclusion that it suffered from invisibility (Harvey 1989; Moore 1986; Schneekloth 1989; Simmons 1994). Children could visit a forest, but see nothing. The plants there were not perceived as a living community of value in its own right.

During the second phase of research the emphasis moved away from language and questioning; instead they asked for drawings about the outdoor experience. Here the role of vegetation became much greater and more important for the participants. Plants now assumed an integral part of the environment and talking about the drawings brought many more experiences and observations to light. Similarly Moore (1986) remarks on the richness of children's drawings of their environment, compared with the paucity of their verbal expression.

So what Features of Plants are of Importance to Children? What does make them Worthy of Note?

Tunnicliffe (pers.comm 1998) has been examining children's perception of plants. Assessment of the feature most commonly used to identify the plants and the source of the children's knowledge was the flower and leaves. These were not readily considered means of identification for a plant, despite their predominance as a plant characteristic.

Taking into consideration the lack of interest shown by children for plants in general and leaves in particular, the value of a school visit to the SHHGA must be called into question. Therefore, the following hypothesis was formed: A visit to the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens and Arboretum has no significant effect on the environmental awareness of schoolchildren.

Draw a leaf test
A way of testing this hypothesis was devised by drawing upon a number of sources. Some of these were from educational psychology testing methods, where subjects were given little time to consider what might be considered an appropriate response for a task; and the use of drawings or pictures in assessing individual children's attitudes was another technique used.

From Joicey's (1986) reference to children's stereotyped drawings of objects, it seemed reasonable to assume that in a short time allocation, children would be more likely to draw a stereotype object than an atypical example. Therefore, if that stereotype could be altered, through the Leaf Slide Activity and general observations, this could be an indication of improved environmental awareness.

The test procedure involved the site educator for each class asking its members to make a drawing of a leaf at the beginning of a visit and again, just prior to departure. The collection of data from the entire class took no longer than a maximum of five minutes each time. The children were all hurried along as quickly as possible, to give as immediate a reaction as possible. The pieces of paper used were all the same size and provided by the tester on both occasions. The drawings were assessed as stereotyped or not according to outline and approximate proportions. All drawings were produced anonymously to prevent the children feeling any pressure to draw a 'better' leaf or one different from their original effort.

A control series of tests was carried out using all the pupils at a local school to find out whether there were any measurable sensitising effects caused by the actual drawing itself. The classes were asked to draw a leaf at the beginning, and end, of a normal school day.

The Results

The study revealed that there was an increase in the percentage of atypical leaves in the second set of drawings for all classes. In contrast the control group showed no such variation at all. Thus it may be argued that the act of making a drawing at the beginning of the day does not significantly influence the children's drawings at the end of the day. Therefore any difference may be due to the visit to the SHHGA.

The results were analysed using the chi squared statistical method for significance for a divided sample. These results were used in two ways:

  1. as the intended significance test
  2. as a numerical comparison between different groups

The chi-squared values were compared with a number of other factors:

  • pupils' ages
  • school location
  • botanical content of the visit
  • school grounds.

Statistical Analysis

The use of percentage values as a comparison between classes was considered to be an unsatisfactory technique since this would not involve comparing like and like; class size will have a considerable effect on the percentage values e.g. a difference of one will have a much greater statistical impact on a small class than a large one. The use of the chi-squared (X²) divided sample test was considered more suitable. This test makes a direct comparison of changes which may be expected to occur due to probability and those observed. Extreme deviations can therefore be assessed for their significant variance from the expected, most probable deviation. Each class of children could then be assessed on this scale and direct comparisons between different classes and different schools, could be more accurately made.

A series of cells, based on the leaf drawing results, was established for each class.

Day plans were graded according to their botanical content, on an increasing scale 1-5. Each school was asked about their own school grounds and the school's location. Four general descriptive areas were eventually used:

  1. Inner City - centrally placed within an urban context, with little or no access to any natural or artificial environmental sites, including gardens at home.
  2. Urban - placed within an urban area, but with opportunities to see something natural within the local landscape.
  3. Suburban - situated as part of housing developments, either long established or relatively new, with gardens and recreation grounds relatively nearby.
  4. Rural - village schools within local community, local environment of wood and farmland.

