Docent Educator Logo

“Desert Detective”

How does a botanical garden teach specific scientific topics to children when, in most cases, the plantings were designed for beauty rather than education? How can we encourage children to explore and investigate the collection without hurting the plants or themselves? At many museums and botanical gardens, these challenges are met through the use of educational games. These games can be used by families or by groups of school children.

For the past 10 years, the Desert Botanical Garden has used a scavenger hunt-like game called the Desert Detective. This educational game evolved variations to cover various teaching points, as well as to take advantage of seasonal changes. The Garden is currently using three variations of the Desert Detective: the Case of Desert Plant Adaptations, the Case of the Plant and Animal Partnerships, and the Case of the Plant and People Connection. In each one, the user is asked to find and record sixteen discoveries, such as “Find a tree with green bark.” Every clue is followed by information explaining the importance of the characteristic discovered.

The game follows the principles of informal education adapted from Stephen Bitgood’s A Comparison Of Formal and Informal Learning. It is a format that is ideal for use in science centers, botanical gardens, parks, and museums.

The following points illustrate how Desert Detective and similar games can connect principles of informal education to assist and enhance learning.

Informal learners are self-paced and self-directed. Games like the Desert Detective allow children to move through the Garden at their own speed, while they seek out sixteen points on each game sheet. There is no predetermined pace. Learning is self-directed and is not sequential. The Garden has four trails, each with a specific theme. Regardless of the route children take, they are able to complete the Desert Detective.

Children are stimulated to learn by the environment. This is a key characteristic of informal learning. The children are stimulated to learn by the intriguing nature of the plants and animals in the environment, while the game sheet focuses their attention. The game sheet also provides a way for them to record what they’ve seen, which aids in retention. The focus of learning is the exhibits. Visitors investigate real plants and animals rather than follow abstract written materials or worksheets. One of the game’s major objectives is to create involvement directly with the exhibits.

Exposure to exhibits is rapid and of short duration. The Desert Detective is ideally suited for investigating while moving quickly through an institution. The game sheet contains “finds” that can occur throughout the Garden.

The visitors are at varying levels of academic achievement. The Desert Detective game’s clues are general enough to encourage all visitors to explore. Each clue box contains information discussing the importance of the characteristic being sought, allowing a chaperone or parent to explain the significance of “discoveries” to children.

Learning is social. As with all games, there is an element of competition. Children try to find as many examples of each item as possible, which encourages them to continue searching throughout their visit. Children can work as a team, or a family may work together, encouraging discussion that reinforces learning.

Children are intrinsically motivated. The Desert Detective is ideally suited to build upon intrinsic motivation. The children’s natural curiosity is stimulated by the game sheet, heightening their drive to explore. This increases the possibility that characteristics of plants that may have gone unnoticed become an exciting challenge to find.

The quality of the experience is emphasized. Children come away with a memory of fun and excitement. This positive learning experience stays with them long into the future, possibly encouraging them to investigate the subject further on their own.

We have found that games like the Desert Detective are valuable tools for informal education. Their flexibility allows us to change the games to meet different teaching objectives, the time of year, or the age level of the visitors. Students using the Desert Detective move through the Garden pursuing information, learning enthusiastically, pointing to discoveries, and excitedly finding and gathering information about the desert environment.

Ruth Copeman is the Outdoor Education Coordinator, and Nancy Cutler is the Interpretive Coordinator, at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, AZ.

Copeman, Ruth. “Desert Detective,” The Docent Educator 7.1 (Autumn 1997): 5.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *