- Sensibilities -
Children’s cultural expressions of their school field trip to a tropical spice garden and butterfly farm.


The New Sociology of Childhood emphasises research with children, giving agency to the children as participants, relating their voices, reporting their views and explaining their circumstances. In this sensory ethnography I present arguments for a more substantive focus on children’s embodied and emplaced experiences during school field trips to Nature Centres. Thirteen 8-9 year old girls and boys attending the same grade in an International Baccalaureate (IB) World School accredited to offer the Primary Years Programme (PYP) visited the Tropical Spice Garden and Penang Butterfly Farm as part of their Rainforest Unit of Inquiry. The Nature Centres are located on Penang Island, Malaysia. The children provided their unique perspectives through participatory practice and image-elicitation interviews. Through reflexive, sensory approaches and the enactment of innovative research methods, I was able to share the children’s multi-sensory experiences, practices, recollections and thoughts, enabling insight into culture for and by children.


I am truly grateful to many people.

I give immense thanks to the thirteen children who participated in this study. By trusting me, you enabled me to present a thorough understanding of the lives of children rather than a mere explanation. Thank you also to the parents and guardians of these children, the Deputy Principal (Primary), the class teacher and the class assistant for providing the necessary permission, consent and support to make this research project possible.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to David Cardell, my supervisor who gave generous insight and wise counsel. Thank you for your patience, enthusiasm, motivation and valuable criticism throughout the development of the thesis. Anna Sparrman’s and Anne-Li Lindgren’s inspiring course on Children, Culture and the Media set me on a research path. Being a participant in Anna Sparrman’s larger research titled Culture for and by Children – A visual ethnographic study of Children’s Museums, Theme Parks, Amusement Parks and Science Centers, is a great honour. Thank you for providing me with the opportunity to work on this intriguing project. I thank Gunilla Tegern, Eva Danielson and all the tutors for their various roles and support over the past two years.

I am truly grateful to Vance Boisjoli, my friend, learning partner and fellow researcher with whom I shared this journey into academic personhood. I greatly appreciate our friendship. It is with Vance Boisjoli, Alexandra Kuvshinova and Moragh Randall that I shared deep discussions that were purposeful, valuable, memorable and above all meaningful. We asked difficult questions, questioning was the norm during our conversations. We trusted one another explicitly and shared openly what we knew and what we didn’t know. A special thank you also goes to another friend and fellow student, Daniela Moreira Hoffman, for her significant feedback as my opponent during the defence of the thesis. Thank you also to the remainder of the participants for your stimulating discussions, especially during sleepless nights when we were working towards deadlines.

It is to my beloved children and husband that I dedicate this work. Thank you for your unconditional love, support and encouragement.

1. Introduction

Rainforests are inherently damp, steamy, organic spaces where the forest floor is covered in leaf litter which feels spongy footstep upon footstep. The Tropical Spice Garden and the Penang Butterfly Farm are located in Malaysian tropical rainforest where the trees are dense and plants such as ferns, creepers, palm-like cycads and pitcher plants grow in abundance. Shafts of light penetrating the forest canopy create a spectacular stained glass effect on the wings of butterflies as they flit around the group of schoolchildren who are learning more about rainforests and spices and are experiencing close encounters with creepy crawlies. The Tropical Spice Garden is a botanical garden displaying tropical fauna and flora themed around an extended collection of spices. The Penang Butterfly Farm is a live butterfly and insect sanctuary displaying an array of critters and small animals.

Within this setting, I study a school field trip by focussing on children’s perspectives during their visit to nature sites. The thirteen 8-9 year old children attend the same grade in an International Baccalaureate (IB) World School in Penang, and island state of Malaysia. Malaysia is a multi-ethnic, multicultural and multilingual society comprising of Malays, Indians, Chinese, indigenous tribes (the bumiputera), and expatriates (Hoffstædter, 2008). The participants in this research are representative of the multi-ethnic, multicultural and multilingual population of Malaysia. Students at the international school comprise of 35,5% Malaysian students and 64,5% international students. International students represent 35 different nations.

The research approach in this study is sensory ethnography in which the methods of participant-observation, image-elicitation interviews and visual analysis are enacted. Childhood studies as an interdisciplinary field of studies emerged in the 1990’s in response to rapidly changing social circumstances and its implications in the study of children and their social worlds. It studies children in their own right and not as individuals developing towards adulthood (Halldén, 2008). The New Social Studies of Childhood accentuate children as active agents, as constructors of their social lives. This shift in theoretical approaches indicated the investigation of integrated, heterogeneous and holistic constructions of understanding children in complex global societies. Contemporary sociologists recognize the plurality of childhoods and Jenks (2004) speaks of many childhoods with a diversity of experience rather than one common childhood, both across cultures and within. The constructionist position that I subscribe to emphasise the plurality of childhoods, addressing key sociological issues such as culture and is best studied through ethnographic approaches (Munoz, 2006).

Both Nature Centres informing this sensory ethnography offer up-close encounters with the animal and plant kingdom, promoting opportunity for children to engage with nature. Educational opportunity about nature and the environment is provided informally through leisure visits and formally through participation in specially designed educational programmes and guided tours. During the school field trip, the children participated in structured programmes at both Nature Centres and were also given time in which to explore the Penang Butterfly Farm at their own leisure.

The Tropical Spice Garden and the Penang Butterfly Farm continuously evolve and look for new ways of presenting themselves. The Tropical Spice Garden recently upgraded its restaurant situated high on wooden platforms, built around a giant old tree, and overlooking the Straits of Malacca. It has furthermore just launched a cooking school in which guests learn to cook authentic Malaysian dishes. The Tropical Spice Garden offers an eco-tourism experience and the focus is on the natural environment. Although the gardens are carefully sculpted and are adorned with garden features such as stream crossings, pergolas, doorways, Mayan hammocks and pergolas, it is devoid of gimmicks and offers as authentic an experience as possible.

Museums and heritage sites today often feature exhibitions and displays driven by computer programmes that can deliver complex light and sound experiences and simulate reality Corbishley (2000). Characters dressed in costume and costumed events are also deployed to reach young visitors. The Penang Butterfly Farm was not to be left behind and is currently in the process of reinventing itself and already introduced its own characters Orni and Friends during December 2010. According to the promotional material distributed by the Penang Butterfly Farm, the roles of their characters are those of nature ambassadors to raise environmental awareness, advocate nature-loving values and inspire children. Orni and Friends were designed in conjunction with Penang State’s one year initiative of a Cleaner Greener Penang, an initiative developed to restore the island’s living environment and improve the quality of life. The characters make their appearances during nature education workshops, events and conservation activities (Penang Butterfly Farm, 2010).

Shortly after the school field trip to the farm, it closed its doors to the public for major facility upgrades and enhancements. Current facilities and live exhibits are being upgraded and new exhibits will be added to existing ones, diversifying fauna and flora on display. New digital displays, touch screen panels, a Cave of Mystery and the Horizon of Bugs and more, are aimed directly at children (Penang Butterfly Farm, 2010). Hoffstædter (2008) argues that Theme Parks display aspects of culture through the use of material culture, much like its icon, Disneyland. “Theme Parks are a mixture of fantasy and something very abstract (culture) that takes on the appearance of closeness and authenticity” (Hoffstædter, 2008, p.141). It seems as if the Penang Butterfly Farm displays characteristics often associated with Theme Parks rather than Nature Centres.

