How to teach botany to grades 1-2
Earlier today Dokmai Garden had the honour of receiving 14 pupils from the new Panyaden School in Chiang Mai. They were 6-8 years old (grades 1-2) and accompanied by four teachers and some parents. Today’s activity, which lasted from 09.00 to 14.00, was well prepared in collaboration with the devoted teacher Gabriella Draboczi. The lessons were held in English with Thai translation, although most children were bilingual.
We first discussed what is life, comparing a potted banana and Ruben the truffle dog as representatives of life, and a stone as a dead item. Is this too simple? No, we have met adult visitors to Dokmai Garden, even vegetarians, who seriously claim that plants are not alive, and who think that they do not have tissues or cells (they do). We explained that living beings can grow and multiply, while a stone does not grow nor does it multiply.
Then we compared Ruben the dog with the banana plant, concluding that dogs eat, while plants are green, using their green chlorophyll to make food from sunlight, water and carbon dioxide gas. We waved the arms to feel there is indeed gas around us, although invisible.
Finally we asked why plants have flowers and these young students already knew they are needed for reproduction and fruit formation, ultimately making seeds which are the plant children. We used a cut banana flowering panicle as a demonstration. This may also sound very simple. However, even some western university students in biology (other subjects than botany) seem not to understand the correlation between fruit and flowers. We also looked at inconspicuous flowers, concluding that beauty is subjective, and that function is more important to the plant.
We then made a tour in the garden, comparing mango (Mangifera indica) and longan (Dimocarpus longan) fruit trees (touching bark and crushing leaves), comparing propeller tree (Dipterocarpus tuberculatus) and teak (Tectona grandis), we enjoyed the blossom of the pink shower tree (Cassia bakeriana) and broke the long velvety pods to smell their inside (dog poo and chocolate). We said hello to the Buddha hand (Citrus medica var. sarcodactylis) and continued to the lion cage where we keep the poisonous and stinging plants. We demonstrated the Cerbera odollam, and to our joy and surprise these young students knew more about Greek mythology than many Swedish high-school students (Kerberos is the dog of death).
We concluded that chicken are native and useful to control pests in a garden, we discussed the importance of walking slowly not to scare birds, startle snakes and to stay alert although when hot. The litter layer was also discussed, concluding this layer protects the soil from too much heat and too heavy rain, slows down water losses and it provides food for earthworms which tunnel the soil keeping it aerated and not like a solid block of concrete. We tasted the fruits of the Himalayan silverbush (Elaeagnus latifolia), curry leaf (Murraya koenigii) and camembert leaf (Acacia pennata).
Then it was time for an activity: the planting and harvesting of cassava (Manihot esculenta). Physical exercise and a break from the discussions is important to keep the mind alert. Digging up these big roots was a struggle, but the pupils did well. A teacher brought a branch back to the school garden. We took a brief look at the bizarre snowflake leaf (Trevesia palmata) before feeding the wild boar with cassava. The now one-week-old babies in their striped pyjamas were gorgeous.
We stopped to smell the pomelo (Citrus maxima) blossom, continued to the edible midnight horror (Oroxylum indicum) and admired and discussed the importance of water buffalo for Thai farming. The children shouted ‘minotaur’ when they saw him from a distance, and again we were surprised by the knowledge of these young gentlemen and gentlewomen.
Back at the restaurant we had a second break and then we began the cooking class, including cutting the cassava. Amazingly nobody was hurt, and the children were very proud of their accomplishments. We also prepared a batch of the tasty rosella drink, frying, boiling and adding sugar.
After lunch the teachers worked in groups with 3-4 children, using a questionnaire adapted to language and age, and then we walked back to play with the miracle berries (Synsepalum dulcificum).
We were excited to have such well educated, well behaved and interested children, and to meet teachers who took such a pride in pedagogic efforts and to make knowledge fun. When children spray you with questions and regret when they have to leave five hours later, then you feel the future is in safe hands.
By observing these lovely children we conclude that the new Panyaden School indeed applies modern pedagogic thinking in combination with classical Buddhist philosophy. Their effort to focus on learning with all senses, eating good quality food and embracing outdoor activities certainly made an impression on us.
Eric Danell and Ketsanee Seehamongkol
Children are born inventive and positive. The task of the teachers is to encourage that spirit to facilitate learning. Keep the flame of amazement alive! (Picture of Panyaden pupils in the Dokmai Garden kitchen).