School grounds were crudely graded according to the presence or absence of five criteria: school field, pond, wildlife area, seats for children and children's gardens.

Using the results from the various observations and the chi-squared analysis a series of comparative graphs was produced (Figure 1). Examination of the graphs indicates the following trends:

Pupil’s Ages
The age of the children visiting the garden is a key factor to the impact that the visit makes. Those apparently gaining the greatest benefit being within the age group 7-9 years. Comparing this with Palmer, Suggate and Matthew’s (1996) findings, the inference has to be that at this age they have gained sufficient basic concepts to act as a comparison for new experiences and observations.

Similarly impact on the lower age groups (5-7 years) does not appear to be significant. It is suggested that this is due not to lack of impact entirely, but other considerations e.g. development of motor skills and/or basic concepts or mis-concepts. Although Palmer suggests that pre-school children already have a large body of knowledge about the environment, it may be the mis-concepts concepts she highlights, that are not yet firmly enough understood to act as a comparison for other experiences.

Social Factors
The location of the school and therefore, by inference, its sociological make-up appears to have had some effect on how much impact the visit to the SHHGA made on the children. Inner city and suburban children apparently gaining most from a visit.

Botanical Content
As might be expected, this was a contributory factor to the results of the Draw a Leaf Test i.e. groups with high botanical content producing more significant results, than those without. However, this was not true for all classes with high botanical content, indicating other factors may also have influenced the result. The most likely would appear to have been the activities undertaken by each class, with some classes participating in programmes with greater opportunities for direct contact with the vegetation.

School Grounds
The present survey also underlines others' work on the importance of school grounds in the development of children's environmental awareness. Its findings lead the author to suggest that school grounds may be of most value to the 5-7 years age group, providing them with freedom of access and repetitive activities to build confidence in the natural world. In this instance, vegetation would be the most accessible 'representative' of the natural world.

Implications for the SHHGA's Education Programmes

These may be summarised briefly:

  • To maintain the policy of no worksheets.
  • To extend the variety of games and activities again. Although the garden already has an extensive repertoire of games and activities, more are still needed for the older age groups. To stimulate their interest they require more challenging and new environmental experiences, if a visit is to produce any significant impact on their environmental awareness.
  • Positive action is needed to encourage inner city schools to visit SHHGA. Although such a policy does already exist, it needs to be followed up more aggressively than at present. It probably merits a high priority aim since these children seem to be amongst the group that benefit the most from a visit.
  • There may be a need to reappraise the types of activities which are incorporated into some programmes, to ensure there is a high degree of plant interaction for all classes.
  • A period of free investigation, discovery and interaction with the environment could be incorporated into future class programmes.

Considerations for Other Environmental Education Sites

As noted in the previous section, there are some aspects of this survey’s findings which may cause adjustments in the schools’ programmes at the gardens. These also raise questions pertinent to other sites.

Although the garden’s programme does not use worksheets, it does follow a structured, logical progression of reasoning and activities, throughout the day. Is there a danger that this structure is too obviously linked to schoolwork and the National Curriculum? Thus being perceived in the same light as formal classroom teaching, by the children? In the light of Palmer’s (1997) research and Tunnicliffe’s (pers.comm 1998) interim results highlighting that formal education has little effect on an individual’s environmental awareness – is there a danger that this could be negating the positive aspects of the outdoor experience, shown by Palmer and Suggate (1996) to be so important in the development of environmental awareness? Is the knowledge that the visit will initiate more formal work at school a problem for older groups?

There seems to be a case for evolving a period of undirected activity during the day’s programme. Posch (1988 cited in Elliot 1991) states that environmental awareness is a type of practical wisdom developed through personal experience. If this is so, then in line with Palmer’s findings, it seems unlikely that closely directed activities will have any great impact on children’s environmental awareness. Similarly Trainer (1990) and Munro (1995) point out that structured programmes of telling/teaching are useless; the light has to dawn in each child’s eyes, they need to experience and to understand for themselves.

Perhaps environmental education site educators need to step aside from the needs of teachers and curricula, to remember and put the light back into their own eyes, if they really are to influence their many school visitors each year.


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Personal Communication

S. Tunnicliffe is undertaking research in ‘Building a Model of the Environment: How do Children Perceive Plants?’ and a draft research paper was provided to the author in 1998.