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We were excited and a little bit giddy because our new education building at the Botanic Garden was ready to play in, and we were going to try it out with a group of pre-school children (2-5 years) and the Early Years team from the Fitzwilliam Museum. Don’t get me wrong do already have many thousands of young children visiting the Garden every year, and a range of activities for them to try out too – from our free trails, family events and Matthew’s Library in the café, to the secrets of the New Pinetum where you might just find tiny magical doors on trees, the tropical delights of the Glasshouse Range and a fine selection of puddles out in the Garden. What was different about this session was that it was part of a wider University of Cambridge Museums programme to engage more formally with Early Years audiences, led by Nicola Wallis at the Fitzwilliam Museum. We have supported her sessions in the past by providing plant material for the It’s Magic activities she runs at the Museum, but wanted to plan a session here at the Garden for us to work together. So, having recently opened our new education building – The Geoffrey and Eileen Adams Garden Room – this was the perfect opportunity to test an Early Years session in it. And the run up to Christmas gave us an excuse to christen the building with glitter.
As the families arrived we began by decorating paper collecting bags to take out with us on a walk in the Garden, looking at some of our plant themed story books and playing with natural building blocks – while we waited for the whole group to arrive.
Our focus for the session was our Main Walk – an avenue of historic trees leading to the original gate of the Garden. These majestic conifers dwarf and inspire most of our visitors, but when you are only 2ft tall they are all the more impressive. Nicola wove a magical tree tale ‘The Little Tree’ which told the story of Little Coulter – a young Pinus coulteri which was planted on the Main Walk in 2001.
Little Coulter was feeling a bit sorry for himself and he was just a little bit jealous of the other trees, not just because of their size in comparison to him, but because they each had a special talent or had done amazing things. The Pinus wallichiana was able to dance, its long needles swishing like the skirts of a ballerina, the Cedars with their long branches sweeping down towards the ground created a magical tent to shelter under or provided bridges over a stream, the Giant Redwood was one of the tallest trees in the Garden and had a special lift inside that could take water from the ground all the way up to the top of the tree. What, thought Little Coulter, was his special talent? Would he ever grow to be as big or magical? And so to the big reveal…. Coulter was just a little tree because he was young! He would grow to be big like the other trees and one day he too would tower along the Main Walk as a guardian of the Botanic Garden, and what is more, he had the biggest pine cones of all the conifers in the Garden – which is why his other name is the Big Cone Pine.
With our story at an end and our collecting bags full of pine cones, bark, and the other natural finds we had discovered on our exploration of the Main Walk, we returned to the Garden Room to make our own miniature Christmas trees – using pine cones, copious amounts of glitter and other sparkly accessories. A well-earned cup of tea and biscuits finished the session while we asked parents to fill in feedback forms and then our crowd of little tree huggers headed off home.
Feedback from the parents and the children was really positive, providing us with useful suggestions on the timings of future events – perhaps allowing a bit longer to collect things in the bags and to be outside with the trees. Asked what they liked about the session we were told – I liked picking up things and I would like to come here again, we loved being outside splashing [in puddles] and walking, I liked exploring, I liked being outside with the trees. But the best evaluation of all was the photograph of our little group dancing and listening to stories under the trees of the Main Walk.
We hope to run another join session with the It’s Magic team later this year. More information on the Early Years programme at the Fitzwilliam Museum is available here, and for details of family activities at the Botanic Garden visit our website.
Felicity Plent, Head of Education, Cambridge University Botanic Garden