SPaRK - The Curious Garden

How can we care for and improve our spaces and places?

By Gaye Braiding - teacher at Field of Mars Environmental Education Centre, Epping North Public School, and NSW Schoolhouse Museum of Public Education.

Resource overview

A Shared Practice and Resource Kit (SPaRK) for geography Stage 1 (Years 1-2), Stage 3 (Years 5-6) and Stage 4 (Years 7-8).

‘The Curious Garden’ by Peter Brown (2009), New York: Little Brown and Co.

Inspired by New York City’s High Line, ‘The Curious Garden’ is a picture book that conveys the transformative power of sustainable actions by one small boy who cares for a place. The boy, Liam, loves to be outside exploring his city. During one of his explorations, his curiosity leads him up a dark stairwell and onto a disused railway track where he sees some struggling plants in desperate need of care and attention. Liam immediately takes action and waters, prunes and nurtures them. The plants thrive and, together with Liam, expand their explorations and spread across the city, transforming it into a natural urban oasis. As the landscape is greened, and biodiversity is increased, changes also occur in the community as more and more people come outside to garden, socialise and enjoy the surrounding plants and animals. When contemplating this book, author Peter Brown wondered, ‘What would happen if an entire city decided to truly co-operate with nature?’

Educational significance

Reinforcing the geographical concepts of place, space, environment, interconnection, sustainability and change, ‘The Curious Garden’ could be used as a visual representation in support of the Geography K-10 Syllabus focus areas: Features of places (Stage 1), Factors that shape places (Stage 3), and Place and liveability (Stage 4). It strongly supports the learning across the curriculum priority of sustainability.

At a Stage 1 level, double page spreads, detailed illustrations and a compelling narrative depict the diverse natural and human features of a city and reveal how people can understand their environment through immersion in it. The picture book illustrates how the environment can change when people care for their place.

For Stage 3 students investigating how people influence places, ‘The Curious Garden’ expresses the far-reaching impacts of sustainable actions by informed and responsible citizens. It shows the widespread effects of local sustainability initiatives in increasing biodiversity, improving amenity and connecting people.

The illustrations depicting the community working together, and spending their leisure time in their enhanced environment, provide stimulus for discussions and investigations by Stage 4 students into strategies that enhance liveability.

While the book provides a model of how a place can be transformed into a sustainable green space, the actions of the protagonist also model geographical inquiry skills. Liam actively inquires in his environment, and closely observes his surroundings and the responses of the plants. He undertakes secondary research during winter, and both takes individual action and leads collective action to improve his place.

Liam is a good role model of an informed, active and responsible citizen. He could be used to inspire students to take care of their place or to undertake a sustainability action project to restore or improve biodiversity within their school grounds.

Suggestions for using this text

Before a shared reading of the text, examine the cover and explore definitions of the word ‘curious’. Discuss the definition suggested by the cover: does ‘curious’ mean ‘strange’ or ‘inquiring’? Or both?

Share the book with the class. After reading, make connections to other texts about places or environments that have changed, to personal experiences, and to perceptions of gardens and green spaces at home, in the school grounds or in the local area. Consider connections to media articles about greening spaces, such as vertical gardens on city buildings.

Revisit some of the double page illustrations and ask students to identify the natural and human features of the place. Compare the first and last double page illustrations, inviting students to identify the changes that occurred to the cityscape. Also ask them to consider their perceptions of the place in these two illustrations. How does each place make them feel? What would it be like to live in or visit each place?

Through the lens of thinking and working like a geographer, examine the behaviours and actions of the main character, Liam. What dispositions does he demonstrate? How does he perceive his environment? What geographical skills does he use? What sustainable actions does he take?

Teaching activities

Stage 1 ­– what are the features of our school grounds and how can we care for them?

Take the students outside to explore and observe the natural and human features of the school grounds. Allow time for them to explore places independently or with a partner. This could be guided by a sensory scavenger hunt. For example, students could find a human made place in which an animal is living, a human made place that is cool, a natural place in which an animal might hide, a leaf that has been chewed by insects, or a leaf that has an aroma when it is scrunched.

Working with a partner, students take turns imagining one is a visitor or new student to the school. They take their partner on a tour of sections of the school grounds, describing the places and activities which are undertaken in each space. Students take photographs of each other using these spaces, which are subsequently compiled and annotated. Photo collages can be displayed on a large wall map of the school grounds.

As a springboard to discussing ways to care for the school grounds, students closely examine the first and last double page spreads in ‘The Curious Garden’. They identify the changes to the human cityscape depicted in the first illustration, specifically noting spaces and places in which natural features have been added, as shown in the last illustration. As a class, discuss the effects these environmental changes had on the people in the story. Also discuss other consequences of the changes, such as cleaner air, increased animal diversity, new friendships, increased fitness, and new places to relax.

Revisit the school grounds to identify evidence of people caring for, or not caring for, the grounds. As they explore, students describe and model ways they can personally care for the school, such as picking up litter as they walk, staying on pathways and respecting out-of-bounds areas.

