Playful Plants II: Developing and testing interventions to promote children's playful engagement with nature in public gardens

This is the second year of the continuing "Playful Plants" project, whose objective is to provide resources and awareness to encourage children’s engagement with nature in both playspaces and public gardens. In year one, we worked with Broome County Master Gardeners to create a detailed database of over 200 playful plants suited to the NY climatic zone that can both entice children into playful interactions with nature and be durable enough to withstand this engagement. In year two we plan to extend this work by 1) Working with Broome County Extension, Cutler Botanic Gardens and local Master Gardeners to cross reference the Playful Plants database to identify all playful plants already on site at Cutler, and to develop programming, signage and events to encourage visiting children and families to play with and learn about these plants. For example, developing sensory signage which is placed around the garden that visually lets children know when plants provide a visual, tactile, or auditory experience and encourages them to touch, listen to or even taste the plants. 2) Working with Broome County 4H geospatial group to geolocate playful plants at Cutler and to create child-friendly programming such as a digital tour of playful plants via an app such as PocketSights and/or a digital scavenger hunt that child and family visitors can undertake using a phone or a GPS device.

The efficacy of both types of interventions will be examined using pre-post behavioral observations and surveys with children and parents will gauge whether such interventions increase playful engagement with, learning about, or interest in nature. Surveys will also gauge interest in a dedicated play garden at Cutler. Outcomes will include development of a guide that will help public and botanic gardens use the database to identify playful plants they have on site and/or ways to integrate more playful plants and programming. The guide will include a suite of recommended engagement programs, materials and/or events that could be used by Cutler and other botanic gardens in New York State to draw children and families, and encourage playful interactions with nature. Based on the results from this pilot we will aim to work with Master Gardeners to utilize the Playful Plants database and recommended plant collections to plant and test new, distinct play gardens within local public/botanic gardens.

Roles and responsibilities 

The student involved in this year's "Playful Plants" project will be tasked with the following goals:

  1. To work with local Master Gardener volunteers to examine the Cutler Botanic Garden plant lists to identify playful plants already on site
  2. To work with these groups to develop and pilot playful plants programming, materials and/or events
  3. To liaise with the Broome County 4H geospatial youth group to develop and test digital /GPS based tours or games using on site playful plants
  4. To conduct behavioral observations and intercept surveys with visiting children and families both before and after any playful plant interventions to gauge the impact on nature engagement, interest and learning while at the garden
  5. To develop a guide for other public/botanic gardens to use to develop playful plant materials or programming; this guide will be prepared to be shared online via the Playful Plants website

Qualifications and previous coursework

This opportunity is available to students in Cornell University's College of Human Ecology.

Ideally the student will have had some coursework in Research Methods, as well as Human Development, Horticulture/Plant Sciences and/or Landscape Architecture. They will also need to have strong communication, facilitation and organizational skills. Experience working with children, youth and/or families, and event or programming planning experience would be an asset.

Learning outcomes 

  • Gaining an understanding of children’s play needs, and the role of nature in facilitating both play and environmental learning
  • Experience developing and testing public programming, materials and events; experience will also be gained researching the audience/user and volunteer needs for community programming and events.
  • Improved understanding of and experience with survey design and observational research and analysis; experience synthesizing and communicating research findings
  • Gaining experience developing and disseminating effective planning and programming guides for public consumption
  • To learn about the Extension model process through engagement with different Extension programs, Associates and other stakeholders