2. Background

The Heritage of Penang

Malaysia, a country in South East Asia comprises of two states on Borneo and another eleven states on Peninsular Malaysia. Penang is a state located both on the North West coast of Peninsular Malaysia as well as Pulau Pinang. Pulau Pinang, hereafter referred to as Penang, is a tropical island with a rainforest climate and home to a multi-ethnic society. The cultural landscape of George Town, the capital of Penang, embraces the historic inner enclave of the city as well as a range of other significant remnants from the colonial era bordering the historical trading post. The natural landscape cannot be isolated from the enclave as it is integral to and part of the cultural mosaic and character of the city (Jones, 2002). Significant cultural-natural landscapes include the Botanic Gardens from which another important site, the Penang Hill hill-station rises, and further to the West, the metropolitan Penang National Park. The Tropical Spice Garden and the Penang Butterfly Farm Nature Centres are located close to the Penang National Park. Jones (2002) refers to these sites as cultural-natural landscapes in view of the human activities and values ascribed to the sites which range from single properties to gardens, vast landscapes or whole islands linked not physically but historically: “The potency of these places are that they represent living or often ‘museum-like’ representations of significant periods of human occupancy of portions of the world’s landscape” (Jones, 2002, p.2). These places offer captivating narratives of our own cultural existences. It is against this rich backdrop of historical, cultural and natural significance that children living in Penang visit sites such as the Penang Hills, the Botanic Gardens, the Penang National park, the Tropical Spice Garden and the Penang Butterfly Farm.

Nature Centres: The Tropical Spice Garden and the Penang Butterfly Farm 

The Tropical Spice Garden and the Penang Butterfly Farm are Nature Centres designed to educate visitors about nature and the environment. These two sites are located within protected spaces; the Tropical Spice Garden in an open space and the Penang Butterfly Farm in a closed space. Both sites feature various trails among special gardens resembling rainforest biomes, an educational centre, an exhibit, a gift shop, and a café. Whilst the Penang Butterfly Farm displays small live animals in specially designed enclosures, the Tropical Spice Garden showcases herbs and spices. Small animals such as tree shrews, plantain squirrels, spectacled monkeys and many bird species freely occupy the Tropical Spice Garden.

Tropical Spice Garden

The Tropical Spice Garden was established in November 2003 as en eco-tourism project to display more than five hundred different tropical flora and spices. It was an abandoned rubber plantation before David and Rebecca Wilkinson transformed the site into a garden of unique design, preserving indigenous flora and fauna and rerouting water from a nearby waterfall through a series of streams to an ornamental pond at the entrance to the gardens. The Tropical Spice Garden has received numerous awards from Tourism Malaysia and The Malaysia International Landscape & Garden Festival. Their aim is to nurture awareness and to enhance knowledge about the natural environment, exotic plants and spices. They are also aspiring to become a leading botanical garden in the region through responsible management of their resources. Three different trails can be explored in the gardens namely the Jungle Trail, the Spice Trail and the Ornamental Trail. In addition to these trails, different Garden Rooms were created to feature special plant collections. Rooms include the Water Garden, the Cycad Room, The Banana Bank, the Bamboo Garden, the Ginger Walk, Spice Terraces, the Croton Wall, the Fern Walk, Sugar Terrace and the Ornamental Valley. Wooden structures such as pavilions, gazebos, benches, gateways, signposts and decking are constructed out of Malaysian hardwood and recycled wood from demolished warehouses and pre-war houses in Penang. Water features, Mayan hammocks and a giant forest swing are positioned throughout the gardens. Transition points between the various Garden Rooms were created to accommodate child visitors (Tropical Spice Garden, 2011).

The Tropical Spice Garden features a Visitor Centre, located in a Straits Colonial bungalow, Lone Crag Villa. Tree Monkey restaurant is built partially in the tree tops, and on top of Lone Crag Villa, with views of the Strait of Malacca. The restaurant serves Thai, Malaysian and Western cuisine, cooked from spices harvested from their own gardens. A gift shop sells souvenirs with a focus on spices, teas, horticultural literature and a spice spa range. The Tropical Spice Garden Cooking School guarantees a hands-on experience where prospective cooks and chefs prepare their dishes using herbs and from the gardens (Tropical Spice Garden, 2011). A small spice museum display the history of spices and the various spice routes between Asia and Europe, old maps, a collection of photographic prints and traditional kitchen utensils.

Penang Butterfly Farm

The Penang Butterfly Farm, one of the world’s first tropical butterfly sanctuaries and insectariums, was founded in March 1986 by David Goh. Goh was inspired and encouraged by the owner of the Stratford Butterfly Farm in England, Clive Farrell, to open a tropical butterfly farm in Malaysia (Penang Butterfly Farm, 2010). Live displays as well as museum exhibits of preserved dead species in insectariums and butterfly houses focus on education about these small animals and critters. The displays and exhibits furthermore showcase the involvement of researchers and conservationists. The farm aims to cultivate a culture of environmental sustainability, nature conversation and community through researching species under threat, exploring the habitat diversity, providing recreation and education, undertaking new ecological sustainable projects, and nurture learning “especially in children” (Penang Butterfly Farm, 2010). In addition to over four thousand free fluttering butterflies, the Penang Butterfly Farm displays an array of live critters such as jungle insects, arachnids and reptiles in a tropical garden setting featuring more than three hundred different tropical plant species. The variety of trails allow visitors to stroll at leisure before they reach a state-of- the- art mounted butterfly and insect exhibition, followed by an ancient Malaysian art and artefact gallery, a gift shop and finally an eatery, the Papilio Café.

As a recreational Nature Centre, the Penang Butterfly Farm is one of the major tourist attractions in Penang and is strategically located near the tourist hotel strip at Batu Ferringi. The farm takes advantage of the nearby the Penang National Park and frequently releases back a significant percentage of the captive-bred stock to the wild. According to Goh the Penang Butterfly Farm is a household name in Penang and a must-see attraction for visitors, confirmed also by the number one rating as top Penang attraction on Tripadvisor®. Goh furthermore emphasizes the farm as a commercial enterprise “The success of the Butterfly Farm as a tourist attraction has even inspired a series of similar commercial operations in Malacca, Cameron highlands and Singapore” (Penang Butterfly Farm, 2010). Goh observes that the local population barely recognises the farm as an internationally respected breeding centre and think of it only as a tourist attraction.

The Penang Butterfly Farm however is changing this perception. Their nature education programmes have been designed to cater to the needs of Malaysian students attending local schools ranging from Kindergarten to Secondary School. Programmes offered and presented are based on the Malaysian KBSR (primary school) & KBSM (secondary school) syllabi with nature related themes and the Penang Butterfly Farm has trained more than three hundred teachers as a valuable link between their efforts at the Nature Centre and the school curriculum. This indicates that children have the opportunity to experience the Penang Butterfly Farm as education site in addition to recreation and tourist site. The Penang Butterfly Farm is furthermore visited by students studying at the various international schools in Penang.

Both the Tropical Spice Garden and the Penang Butterfly Farm are spaces designed for the recreation and education of adults, children, families and visiting groups such as tourists and school students. They both proclaim to replicate authenticity, however authentic nature and culture is open to many interpretations. Backhaus (2003) argues that people visit jungles not merely because they are covered with rainforests, but also because they are branded conservation areas or heritage sites. Miller et al. (2002) argue that “collection-based institutions” such as the Tropical Spice Garden and the Penang Butterfly Farm, have the opportunity to win support for its preservation and conservation activities through educational opportunity and stimulating curiosity (p.87). These Nature Centres furthermore provide opportunity for urbanites and school pupils alike to experience the wonders of wildlife and nature. School field trips organized by international schools is an integral part of its holistic, internationally minded, trans-disciplinary curriculum. These excursions serve a dual purpose as it exposes pupils to real life experiences of topics studied at school and introduce the international students to local nature and culture.
International Schools and School Field Trips

The Primary Years Programme (PYP) of the International Baccalaureate® (IB) provides holistic international education to pupils ages 3-12 years both within and outside the classroom. Holistic education focuses on the fullest possible development of the student and prepares them for lifelong learning through focusing on the life skills, attitudes and personal awareness they need to be successful learners in an increasingly complex world. During their learning students broaden personal and critical thinking and develop appreciation for the natural, social, local and international world around them (Hare, 2010). The IB was established in 1968 with headquarters based in Geneva, Switzerland and is currently taught to a million pupils in 141 countries worldwide. The IB is synonymous with high quality education and is recognized by leading universities globally (International Baccalaureate, 2010). International-mindedness is encouraged in pupils and the IB defines international education according to a strict set of criteria. Criteria include developing world citizens with a strong sense of identity who are sensitive towards culture and human values, otherwise described as intercultural awareness and understanding as essential to modern society. The PYP offers a trans-disciplinary programme and fosters critical thinking skills through an inquiry based programme structured around six Units of Inquiry per year group. The six trans-disciplinary themes offered in the six subject areas of language, social studies, mathematics, art, science and personal, social & physical education is structured around Who we are, Where we are in place and time, How we express ourselves, How the world works, How we organize ourselves and Sharing the Planet (International Baccalaureate, 2010). Each unit lasts for several weeks during which time the students conduct in depth investigations culminating in a summative assessment.

Students undertake school field trips to various Nature Centres and Conservation Sanctuaries as part of their learning experiences when studying topics such as Animal Lifecycles and Rainforests. The children participating in this research studied Rainforests structured around the topic Sharing the Planet with a focus on the subject areas of science and social studies. The central idea is that the rainforest is an interdependent community with valuable resources. During their learning, the children made inquiries into what a rainforest was like, how exactly a rainforest was an interdependent activity and how rainforest resources were used. This year group went on three different school field trips, visiting four Nature Centres namely the Penang Butterfly Farm, the Botanic Gardens and the Tropical Spice Garden on Penang Island and Bukit Merah Orang-utan Sanctuary on the mainland.

The purpose of school field trips is dual as it serves formal education as well as social goals (Larsen & Jenssen, 2002; Coughlin, 2010). What pupils preserve after going on a school field trip are those things that are meaningful to them and cannot be seen in isolation from the historical and cultural context within which the learning takes place. Influences by teachers, parents, friends and fellow pupils as well as earlier experiences with nature affect the culture created by the child during trips (James & Bixler, 2008). School field trips are normally structured around formal educational activities, followed by free time to explore the site, a visit to the gift shop and sometimes a meal in the cafe or their own packed snacks or meals. Categories best expressing the lived experiences of the children are sensory orientation, social relationships, novelty, free time and personal welfare concerns according to the study conducted by James and Bixler (2008). They point out that it is the sensory experiences that connect children to the natural world during school field trips to nature sites (James and Bixler, 2008).

Researchers argue that few studies exploring school field trips have thus far taken the pupils’ perspectives into consideration (Luehmann, 2009; James & Bixler, 2008; Coughlin, 2010). This study explores the culture produced by children during their school field trip to the Tropical Spice Garden and the Penang Butterfly Farm. The study is informed by the New Sociology of Childhood with its focus on children’s agency.

3. Review of related Studies

This chapter gives an introduction into current knowledge and trends in literature about children spaces and places as well as children’s culture. It highlights the gaps in current research and draws attention to the significance of new research. In this study I present arguments for a more substantive focus on children’s embodied and emplaced experiences during school field trips to Nature Centres and using this as a point of departure, I present the review under the headings: Engaging the Senses during School Field Trips, Children’s Places and Spaces and Children’s Culture.

Engaging the Senses during School Field Trips

James and Bixler (2008) conducted an ethnography examining children’s lived experiences during a three-day residential trip to a coastal beach environment involving twenty gifted primary school students enrolled in grades 4 and 5. Examining the environmental education (EE) programme from a student’s perspective, they conducted participant observation and a series of interviews prior, during and after the visit to study the children’s non-formal environmental learning experiences and analysed journal entries. During interviews, the researchers used drawings, games and props, modified versions of Personal Meaning Mapping and Five Field Maps created by the children themselves to elicit information (James & Bixler, 2008). The EE programme was taught in nature settings ensuring that students had opportunity for touching, viewing and catching different animals. During free time students could engage and interact with the natural environment. According to their analysis, students used their senses to describe their experiences, and in particular the sense of touch. They conclude that touch provided intimate interaction with nature and evoked feelings of “nice” such as touching shells, touching sand and throwing items into the sea and “freaky” such as touching a small snake (James & Bixler, 2008, p.50). Senses of hearing and sight were dominant during meaning-making as seeing and hearing experiences either encouraged or discouraged the students to also include the sense of touch. Not only did the students enjoy listening to the sounds of nature, but they also commented on the voice of an instructor and hearing one another singing silly songs in front of the campfire at night. The researchers argue that sensory perception is highly personal and they suggest that educators and programme instructors increase opportunity for sensory experiences in nature (James & Bixler, 2008).

Farmer et al. (2007) studied long term effects of an environmental education (EE) trip undertaken by 4th grade students to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They conclude that a year after the visit took place, students still involved their senses by remembering what they had seen and heard and that this is a sound indication for pro-environmental attitudes. They argue that the aim of these EE programmes is to change attitudes towards the environment and to foster environmentally responsible citizens (Farmer et. al, 2007). The site they visited are devoted to preserving biodiversity and the students engaged in a rich variety of experiences including examining two types of trees, discussing the role of certain rainforest plants, participating in tree identification, hiking a trail and completing interactive learning experiences. The researchers selected fifteen out of the original thirty students a year after the EE programme took place and conducted unstructured interviews, opening the interview with “Could you please tell me what you remember about the field trip that you took to the Smoky Mountains National Park last year” (Farmer et. al, 2007, p.35). What I find interesting in their study, is that even though the participants constantly referred to the senses during the field trip as well as during the interviews a year later, Farmer did not recognise the sensory. They lump the sensory experiences “sucking (straws), poking holes, learned about (bugs), touch them, heard (bugs)” with other actions and describe these as “doing activity” (Farmer et. al, 2007, p.36). These studies underline why Pink (2009) is adamant that contemporary ethnographers be more overt about the centrality of the sensory experience in research.

