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Botanical Literacies in Early Childhood

Kimberley Beasley, Doctoral Candidate, Murdoch University

Western Australia has one of the highest numbers of endemic plants and flowers on the planet and is listed as one of only 35 global biological hotspots (Fitzpatrick, Gove, Sanders, & Dunn, 2008). Through my work as a designer of nature playspaces for early years services and schools, I have found that young children appreciate the beauty of plants in their spaces, but they do not know many of the names of the plants or have much botanical knowledge of plants in general. In most cultures, plant knowledge, also known as botanical literacy is traditionally passed down from family members including grandparents and parents.

Botanical literacy is described by Uno (2009) as a type of biological literacy or ecological literacy and it is defined as the knowledge of plants and botany. The information below has been adapted (Uno, 2009) to explain the levels of botanical literacies and the knowledge included in each level.

– Nominal level: Students can identify terms that relate to botany however cannot define or describe the words and may have misconceptions of the terms.

– Functional level: Students can use botanical vocabulary and define terms correctly, but responses may be memorized and not deeply understood.

– Structural level: Students can understand botanical concepts, possess procedural knowledge and skills and can explain concepts well in their own words.

– Multi-dimensional level: Students understand the place of botany and biology as a science, know the nature and history of plants and can explain the interactions between the botanical world and society.

Uno explains that most children internationally sit within the nominal levels of knowledge and understanding and he suggests that it is critical for educators to build literacies in the biological sciences (Uno, 2009).

Other international research has found low botanical literacies or ‘plant-blindness’ is due to social changes on families and the community and this has resulted in less traditional plant knowledge being passed on. Several studies have explained ‘plant blindness’ as becoming more prevalent in both adults and children (Patrick & Tunnicliffe, 2011; Uno, 2009; Villarroel, Antón, Zuazagoitia, & Nuńo, 2018). ‘Plant blindness’ is the inability to recognise not only plants and their names, but also their importance in the environment and a belief that plants are inferior to humans and animals (Wandersee & Schussler, 2001). The ramifications of a decrease in levels of botanical literacies, and an increase in cases of ‘plant blindness’ is likely to have detrimental effects for efforts in sustainability and the care of our planet.

Many of the early childhood and school environments in Western Australia have an abundance of plants and trees and many are adjacent to bushland and parks. Across Australia, there has also been a dramatic increase in the last 10 years of schools and early learning centres adding nature play spaces to their play and learning environments (Elliott & Young, 2016). The research to date has found overwhelmingly that the benefits of children being and playing in nature are significant (Bruni, Winter, Schultz, Omoto, & Tabanico, 2017; Chawla, 2018; Ritchie, 2017). These benefits include, but are not limited to; healthier children who engage in more physical play, boosted brain development, stronger emotional development and social bonds and more creative play (Wilson, 2018).

However, researchers interested in sustainability in early childhood education are beginning to question if changes to the physical environment are enough to make a difference in increasing children’s connection with nature and deepening childrens understandings of biological literacies, including botanical literacies (Elliott & Young, 2016; Huggins & Evans, 2018). The development of botanical literacy is essential for children to form caring and sustainable beliefs and behaviours about plants and the Earth (Ritchie, 2017).

With an awareness of the importance of endemic plants in Western Australia and developing sustainable practices and plant knowledge in young children, what is the role of the early childhood educator in improving botanical literacies in young children in Western Australia? It has been suggested that connecting children deeply to nature through regular contact with nature and having a knowledgeable and passionate adult role model to demonstrate the connection and share knowledge of plants and the natural world can make a difference to what? (Chawla, 2018).

My present doctoral research project will address this topic through participative action research with 4 early childhood classes in Western Australian Primary Schools. The research will explore the existing levels of botanical literacies in educators and children through a term long project with the classes. The children will explore and learn about the trees and plants on their school grounds and source plant knowledge from community experts and local Indigenous elders to build botanical literacies in young children.


Bruni, C. M., Winter, P. L., Schultz, P. W., Omoto, A. M., & Tabanico, J. J. (2017). Getting to know nature: evaluating the effects of the Get to Know Program on children’s connectedness with nature. Environmental Education Research, 23 (1), 43-62. doi:10.1080/13504622.2015.1074659

Chawla, L. (2018). Nature-based learning for student achievement and ecological citizenship. Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue, 20½, R25-176.

Elliott, S., & Young, T. (2016). Nature by Default in Early Childhood Education for Sustainability. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 32(1), 57-64.

Fitzpatrick, M. C., Gove, A. D., Sanders, N. J., & Dunn, R. R. (2008). Climate change, plant migration, and range collapse in a global biodiversity hotspot: the Banksia (Proteaceae) of Western Australia. Global Change Biology, 14(6), 1337-1352. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2486.2008.01559.x

Huggins, V., & Evans, D. (2018). Early Childhood Education and Care for Sustainabilty; International Perspectives. New York: Routledge.

Patrick, P., & Tunnicliffe, S. D. (2011). What plants and animals do early childhood and primary students’ name? Where do they see them? Journal of Science Education and Technology, 20 (5), 630-642. doi:10.1007/s10956-011-9290-7

Ritchie, J. (2017). Fostering Eco-Cultural Literacies for Social, Cultural and Ecological Justice: A Perspective From Aotearoa (New Zealand). International Journal of Early Childhood, 49 (3), 287-302. doi:10.1007/s13158-017-0198-0

Uno, G. E. (2009). Botanical literacy: What and how should students learn about plants? American Journal of Botany, 96 (10), 1753-1759. doi:10.3732/ajb.0900025

Villarroel, J. D., Antón, A., Zuazagoitia, D., & Nuńo, T. (2018). Young children’s understanding of plant life: a study exploring rural-urban differences in their drawings. Journal of Biological Education, 52 (3), 331-341. doi:10.1080/00219266.2017.1385505

Wilson, R. A. (2018). Nature and Young Children. New York: Routledge.