Features of places

A student:

  • describes features of places and the connections people have with places GE1-1
  • identifies ways in which people interact with and care for places GE1-2
  • communicates geographical information and uses geographical tools for inquiry GE1-3.


Students investigate features of places and how they can be cared for, for example (ACHGK005):

  • description of the natural and human features of places
  • consideration of how a place can be cared for. For example, a park, farm, beach, bushland.

Stage 3 – how do people sustainably influence places?

Define the word ‘sustainability’ and draw on examples of sustainable actions that are familiar to students. Re-read ‘The Curious Garden’ and ask students to create graffiti boards of the ways in which Liam and the community members influenced their place. On their boards, students highlight the actions that contributed to sustainability.

Using one or more of the sustainable actions identified on the graffiti boards, students generate a cause and effect table or flow chart to list the immediate and longer term effects of the sustainable actions illustrated in the book.Students use think-pair-share to generate a class list of the longer terms effects on people and the environment of the community’s sustainable actions in greening their city. For example, passive cooling of buildings, increased biodiversity, enhanced amenity and new leisure spaces.

Using an example in the local area, local government area, or city, students investigate a development or project that has ‘greened’ an area or has incorporated green spaces or gardens into the development. If possible, take students to visit the site. Alternatively, access photographs, satellite and Google Street View images, and video footage. Students survey key stakeholders and users of the site, or analyse peoples’ reviews and comments, to determine motivations, intentions and impacts. Students summarise these as annotations on a satellite image, photograph or diagram of the development.

Factors that shape places

A student:

  • explains interactions and connections between people, places and environments GE3-2
  • compares and contrasts influences on the management of places and environments GE3-3
  • acquires, processes and communicates geographical information using geographical tools for inquiry GE3-4.


Humans shape places

Students investigate how people influence places, for example (ACHGK029):

  • description of who organises and manages places eg local and state governments
  • identification of ways people influence places and contribute to sustainability eg roads and services, building development applications, local sustainability initiatives
  • examination of a local planning issue; the different views about it and a possible action in response to it.

Stage 4 – how can the liveability of places be enhanced?

Students closely examine the last four double page illustrations in ‘The Curious Garden’. They identify and discuss how people are interacting with the place. Using sticky notes or annotation, students add speech and thought bubbles to one illustration to express the people’s thoughts and conversations as they interact with the space. Ask students to ‘step into’ the illustration and role-play the thoughts and conversations of the residents. In role, students also express their views on the liveability of the place and the impact the environmental changes have had on their lives.

Students undertake research to locate survey data about what makes a city liveable. They analyse their research findings to identify commonalities and, as a class, generate a list of the top five criteria of liveability.

Using an urban growth project as a case study, students identify a range of strategies proposed to enhance liveability in that community. Students assess the proposed liveability of the place against the class criteria of liveability, and suggest strategies that would bring further improvement. Urban growth projects can be found at UrbanGrowth NSW Development Corporation, Landcom and Revitalising Newcastle.

Place and liveability

A student:

  • explains how interactions and connections between people, places and environments result in change GE4-3
  • examines perspectives of people and organisations on a range of geographical issues GE4-4
  • acquires and processes geographical information by selecting and using geographical tools for inquiry GE4-7
  • communicates geographical information using a variety of strategies GE4-8.


Enhancing liveability

Students investigate strategies used to enhance the liveability of places using examples from different countries, for example (ACHGK047):

  • identification of the characteristics of places considered highly liveable
  • examination of a range of strategies used to enhance liveability
  • assessment of the role of governments, non-government organisations, communities and individuals in enhancing liveability
  • proposal of strategies to improve the liveability of a place in Australia.


Stage 1

Students identify an area of the school grounds in which they follow the sustainability action process to create a garden to green the space. This could be as small or as large as the grounds allow, for example, vertical gardens or garden beds created in old car tyres filled with soil and planted with vegetables or flowering plants.

Stage 3

Inspired by ‘The Curious Garden’ and informed by local case studies, students design and create a three-dimensional model of a building or development that incorporates green spaces that contribute to sustainability. Students describe the expected effects of their design on people and the environment.

Stage 4

As an opportunity to apply their learning, students follow the sustainability action process to undertake a project that enhances liveability within their school grounds. For example, greening a quadrangle by adding raised or vertical gardens, using planter boxes to create shaded outdoor spaces or planting shrubs to improve amenity and increase biodiversity.

References and further reading

Professional resources

Educator's Guide: The Curious Garden, Little Brown

Friends of the High Line, Flickr

Geography K-10 Syllabus. NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales, 2015.

Human Society and Its Environment: Guide to Using Picture Books in Geography K-10, NSW Department of Education, Learning and Teaching Directorate – Secondary Education

Learning Across the Curriculum – Biodiversity, NSW Department of Education

Sustainability Action Process – Biodiversity, NSW Department of Education

Picture books

Belonging by Jeannie Baker

Last Tree in the City by Peter Carnavas

So Many Wonderfuls by Tina Matthews

The Tin Forest by Helen Ward and Wayne Anderson

How to cite this article – Braiding, G. (2018). SPaRK – How can we care for and improve our spaces and places? The Curious Garden by Peter Brown. Scan, 37(3).

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