Markwell (2001) examined interactions between students and nature at three natured based tourist attractions in Borneo, East Malaysia. He presented a multi-dimensional picture of the experiences of the students as well as the context within which these experiences took place. What is significant in this study is the reference to mythologies created and presented through visuals and text in the media. Nature and wildlife exist as real sites and in our own minds, within television documentaries, books, promotional pamphlets, Nintendo and PSP games, the internet, safaris and guided tours, informing cultural mythologies and popular culture. Visitor experiences are ritualised within a cultural context (Markwell, 2001). Nature becomes the object of the visitor gaze and can take on a variety of forms from the hanging bridge in the canopy walk to the stepping stones in the stream. Consumption of nature is however not restricted to the visual but is an embodied experience also involving smell, taste, hearing and touch. It is only recently that researchers are starting to pay attention to the other senses too in contrast to studies that present visitors as beings with a gaze but sans a body as also confirmed by Pink (2009) and Rose (2001). Markwell (2001) points to the significance of understanding the visitor not only as a person seeing but also as a sensual being with an active body. He described how the human body experiences tiredness, low energy, sunburn, frost, insect bites and stings and without cultural transformation of the body, many experiences will not be possible (Blackwell, 2001). This is true especially within the tropics where the body often has to deal with extremes.

Children’s Places and Spaces

Children’s geographies, the research area investigating places and spaces of children’s lives, advanced parallel to Interdisciplinary Childhood Studies in the 1990’s. One of the most important contributions that geographical studies can make towards the New Social Studies of Childhood is to highlight the importance of place (Holloway & Valentine, 2000). They rightly point out that although it is acknowledged by sociologists that childhood varies across time and place, the majority of research still focuses on constructions of time and those that indeed focus on children’s places report from the North for the most. A spotlight on the South however, indicates that what is considered “normal” childhood in the North, is being challenged in the South. A sense of place also illustrates the intimate connections between the local and the global in contrast to previous studies that indicated that the local and the global are irreconcilable (Holloway & Valentine, 2000).

Adams and Van Slyck (2004) discuss the history of children’s spaces and mention the importance of space for children separate from home and school, as place to establish social structure where children create their own rules. Studies indicate that whilst adults construct specialist facilities, activities and programmes such as Theme Parks and Children’s Museums, children themselves create their own opportunity for play and learning within these same spaces, disregarding adult intent. Children become bored and even discontented if they are prevented from creating their own spaces and prefer more flexible landscapes above formally created play areas and playgrounds. Adults however are increasingly fearful about children and their activities in public space (Holloway & Valentine, 2000). Holloway and Valentine (2000) conclude that studies about children’s places and spaces are ever more significant to counter ethnocentrism by demonstrating that places matter and to inform how children themselves make sense of their everyday lives.

Studies involving children as valid research participants provide a fascinating glimpse into children’s spaces and places. Rasmussen (2004) confirms that in their everyday lives, children relate mostly to home, school and recreational institutions, spaces created by adults for children. Rasmussen’s study is of importance to my own study since he sheds light on children’s places (informing culture by children) and places for children (informing culture for children). Rasmussen argues that for the most, the lives of children are an institutionalised one and that it appears natural to children even though conditions of children according to social researchers are social and cultural.

Research about children and their natural environment initially focussed on their spatial environmental behaviour in which the point of departure was geographical research on children drawing heavily from psychology. It is only by the 1980’s that research focussed on the symbolic meanings of places; however research was still conducted from an adult viewpoint (Kong, 2000). Kong (2000) involved children, young adults and adults in various interviews and focus groups in order to gain their perspective regarding the symbolic meanings and values they invest in nature. The setting of Kong’s study is Singapore. Natural Singaporean rainforest has long since been replaced by urban concrete jungle and the current green spaces and natural areas are human constructed. The needs and experiences of children differ from the adult world as can be learned from this study in which Kong (2000) refers to these different experiences as “tensions” (p.231). Children in her study revealed a preference for recreation and play in nature whilst adults a fear of nature’s dangers to children; adults preferred familial recreation in nature whilst children got bored and preferred other forms of entertainment; children indicated a desire to learn whilst adults showed limited knowledge towards answering their questions. The adults in her study indicated that it was crucial for children to have childhood contact with nature in order to have an affinity with and caring attitude towards nature as adults. Children need to be understood as a separate group first and secondly as a group which in itself is differentiated (Kong, 2000). Kong (2000) concluded that environmental experiences for children must allow them to encounter nature for themselves away from adult influence and control. They suggest policy and action programmes to support this view.

Children’s Culture

Studying culture for and by children from an interdisciplinary perspective involves recognition for the plurality of childhoods as social, spatial, cultural and political constructions. Child culture includes studies on media for children, children’s culture of play, children’s social and cultural networks and negotiation between adult culture, children and child culture (Rawlins, 2005). James et al., (1998) criticize arguments about children’s culture that positions children in a separate world from that which adults belong to and wonder whether children’s culture is about play as something children do differently to adults or whether children’s culture is just a construct of their everyday lives. They connect children’s culture to social structure and argue that children’s culture is a social action within different spaces and times and not symbolic artefact. Davies (2010) too posits that defining culture within childhood invariably points to the term construct. Childhood as an idea separate from actual children is a “cultural construct” (Davies, 2010, p.7). She argues that whereas it is possible to study the culture of adults without considering their social lives, the same does not ring true for children’s culture. Children’s culture has a very specific functional aspect and is not only about “art and music” but according to Davies is essential to the entire lives of children, developmental and social and furthermore children and culture is intrinsically linked though “media” amongst other ways (2010, p.15).

Children are also consumers and according to Cook (2005) many childhood researchers ignore the place of media and consumption in the lives of children. The few who address the issue, fail for the most to align their findings with those of consumer-media scholars which is problematic since childhood and consumption are deeply intertwined and commercial culture cannot be understood in isolation. Children as social beings are often defined through their participation in the consumer marketplace and through popular culture. Social lives of children cannot be disconnected from their lived experiences, neither can consumption, popular and media culture be treated separately from childhood studies.

Langer (2005) reflects on the global distribution of children’s consumer culture in a media-saturated society and how it informs both the individual and civil society. She too positions children as consumers rather than citizens and insinuates the demise of the connection between children and society, and also between society and families due to “the social” being eclipsed by “the market” (Langer 2005, p.259). Contemporary childhood is recognised as being entrenched in a product-universe though which children negotiate identity in terms of consumer choice (Langer, 2002; Carrington, 2003). Whilst the high levels of consumption is seen as a side effect of capitalism and contributes to a shift from a culture of scarcity to a culture of waste, Langer argues that this is consumer culture by adults and that children’s experiences are different. Adults often consume out of greed or rivalry, children, however, consume in order to belong and to participate in the worlds of other children (Langer, 2002). This marks the shift from child as consumer to child as producer, children using consumer culture as a social resource collectively. Carrington argues that whereas educators and producers of consumption goods try to impose childhood upon children, children themselves carve out cultural, political, economical and social identities linked to consumer and mass media - both as consumer and producer (2003). Besides, media enables the flow of cultural messages across time and place.

