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Learning Gardens as Sites of Interpretation

Updated: May 30

“The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation” Freeman Tilden, 1957







Learning gardens are often described as places where environmental education happens. They provide a holistic and systems approach to understanding dynamic processes, natural communities and how humans fit into these communities. Learning gardens are typically located in and around pk-12 schools, being rare on college and university campuses.


We would like to integrate a different concept into this discussion of what learning gardens do and situate this within a view towards higher education; that of interpretation. Interpretation comes from the world of heritage and environmental interpretation most typically practiced in nature centers, parks and preserves and other nonformal educational settings. If you imagine a National Park ranger leading visitors on a hike chatting about ecology and history, you get the drift of what interpretation basically looks like. In its most fundamental state, it is described by the National Association for Interpretation (NAI) as "a purposeful approach to communication that facilitates meaningful, relevant, and inclusive experiences that deepen understanding, broaden perspectives, and inspire engagement with the world around us."


So, right off the bat, interpretation strays from formalized ideas of education or schooling and drifts towards more holistic forms of awareness and experience. Consider some of the key words in this definition; meaningful, relevant, deep understanding, inspire, broaden perspectives and engagement. We don’t often hear these words at the forefront of formalized education; mainly because they denote expressive, affective, evocative and provocative ways of learning.


Learning needs to entail information; yet it must go deeper to evoke a sense of place and expressive ways of knowing a place. Even further, learning in interpretive ways should provoke people into action that is sustaining, life affirming and sustainability oriented.


Interpretation along these lines should be viewed as a blending of arts and sciences in the sense that the work provides a holistic approach to place-based learning that fosters aesthetic, expressive, affective experiences in ecological and cultural communities. This line between arts and sciences has historically been a wee bit murky and we similarly see this distinction as quite a blurry situation. In fact, in our work, we see them needing to be permeable and porous for the give and take of ideas and experiences. True sustainability should not be limited by strict categorization or compartmentalization.


Interpretation as a field, is fully attended to holism, with telling broad and encompassing emplaced stories so that a person walks away with not solely a scientific understanding. GRO Learning Gardens has a goal to create learning gardens in both educational and interpretive ways and this means that engage the whole person, a wide range of sensibilities, provoke awakening and action towards sustainability and stewardship, and deeply engage with the social and ecological worlds around us.


Let’s explore some notions from Freeman Tilden, foundational to the concept and the field of Interpretation. He listed 6 Principles of Interpretation in his 1957 book, Interpreting Our Heritage. In this he first defined interpretation as an “educational activity, which aims to reveal meaning and relationships through the use of original objects, by firsthand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information.” To unpack this definition and provide more guidance, Freeman than lists 6 principles of interpretation. Here they are:

  1. Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.

  2. Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information. But they are entirely different things. However, all interpretation includes information.

  3. Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical or architectural. Any art is in some degree teachable.

  4. The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.

  5. Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole man rather than any phase.

  6. Interpretation addressed to children (say up to the age of twelve) should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults, but should follow a fundamentally different approach. To be at its best it will require a separate program.

We take these ideas to heart with GRO Learning Gardens. Ideas such as relevance, revelation, art, provocation and holism are integral to making connections between people and places. These are the pathways towards fostering a sense of place and towards living well in that place. Towards dwelling rather than simply residing. Sustainability education requires an interpretive approach that tends to a wider range of human experience and awareness rather than mere abstractions or compartmentalized knowledge. An awareness that is relevant to the learning, is inspiring and meaningful and that deepens engagement and leads to action.


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