Children’s Gardens: an International Partnership Using the Internet
Contributed by Loïc Ruellan, Conservatoire Botanique National de Brest, Brest, France
From October 2000 to June 2001, the Programme Jardins d’enfants (Children’s Gardens Programme) brought together 350 children from the French city of Brest and its ten twinned towns from all over the world. The aim of this programme, which focused primarily on urban green spaces, was to raise schoolchildren's awareness of biodiversity and urban ecology, as well as to widen their cultural outlook and stimulate their imaginations, their observational abilities and aesthetic awareness.
The Internet proved the best available tool to communicate from one continent to another, to make acquaintances and to exchange views. During the course of the school-year, the children constructed a model of their ideal garden, and then got together in Brest in June 2001 to set up the plan of the twinned garden.
The Roots of the Project
In the previous year, a similar venture involving a partnership between the Conservatoire Botanique National de Brest, a plastic artist (Gaëlle Kéroullé) environment staff from wildlife societies and City Environmental Services, had been undertaken with two primary schools from Brest. This first effort was so successful that Gaëlle Kéroullé decided to develop the scheme on an international level. The aim of the scheme was to involve schoolchildren from Brest and from the 10 towns twinned with Brest.
Supported by the City Council Member responsible for twinning, the education team set up an association entitled “Jardins d’enfants”. This enabled us to obtain funding specifically for the programme and to employ Gaëlle Kéroullé as coordinator for a full year. Once every month or so, the Brest education team met to assess the progress of the program.
Children living in towns often have limited access to, and limited knowledge of, the environment. This was why we focussed on urban green spaces as the framework for this initiative, since all towns have their own open spaces, which often offer the only bit of nature in the neighbourhood where children can play and express themselves freely. The idea was to show the children that this place they regularly go to can prove a stimulating place for discoveries, once conditions are provided for doing so.
The scheme started by asking the children to illustrate their best memory of nature. This enabled their teachers and educators to get an idea of the way the children perceived the natural world as compared to their urban environment, as well as how to assess their achievements at the end of the programme. In Brest as well as in the ten twinned towns, the principle was to have each one of the classes concerned work throughout the year on one particular urban green space near their school, studying it successively from different angles, under the supervision of educators with different specialities. For instance, the two classes from Brest tackled the following themes:
- The creation and maintenance of an urban green space, with the gardening staff of the city.
- Wildlife, with an educator from a local wildlife trust.
- Plant biology, with an educator from a scientific society.
- Native and exotic trees, and plant threatened by extinction with an educator from the Conservatoire Botanique.
- Energy sources (e.g. photosynthesis, wind and hydraulic power) with a science teacher.
- The artistic and amusement approach to green spaces with an artist.
In the course of these sessions, the children were able to grasp the concept of urban green areas, and their understanding of these was broadened and diversified. About the middle of the year, it was possible to ask them to prepare a plan for a recreation and play ground.
Children Join in the Game
Having grasped various concepts relevant to urban green spaces, the children could then draw up the maps for their ideal garden. The conception of these gardens by them, and most importantly, for them, drew on their unlimited imagination. In this way, urban spaces gradually appeared on paper under various names: “prehistoric corner”, “the colour garden”, “the tentacle garden”; playgrounds such as “the bouncy hills”, “the orientation garden” or “the live plant labyrinth”; and also some poetical spaces such as “the beautiful grove”, “water reflections” and “the peaceful garden”.
In order to conceive these gardens, children searched by themselves for information about the building materials, the objects, the plants and the animals which they wished to have in their spaces. They could also ask their various educators for more information, via the Internet. For instance, Audrey wanted a prehistoric corner with owls, The Conservatoire Botanique provided her with a list of plants, which have for long existed on the earth such as ferns, conifers, magnolias, and amazing plants such as gunneras. The wildlife educator gave her hints as to how to attract owls and have them nesting in her garden. From these suggestions, the children picked out species which they preferred, and which were also compatible with each another.