After a review of literature published it became evident that researchers are paying attention to embodied experiences of children during their consumption of nature. Children are sensual beings with active bodies and in addition to seeing also engage the senses of smell, taste, hearing and touch. All these senses are engaged when children makes sense of the places they visit during their school field trips. Interdisciplinary approaches in social sciences and humanities exposed the centrality of the sensory experience in research

4. Aim and Research Questions


A principal aim of this ethnography is to contribute to the field of sensory research by presenting arguments for a more substantive focus on children’s embodied and emplaced experiences during school field trips to Nature Centres. This study is explorative and a further aim is to gain insight into culture for and by children by examining children’s perspectives, practices and responses of their school field trip to the Tropical Spice Garden and Penang Butterfly Farm. I will try to interpret the children’s strategies negotiating not only the natural environment but also their social worlds. Through a critical stance and reflexivity I draw on a sensory ethnographic approach in my aim to investigate these sensibilities during the children’s close encounters with the natural kind. The methodological approach of sensory ethnography was chosen to match the research questions as well as the cultural and the physical setting of the study. Sensory ethnography is furthermore most suitable when taking the position and characteristics of the children into consideration. The overall purpose of the study was to reveal the children’s embodied and emplaced experiences through their participation in a school field trip. The study contributes to our understanding of sensory experiences through an analysis of the children’s own perspectives of the field trip.

Research Questions

The main research question involves the cultural expressions produced by children of their field trip and the following questions were examined during the study:
  • How do children use their senses to describe and demonstrate their encounters with the natural kind? 
  • What culture is created by the children during their school field trip? 
  • What culture is produced for children by Nature Centres and how is this culture presented to the children? 
Additionally, the following sub questions were explored:
  • What are the children’s first ideas and thoughts when they are prompted about the word “Rainforests”? 
  • What do they remember about their school field trips during the image-elicitation interviews? 
  • Are these Nature Centres child friendly as understood from a children’s perspective? 
  • What areas of the Nature Centres did they enjoy the most and which were the least successful? 
  • What was the best part of their experiences and which did they find disappointing? 

The methods enacted during the study include observations, visual analysis and image-elicitation interviews. Through an innovative participatory practice, the children drew images at the onset of the interviews. They also drew maps of the Penang Butterfly Farm which was central to the image-elicitation interviews. The children were given the opportunity to freely express themselves through the methodological approaches and methods enacted.

5. Theoretical Perspectives

Interdisciplinary Childhood Studies

The New Sociology of Childhood evolved during the 1980’s when sociologists felt dissatisfied not only with the status of children in society and the social sciences, but also with the research methods enacted to the study of the social worlds of children (Munoz, 2006). James et al. (1998) refers to a paradigm shift when they talk about the shift from a biological, age and stage developmental understanding of the child to a socio-cultural understanding of childhood in which children are seen as “beings” rather than “becomings”. The dissatisfaction with an understanding of childhood as a transitional phase, led to the development of alternative theoretical approaches and research tools, acknowledging children as full social actors and valid research participants (Munoz, 2006; Thorne, 2004, James et al. 1998). The New Sociology of Childhood and a broadened understanding of children rejected traditional perspectives, placing children and their varied experiences at the centre of attention (Thorne, 2008). Researchers developed research processes that are fair and deferential towards children in response to an increased demand for the voices of children to be heard in matters that affect them (Raffaelli 2001).

The reference to childhood in lieu of child, children or child development refers to a more cultural, historical and social constructionist stance, broadening the field of study to include the diverse conditions of the lives of children (Thorne, 2008). The lives and social worlds of children evolve continuously through time, across places and social context (Rawlins, 2002). Childhood studies as it evolved in the 1980’s was however still too narrow and limiting an idea, especially given the dominant Western assumptions to the field, and by the 1990’s researchers called for an interdisciplinary approach, informing the anthropology, geography, sociology and history of childhood (Thorne, 2008). Central to this view is the acknowledgment that childhood is a culturally diverse experience in a world that evolves continuously through time, across places and social context (Rawlins, 2002).

The New Sociology of Childhood emphasises research with children, giving agency to the children as participants, relating their voices, reporting their views and explaining their circumstances. Alanen (2005) warns against adult standpoint and patriarchal views within social research and calls for a children’s standpoint. Research should focus on the experiences of children, paying attention to their own perspectives and views (Munoz, 2006). This view forms the framework for this study in which children document and communicate their own embodied and emplaced experiences during a school field trip to the Tropical Spice Garden and the Penang Butterfly Farm, a constructionist view within the New Social Studies of Childhood. According to Munoz (2006) a critical factor for this approach is the interaction of the children’s experiences with the social worlds in which they live, a world shared with the worlds of other adults and children.

A constructionist position emphasise the plurality of childhoods, addressing key sociological issues such as culture and is best studied through ethnographic approaches (Munoz, 2006). As Jenks put it “Childhood is not all of a piece or all of a parcel” (2004, p.5). Since I am investigating the cultural worlds of children, this approach forms the framework for the study. The study is a sensory ethnography and one of the main interests according to Munoz (2006) in a constructionist position, concerns the body of the child. Children’s social relationships and cultures should be considered from their own view and experiences, how they themselves construct their culture. The role of the researcher is to provide the opportunity for their expression through supportive methodological tools. I provide the opportunity through a sensory ethnographic approach in which the children actively participated in the experiences, from their participation during the field trips to participation in the analysis through image-elicitation interviews. Not all research methods are equally suitable to attain child perspectives in research. Some are better suited than others, especially methods replicating practices children are familiar with. Suitable research practices provide a thorough understanding of the lives of children rather than a mere explanation, as children has the right to be heard in their authentic voices.

6. The Ethnographic Approach

Sensory Ethnography

Pink rejects classical definitions of ethnography as a method for collecting “data” mainly through participant observation and interviewing (2009, p.8). She describes ethnography on her own terms as a multidisciplinary approach and a process generating knowledge about culture, society and people based on the experiences of the ethnographer. The cultural turn starting in the 1970’s and coming onto its own in the 1990’s, indicates a shift in the way social scientists understand social life, acknowledging that culture is a complex notion (Rose 2001). Ethnographies do not claim to create objective, truthful accounts of reality but rather offers versions of ethnographers’ experiences of reality that are as faithful as possible to the circumstance, negotiations and intersubjectivities through which the knowledge was produced (Pink 2007, Rose 2001). Sensory ethnography like visual ethnography is a critical methodology departing from the classical. At the core of sensory ethnography lies the production of knowledge and understanding through reflexive and experiential (collaborative and/or participatory) approaches. Sensory ethnography thus embraces multiple ways of knowing as pathways to understanding (Pink 2009).

