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Botany on a Lower Level

While our youngest visitors Mc not any more difficult to teach than older students and adults, they do require a different approach. The youngest visitors toured by docents at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden are at the prekindergarten and kindergarten levels (4 to 6-year-olds). They arrive as part of a school group or summer camp. They may have limited experience being in structured groups. This is especially true for the youngsters who come early in the school year. They are excited to be at the garden, but may also be unsure of what they’ll be doing. For little children this uncertainty can be frightening.

To alleviate the uncertainty, tell your group at the start that they’ll have fun and let them know the agenda for their visit. Then they know what to expect, and you will get fewer questions such as “What are we going to do?” Address issues that may be important to them, such as whether or not there is a bathroom break. Things we take for granted, they don’t always know or understand. “Why is a greenhouse called a greenhouse?” Even such things as why we shouldn’t pull up plants may need an explanation.

One extremely important point to keep in mind during the entire tour is to address the children . School groups always have teachers and parents along to supervise, but remember this experience is primarily for the students. If you are more familiar with conducting adult tours, this may be difficult at first.

Pay attention to what the children are interested in, and listen to what they say or point out to their classmates. They’ll listen to you when they .see that you listen to them. You’ll also be in a better position to take advantage of those teachable moments! Plan your tour, but remain flexible. Let the children determine what specific things to talk about. For instance, if someone discovers a fallen leaf or fruit, talk about it. Ask your group “Why did this leaf fall off the tree?” Their answers should lead into your next discussion.

Use appropriate and correct language. Refer to plants by their correct names, but remember to make it fun. “Why do you think this plant is called a Cattail?” “What does it feel like?” “Would you have named it something else?” Keep explanations basic and simple, but avoid using baby talk or talking “down” to children. It helps to relate a difficult topic to something that is more familiar. For example, to help a child understand why certain plants won’t grow with a broken stem, compare the stem to a drinking straw. When a straw is cracked or broken, water won’t travel up out of the glass. Similarly, water won’t travel up a broken stem.

Eye contact is very important with any group and this is especially true with young children. Practice focusing your eyes at their height. Point out things that are on their level. The leaves and flowers growing closest to their view will be easiest for them to see. If children have to constantly look upward, their necks begin to hurt. Physical discomfort can ruin even the best guided experience.

Pre-kindergartners have short attention spans. Therefore, limit discussions on any particular subject. As a conscientious docent, you’d like to give them as much information as possible at each stop, but with this age group, less is definitely more. They’ll remember one really interesting thing but forget most others, and the easiest way to lose their attention is to talk too long.

Keep discussions brief and focused on concrete things and examples. Avoid abstractions. For example, pollination is a difficult concept to explain to 4-year-olds. It’s fun, however, to watch bees going from flower to flower. “Do you notice which flowers the bees visit? Is there any pollen on the bees’ body? Touch the flower with your finger to get some pollen on your fingertip. Pretend you finger is a bee and visit another flower. Rub the pollen onto the second flower.” Pollination can be an interesting topic if you let children actually experience it.

Although 4- to 6-year-olds seem to have an endless supply of energy, they actually tire quickly. An hour tour is long enough to give youngsters exposure to the garden without exhausting them completely. Plan your tour to cover a small area with a minimal amount of straight walking. While there are many individual gardens within the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, our Garden Guides select only one or two areas to cover when working with this age group. It would be physically impossible to cover the entire garden with these children.

Standing still can be just as difficult as long walks for litde ones. Kindergartners and pre-kindergartners like to squirm and move their bodies. Our Garden Guides occasionally stop and do a physical activity that is tied to the theme of their tour. For instance, when discussing how seeds germinate, students can pretend to be seeds by crouching down with their arms around their knees. One student acts as the sun and another acts as the rain. As the sun shines and the rain waters them, the “seeds” begin to grow by slowly straightening their bodies (the stem pushing through the soil), sticking their arms out (unfolding leaves), and lifting their heads up to the sky (flowering).

Another quick, easy physical activity is really a stretching exercise. Everyone pretends to be a tree on a windy day. They are rooted to the ground (firmly stomp each foot to reinforce the concept) with outstretched branches (arms). As the wind blows, the trees can bend back and forth, but they can’t walk around.

At the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, we are fortunate. While museum collections can be observed and in rare instances touched, our “living museum” can be experienced through other senses as well. Sight, touch, smell, hearing, and taste are utilized on tours to help our young visitors learn about plants and the environment. Children especially remember most what they experience through more than one sense. These children may not be able to read signs or comprehend the historic or botanical significance of our collection, but they are capable of experiencing the collection in a very personal manner.

Touching, smelling, and hearing are always encouraged. There are many ways to incorporate these senses while touring groups. Bark, leaves, and petals all have different textures. Students can smell fragrant flowers, scented leaves, and the aroma of soil. Pass objects around in a circle to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to touch and smell everything.

Young children imitate, so only touch what you want them to touch as well. Take a moment to show youngsters how to gently touch a leaf so as not to hurt it. Some docents allow “collecting” from the grounds (fallen leaves, seeds, and so forth). Get the children involved in a hunt by asking them to find something to discuss. “Who can find a fallen leaf?” Or, “Who can find something smooth?” Then, discuss each object discovered and relate it to your theme.

Explore using your sense of hearing, too. Listen to natural sounds like leaves rustling, water running, or such manmade sounds as cars, airplanes, and other people. Try to create your own sounds. How many different sounds can you make using an acorn?

Taste is the one sense we may not always utilize. Some of our visiting teachers are hesitant to let their students eat things for religious or practical reasons. Do stress that while some parts of plants can taste good (for example fruits, mint leaves, sugar cane), not all plants or plant parts are edible. Some can be poisonous. Mention this even if the students are not going to taste anything.

Touring with a group of young children can be challenging, but it can also be very rewarding. Just keep in mind the characteristics and abilities of the age group. And be flexible! What works with one group may not work with another. Adapt! As with anything new, the more often you work with young children, the more comfortable and resourceful you will become.

Deborah Keane and Alisa Leung work in the Education Department of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in Brooklyn, New York. Ms. Keane is the Senior Instructor for School Programs. Ms. Leung is the Coordinator and Instructor for the Kindergarten Program. Both have been working with children at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden for over four years.

Keane, Deborah and Leung, Alisa. “Botany on a Lower Level,” The Docent Educator 3.2 (Winter 1993): 8-9.

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