When their garden spaces were clearly defined, the children joined together to assemble these in a common plan and thus create the class garden. With the help of the artist and their teacher, the pupils built a small-scale model of their ideal garden. The classes of the ten twinned towns worked along the same lines as the two Brest forms.
Internet: Communication and Exchanges
The classes were told about the Children's Gardens scheme in October 2000. They sent their applications to enter the scheme and presented their class and their town. This information was put on the Children's Gardens web site and the text translated into French and English.
In November, a first “cyber-meeting” took place to enable the children to exchange ideas and this proved a success. Every two months or so a news-letter entitled Turdus News was sent to all partners involved in the programme, recounting what was being done and how things were progressing in the eleven towns. A second “cyber-meeting” took place in May 2001 so as to prepare the June meeting in Brest between the twinned towns.
The Internet proved the ideal tool for the children to exchange information and, as the web site developed, to follow the progress of the project, and to maintain the interest of the participants.
The Brest Meetings
The meetings that took place in Brest between the child ambassadors involved all the other people concerned as well. Although these meetings were an opportunity for amusement, the children had an important target before the end of their stay: to design the plan of the twinning garden which may one day be set up in Brest.
A whole day was needed to achieve this result:
- In the morning, the children from each twinned town chose the elements they preferred from the different plans drawn up by their comrades from the other towns, and which they wished to retain in their working draft
- In the afternoon, each one of the groups presented their proposal and a wide debate was organised in order to select the elements to draw up the final model. This step was particularly arduous since the discussion had to be simultaneously translated into five different languages so that everyone could understand what was going on and express their own view. But we were not building a tower of Babel and we did manage to accomplish this step and design the final model for the twinned garden.
The next day, the children coloured the map of the twinned garden and displayed their model in the town hall of Brest. At the end of the day, the city councillors opened the exhibition, presenting the different twinned towns and the models built by the children. There, the children officially offered the plan for the twinned garden to the city councillor responsible for twinning. The wish that everyone expressed was that one day the map may serve as the basis for the creation of a real garden in Brest.
But the children were not in Brest only to work! This was above all a wonderful opportunity for children aged from 10 to 15 from strikingly different cultural backgrounds, to meet, play together and discover our town and our way of life. Amongst other lively events in the course of that week, they will remember
- A big discovery trail in a wooded park
- The unveiling of the models and the official opening at the Town Hall
- The meeting with the city councillors
- The evening party, in a youth hostel
- The twinned garden celebration party itself.
- The twinned garden party. On the eve of the children’s departure, a big party was organised in a public park close to the Town Hall, in order to open this twinning project to the whole population of Brest.
This pleasant afternoon ended with the child ambassadors planting a young oak to celebrate the meeting and to consolidate the twinned garden project. Oak acorns were offered to the authorities of the twinned towns so they could plant them in their respective countries. These acorns were to be the living symbol of the generous sharing that marked this scheme, and the duration of the relations it established between children of different cultures.
Whether for the children from Denver or those from Saponé, this twinning focussing on environment education enabled children and educators to exchange and develop ideas about and deepen understanding of nature, and of ways to enjoy and acquire these notions through an approach, which was both scientific and imaginative. The Internet made this possible and proved fruitful for all.
This experience also showed that it was possible to bring together children from different origins, cultures and mother tongues and to have them work on a common project, stimulating a desire both to discover and to share with others. The games, the exchanges, and the debates raised by this meeting in Brest will certainly leave their marks, as the smiles, the laughter and the bright eyes clearly indicated.
Today, the Internet site and the oak planted by these emissaries in the heart of Brest bear witness to the wonderful scientific and cultural success that the meeting produced. Let us hope that this simple and generous action may inspire new initiatives and nurse the desire to bring people together and discover more about each other and the natural world, which surrounds them.
I would like to thank Frantz Hopkins for the translation of this text, and Gaëlle Kéroullé for the initial proof-reading.