A sensory approach to ethnography rests upon the multi-sensoriality, the richness of social experiences and practices by the ethnographer and the participants alike. During the research process the ethnographer firstly occupies similar places to their research participants and secondly embarks on a process through which their sensory knowing becomes academic knowledge. In short this approach seeks out knowledge about the senses and uses the senses as a route to knowledge (Pink 2009). Interdisciplinary approaches in social sciences and humanities exposed the centrality of the sensory experience in research, experiences which Pink now urges contemporary ethnographers to be more overt about. She points out that existing literature about sensory approaches are mostly concerned with two issues namely the place of the senses in ethnographic practice and the argument that the senses are truly central to doing ethnography. This evokes the need to acknowledge and address a larger picture of sensory ethnography as an emergent practice in itself, a practice she is responding to in her book Doing Sensory Ethnography (Pink, 2009).

Pink has followed up her book by publishing a new paper titled “Multimodality, multi-sensoriality and ethnographic knowing: social semiotics and the phenomenology of perception” (Pink, 2011). In addition to describing multi-sensorality, she advocates multimodality ethnographic knowing: “Anthropologists of the senses do not necessarily understand the senses as differentiated and simply operating in relation to each other. Rather, they account for the relationship between the phenomenology of perception and the cultural constructedness of sensory categories” (Pink, 2009; Pink, 2011, p.265)

Researchers traditionally recognize embodied experience through the five sense sensorium, however Pink (2011) propounds that recognizing the senses as smell, taste, vision, sound and touch, is a western construct. Cross-cultural research reveals that senses such as audition, balance, kinaesthesia and synaesthesia are equally part of embodied experiences (Pink 2011). This is significant to my own study since two thirds of the children represent non-western societies and only a third is from western societies. Whilst their passports link them to western countries, some of them are actually born into bi-cultural families straddling the East and West. A few of the children are Third Culture Kids (TCK’s), children who live(d) in and interact(ed) with two or more cultural environments for a significant period of time during developmental years (Pollock & Van Reken, 2001).

The sensory is culturally constructed only to enable researchers to describe embodied experiences, so that we can communicate in text about sensory perception (Pink, 2011). Her main argument is to challenge ethnographers who argue for a return to ethnography as an observational practice, as an analysis of the social that can be heard, seen, smelled, touched or tasted since this indicates a naturalistic stance. Instead of the above she proposes reflexivity in order to delve deep into how these social occurrences that are relational to one another (Pink, 2011, p.271). Researchers learn in and as part of the social lives of their participants.

Ethnographies are not only about the written text and field notes but are multi-sensory, multimodal, embodied experiences in which field notes can be supplemented or even replaced by multimedia, material objects, physical spaces and sensory experiences. Ethnographic knowledge furthermore is produced collaboratively between the researcher and the informants (Pink 2009). The relationship between researcher and research participants changes due to the enacted media as well as the media created by the participants. They became creators of knowledge about themselves (Mattern 2011).

Strickland supports the views of Pink and points out that new technology enable fresh ways to capture the everyday social lives of people. Her account about the visual evokes a visual image in itself when Strickland (2003) posits that “the advent of small, silent cameras capable of producing crisp images in dim light has enabled far more subtle and intimate approaches to the recording of real people and actual locations, executed with a fluency of camerawork and naturalness of action that rival the most polished of studio productions” (p.118). Rose (2001) too refers to new technologies we are being surrounded with and argues that these technologies and images all offer views of the world and render the world in visual terms. She distinguishes between vision, what we see; and visuality, the way in which vision is constructed and stresses that the centrality of the visual in our senses is particularly pertinent in the image oversaturated western world. The sine qua non is that even the choice of equipment informs the reflexive use of media in research, shapes the identity of the researcher(s) and influence relationships in the field (Mattern 2011). Visual approaches are influenced by different visual cultures and theoretical beliefs (Pink 2009). Crucial to sensory ethnography and visual ethnography remains the fact that it should be theoretically grounded in addition to being reflexive. This study grounds its theory in Interdisciplinary Childhood studies that positions children as competent human agents as discussed in Chapter 4.

Visual ethnography as an approach was also enacted in the research. Sparrman (2010) articulates that visual ethnography is an approach rather than a method. As an approach it does not belong to any particular discipline. She states that a visual ethnography concerns both pre-existing visual documentation as well as visuals produced by informants and researchers. For the purpose of this study I investigate visuals introducing cartoon-like characters produced by the Penang Butterfly Farm. The visuals are displayed throughout the Nature Centre such as on signboards lining the pathways, on banners in their educational centre and as souvenirs in their gift shop. I also investigate images created by the children after their school field trip to the Tropical Spice Garden and Penang Butterfly Farm and during the image-elicitation interviews.

Holland (2004) in her vivid account of The Myth of the Child in Popular Imagery focuses on the production of sets of narratives about childhood embedded in many different and all possible cultural forms. Images are multiple experiences transporting the audience to different times, places and spaces whilst creating a plurality of private and public meanings. Images chart emotional, social and political worlds and are expressions of power relations in society (Holland 2004; Sparrman 2006). The focus of the research will be on “imagery in use” (Holland 2004, p. 2) analysed through Discourse Analysis 1. Discourse Analysis 1 is a critical methodology focussing on discourse as seen through different kinds of visual images. In short - images have social effects. It focuses on the visual artefact’s discourse and how social variation is produced. Rose (2001) describes Discourse Analysis 1 as a discourse expressed through a variety of texts and visuals. Doing visual analysis demands a critical lens on images steeped in cultural significance, depicting social practice and power relations alike. Holland (2004) refers to the mapping of social, political and emotional worlds. According to Gee (2001) discourses are always embedded in a medley of social institutions. These social institutions are situated within a local context and are representative of the social positions enacted by society. Bryman (2004) describes discourse analysis as constructionist and argues that the researched as well as the researcher alike are active in meaning making of their social setting under investigation. Discourse analysis is concerned with the strategies people employ in creating different kinds of effect. There are several advantages as well as disadvantages to visual and sensory ethnography. Complete neutrality on the side of the researcher is impossible and even undesirable, a point that has been a contentious aspect of qualitative research. A major advantage of sensory ethnography is that it might very well reveal qualities and experiences, occurrences and understandings of human groups that other forms of research are not able to reveal.

Researching with children

Since social science research involves investigating all aspects of human activity and interactivity and is enriched by a plurality of disciplines, it is vital that the quality of research experiences and the appropriateness of the methods enacted are valid. According to sociologists within the New Social Studies of Childhood school of thought, children are actively constructing their own social lives and peer cultures, affecting as well as being affected by the everyday life around them. Because children’s lives is essentially different to the social worlds of adults, research with children and the ensuing methodological issues is often different to research with adults. It is however, paradoxical that sociologists and researchers calling for different research approaches with children simultaneously accentuate the competence of children Punch (2002).

Children are acknowledged as valid participants and even co-researchers and researchers themselves due to changing perspectives on children’s status within society (James & Prout, 1997). The New Sociology of Childhood involves children as contributors and negotiators, indicating a shift in power from parent and society to child. It is therefore detrimental that sociologists and researchers involved with children support them in recognizing their rights since children are entitled to shaping their own childhoods and a quality of life. This view is formally supported by articles 12 and 13 of the United Conventions on the Right of the Child (UNCRC) which requires that children have freedom of expression and that they should be able to convey their own views and ideas through the media of their choice, individually and collectively[1]. The innocence and fragility of a child is easily manipulated and mistreated if not nurtured and cultivated. Research for the most is still adult-centric even though it is recognized that children provide an insider perspective that is critical to our understanding of their worlds (Kellet, 2005).

