In the last couple of months, we have been busy designing the toolkits and activities to bring our Biodiversity Logbooks project to primary schools in the Lancaster and Morecambe area. We decided to start with a small pilot in the Autumn, with the aim to involve more schools in the Spring of 2021, when we expect to be able to see more plants and their flowers.
We met with head-teachers at Ryelands and St Mary’s, and worked together to revise our plan and design most of the activities for remote delivery. This allowed us to engage students safely despite COVID restrictions.
In the first mini-workshops, we introduced ourselves and the project, and ask each student to produce a record of a plant that they found on the schoolground. The students were excited to run outside and discover what interesting plants grow around their school. Despite the cold November day, they managed to come back to the class with an impressive variety of samples to look at. They then proceeded to label and draw their plant, using the sticky notes in the activity kit to add comments and annotations. They also indicated the location of their plant on a map that they attached to their drawings. At the end of the activity, the teachers collected the drawings and plant samples and shared them with us. We have been photographing the children’s work and will be returning the drawings to the school shortly.
‘Is it difficult to draw a plant?’
The “any questions?” moment at the end of presentations can often open unexpected room for discussion, when the questions come from children. And of course, it is important to give them honest answers.
So, when we got asked, at the end of our project introduction, whether it is difficult to draw a plant, our honest answer was “well, it depends!”. Maybe not exactly what the children expected to hear, but it gave us the opportunity to talk a bit more about the importance of “learning to see”, which is a key objective in our activities. While all of us have been representing ideas of flowers, trees, and leaves as simplified shapes from an early age, we rarely took the time to look carefully at the plants around us, study their structure, and appreciate the way their features (sometimes apparently insignificant) enable them to thrive in different environments. When done with the purpose of carefully record an observation, drawing a plant can be difficult, but is also a great exercise to train the eye to discover subtle differences and similarities between different species. And with time it can help to appreciate the biodiversity that can be found even in unassuming urban locations.
A number of studies quoted in a paper by Comeau et al (2019) found a decrease in plant literacy at the societal level. Children are interested in plants, but this interest drastically decreases as they reach adolescence. This research also found that over-simplified mental models of plants are already present in children of a young age, who tend to revert to these models even when drawing from direct observation. It is for this reason that it is important to promote plant literacy and nature observation skills from a young age.
For our activity, we wanted to prevent children from feeling the pressure to produce a nice-looking drawing, as this would more likely have led them to resorting to the use of mental models of what a plant should look like. Instead, we ask them to draw their plant as if they were explaining its structure to somebody who lives far away and have never seen plants like these before. We received a great variety of drawings. While we decided not to analyse them directly, we will use them as a base-line that we will return to at the end of the project, to see if our programme of activities of looking carefully and recording slowly will have enriched the students’ perception of the plants in their environment.
A big thank you to the head teacher and the Year 3 teachers at Rylands primary school in Lancaster for planning and running the activity with us, and to all the amazing students for their enthusiasm and hard work.
Comeau, P., Hargiss, C. L. M., Norland, J. E., Wallace, A., & Bormann, A. (2019). Analysis of Children’s Drawings to Gain Insight into Plant Blindness. Natural Sciences Education, 48(1), 190009. https://doi.org/10.4195/nse2019.05.0009