Morrow (2007) observes “We (adults) see what we want to see, think what we want to think, say what we want to say, and children are not in a position to contest” (p.7) and argues that the “we” should be genuinely inclusive of children and adults. Morrow (2007) moreover challenges our understanding of childhood from a minority western viewpoint and proposes discourse to include majority non-western childhoods. This is important to my own study since the children represent thirteen 8-9 year old pupils, nine of them from non-western countries.

Children’s competence is “different from and not lesser than” adults’ competence and involving children not only as valid research participants but also as active researchers is a realistic concept (Kellet, 2005, p. 9). Ethnography seems to best address the school of thought that view children as very different from adults, even though the method is not without its problems (Punch, 2002). Traditional ethnography relies on participant observation however adults cannot participate fully in the lives of children. Applying a multi-method approach based on the skills of children (such as images produced by the children), a multi-sensory and finally a multi-modality approach during which the researcher engage in reflexivity overcomes many of the challenges in researching with children.

The children in this study are seven girls and six boys who attend the same grade in a private international school in Penang, Malaysia. There are currently six international schools in Penang and two of them are IB World schools, this school being one of the IB World schools. The school offers an international, student-centered, trans-disciplinary programme designed to foster the development of the whole child and learning is led through structured inquiry which aims to build upon existing understanding. The children study six different Units of Inquiry during the school year and since this particular year group studied “Rainforests” as one of their topics, the decision was made to invite them as participants in this study.

In this particular school, there are less than twenty children per class and the school overall can be considered small with mostly one to two classes per year group. Four of the participating children represent western countries although two of the four are also from multicultural, multilingual families. Another four children are from South East Asia and the Far East and five are Malaysian children. The Malaysian pupils represent Malay, Chinese and Indian ethnic background. The majority of the children are bi- or multilingual and all of them are competent English speakers. The mixture is representative of the population diversity at the school which caters mostly for children whose parents are middle to high income earners, the majority of which are expatriates.

Methods Enacted

Participant Observation – an embodied, emplaced experience

Pink (2009) supports the idea that ethnographers become sensorially engaged through the environments and practices they share with others and that the production of knowledge is fundamentally reflexive. Pink (2009) rethinks ethnography as a participatory practice in lieu of ideas of learning as “embodied, emplaced, sensorial and empathetic” (p.63). In this study I walked with the children, sharing their strides footstep for footstep, backpacks slung over our shoulders, cameras in hand. We were in harmony lingering through the Tropical Spice Garden; racing through the bug hunt at the Penang Butterfly Farm all the time sharing the same routes, the same place-making practices. We navigated different surfaces from the soft spongy mat of old damp leaves in the Tropical Spice Garden to the solid and hard concrete pathways at the Penang Butterfly Farm. By opening myself up for the experiences of the children and through my own emplaced experiences I gained better insights into those of the children as argued by Pink (2009).

At the Tropical Spice Gardens the sun was heating up the ground and hot, air rising from the earth was holding a lot of water vapour. One moment I felt clammy, the next moment the trickling sound of the water in nearby streams provided a cooling sensation. Butterflies were puddling on the forest floor, an army of ants with their on-the-move lifestyle were carrying large pieces of cut leaf. The children excited and eager to start with the day’s activities crowded the open air reception area in front of the ornamental pond. Their vividly coloured batik school shirts connected the eye instantly with the splendour of the tropical forest. The children sprayed their arms and legs with a diluted mixture of essential citronella oil to keep the annoying mosquitoes at bay. The air was instantly scented with the lemony aroma of the citronella oil. We were getting ready to walk. According to Pink (2009), walking with others can be seen as a sensory ethnography method. In my study it brought me closer to the children with whom I shared “rhythms and routes”, participating in the “place-making” practices of the children whose social world I was gaining insight about (Pink 2009, p.77). Pink (2009) emphasizes that such a shared experience should not be seen as “sameness” but by describing the shared walks, the ethnographer provide a route through which to imagine what the shared experiences would be like. Through our footsteps I am hoping to give the reader a glimpse of what the experience was like, an experience described in Chapter 7.

Image-elicitation Interviews

Integrating images created by the children after their school field trip created a comfortable opportunity and space for discussion during the interviews. Visual and tactile engagement with their drawings was central to our explorations of the children’s experiences at the Tropical Spice Gardens and Penang Butterfly Farm. With the trace of their fingers, the gaze of the eye they took us back to their experiences with spices and critters, spaces and places. According to Nicholas (2010) the social nature of image-elicitation interviews lead to collective idea generation, peer sharing, addresses inherent power imbalances between researcher and participants and results in the collection of in depth empirical encounters.

Pink (2009) draws the attention to the interconnectedness between the visual and the other senses during sensory ethnography. Following her line of thinking it means that when I insert an image into the interview, not only is the child responsible for drawing an image engaged in the interview, but rather that all the children present during the interview participate so that I can get a clear idea of what the social experiences were like for all the children. In short that means inviting the children to comment on other children’s sensory experiences as much as they comment on their own. The approach is responsive to unanticipated results since I was able to clarify as well as probe. The image-elicitation interview groups were small with three groups of three children and another group consisting of four children. The image-elicitation interviews lasted 45 minutes each.

In this study the children documented their interpretations of the Penang Butterfly Farm through bird’s eye view maps three weeks prior to the image-elicitation interviews, directly after their visit to the Penang Butterfly Farm. In addition to these bird’s eye view maps, the children created images at the onset of the interviews. They drew images and text around the central concept and prompt word “Rainforests”. These two types of images communicated their perspectives of culture through collaboration and discussion. According to Harper (2002) elicitation interviews do not only yield more information, but evoke a different kind if information. In this study, images produced by the children themselves portrayed the intimate dimensions of the children’s own and collective experiences as a social group, participating in a school field trip. These images inspired collaboration amongst the children and image-elicitation afforded me a means for understanding the children’s interpretation of their culture. “These insights must then be understood theoretically, that is, as indicators of cultural processing of sociologically meaningful messages” (Harper 2002, p. 19).

The children were briefed beforehand about the study and what visuals I will be collecting from them. I asked the children to draw me bird’s eye view maps of the Penang Butterfly Farm and supplied them with instructions and a sheet of A4 white paper slightly heavier than the paper used by the school to help distinguish the exercise from normal homework. Due to Chinese New Year starting in another two days, a major holiday in Malaysia, I asked the children to return their images the next day. They drew their maps at home. I collected eleven maps meaning that two participants did not complete the task, one of who was ill.

Children’s interests, priorities and culture can be shown through their rich pictorial representations. Drawing the maps at home implied potential advantages as well disadvantages. Advantages were that the children couldn’t copy and/or influence one another’s work and they had enough time to draw the maps in detail. On the other hand there was a risk that the task could be influenced by parents, siblings, the internet or pamphlets collected. The analysis and discussions however, indicates that they drew the maps without any assistance. Each image was unique and different to the actual map displayed at the entrance to the Penang Butterfly Farm. 

Interview guide and group interviews

Just as the actual field trip, the interview can also be treated as a way through which the children’s emplacement can be understood by building on a reflexive approach. Interviews are not simply situations of asking questions and audio recording answers but are emotive, sensorial and social encounters (Pink 2009). The interview is an exchange between the children, with whom I have already established a respectful relationship and built enough rapport, and myself in order to explore the meanings they place on experiences within their social worlds (Pink 2009). The image-elicitation interview is not to be seen as an event separate from the school field trip, but an extension and continuation of the experience.

I developed an interview guide (Attachment B) with interview and probe questions around topics identified through the research design, literature review, field observations, sensory experiences, photos documented and finally the maps produced by the children. An interview guide demonstrates that the researcher is in control whilst leaving both the participants and researcher free to explore new leads without having to exercise excessive control (Bernhard 2006). Whilst developing the interview guide, I kept in mind that the children might answer just to assist me with the research, but that these answers might not reflect their true beliefs and feelings. Such an obstacle was avoided by integrating their images into the interview and through probing. A key to successful interviewing is learning how to probe effectively and stimulate a respondent to produce more information whilst being mindful not to gain reflection of one’s own researcher views during empirical encounters (Bernard 2006).

The last week of the Rainforest Unit of Inquiry at school was spent reflecting and preparing for their summative assessment during which the children demonstrate the development of their learning. Parents are invited to attend the summative assessment also attended by students in other year groups and teachers at the Primary School. I requested early morning schedules for the interviews - shortly after the register was taken but before their first break- since it would ensure that the children were alert and well fed. The groups were divided according to the presentation of their maps bearing in mind that the maps demonstrate a range of drawing and colouring-in skills and I did not want to risk children making negative comments towards another’s drawings. They nevertheless scrutinized, criticized and complemented one another’s maps during the image-elicitations interviews.

Choice of interview space is fundamental towards the success of an interview (Horton, 2008). He stresses that it is important to reflect over the location of the interview, whether the researcher was able to choose the location or whether the location was assigned since interview settings might impact heavily on the interview itself (Horton, 2008). The image-elicitation interviews were held in a small room near the classroom which is being utilised as a Special Education Needs (SEN) room and/or English Second Language (ESL) room as assigned to me by the school. I had little choice in venue since the school is experiencing a shortage of space. The room is furnished with child sized chairs and a table. I positioned myself near the laptop in order to save recorded conversations on the hard drive of the laptop during each session. The table acted as a friendly barrier within the wider space and the positioning of the chairs furthermore reflected the tone and interaction of an image-elicitation interview. Even though we sat around the table, the chairs were tilted at an angle so that we resembled a circle. Pink (2009) argues that this “sitting down” is no different to the “walking” done during the field observations, an experience in a sensorial environment. The room provided a sense of being physically and psychologically a safe space. Almost all the children mentioned at some stage that the room had a nice feeling since it was light and airy, but cosy too.

Each image-elicitation interview involving the children who went on the school field trip lasted 45 minutes and I recorded:

Group A
Adam , Beatrice & Chloe
Record: 35.89 minutes

Group B
Emir, Deema & Fiona
Record: 36.40 minutes

Group C
Irvin, Jake, Georgina, Helen
Record 28.52 minutes

Group D
Ken, Mario, Ling
Record 38,06 minutes

* Their names are pseudonyms assigned to protect the identity of the children

Consent and Ethical Consideration

The nature of this sensory ethnography required observation, interaction and participation with the children as well as scrutinizing images created by the children and the site under investigation. It is therefore likely why certain ethical issues may arise. Ethical research practice does not only concern the actual conduct of research, but includes relevant issues pertaining to the standard and management of a research project, the protection of empirical findings and the publishing of those findings.

According to Bryman (2004), ethical issues occur at a variety of stages in social research and are to be taken seriously by the researcher. Ethical considerations furthermore relate directly to the integrity of the research and the disciplines involved. The role of values in the research process becomes a topic of concern in the realisation that what is ethically acceptable varies significantly amongst researchers and disciplines. Writers on research ethics furthermore adopt different stances concerning relationship issues that arise between researchers and research participants (Bryman, 2004).

There are many ethical issues to consider when involving children as legitimate research participants. The validity of the participation of children within social research is strengthened by providing them with a supportive research environment. The question that arises is what indeed is a supportive research environment? I provided the children with a forum to share their social experiences with me in order to understand their social world. I was creative and employed a reflexive approach through the choice of methods in the study.

Bryman (2004) points to four ethical issues that are particularly of significance during research, namely whether participants are at risk of harm, invasion of privacy, deception and informed consent. I sought informed consent (Addendum A) from parents, guardians, the Head of Primary, the class teacher and the children themselves. An information sheet disclosed the aim of the study and provided background information. I explained the methodological approach and enactment of data as well as the expected role of the children. Details of the leader of the research team, the supervisor of the thesis and my own contact information were given. A priority during the ethical considerations was the welfare of the children. The children were informed that they were free to withdraw without penalty at any stage of the research and that participation was voluntary. Anonymity was guaranteed and any information recorded would remain confidential. I further reassured parents and guardians that their child’s participation or non-participation in the project would have no effect on their child’s schoolwork or their visits to the Nature Centres.

Informed consent was also gained from the children at the onset of each image-elicitation interview after they were being reassured of anonymity. It was explained to them once more that they could agree or refuse to take part in the study without any adverse consequences, that the image-elicitation interviews will be recorded and that only the researcher would have access to these recordings. I was aware that issues of race, culture, gender & sexuality, disability and age impacts on the understanding of the social worlds of children and adopted approaches that valued the diversity of children attending an international school. They were informed that it was important to the study that their views were being listened to and taken seriously.


Social relationships remain a key component of ethnographic research and field work demands relational work of a unique and intense kind. Whilst the participants themselves and the researcher’s relationship with them provide the bulk of the empirical encounters even more important is that they provide the researcher with the building blocks of their identity within and beyond the field (Coffey, 1999).

Establishing field relationships is not a straightforward process and the onus lies on the researcher to initiate working rapport and trust (Coffey, 1999). The international primary school involved in the study, boasts a thriving community and parents are invited to attend the daily short assemblies at the start of the school day. Parents are also invited to visit the classrooms of their own children on Friday mornings, ten minutes prior to the start of the school day. Parents furthermore accompany children on school field trips and also participate in cultural exchange talks and activities in the classroom occasionally. These gave me the opportunity to participate and to learn more about the daily school dynamics, ensuring that I set the foundation for rapport building.

Whilst researchers should be mindful of over familiarity with their participants, Coffey (2009) argues that friendship with participants should not be avoided at the risk of the researcher remaining marginal. A balanced relationship is important in order to provide critical perspective (Coffey, 2009). Bearing this in mind, I facilitated a food technology class in order to build rapport with the children after the school field trip, but before the image-elicitation interviews. I was able to develop a sense of trust with the children.

The setting for this ethnographic account is The Tropical Spice Garden and The Penang Butterfly Farm. Rainforests are inherently damp, steamy, organic spaces where the forest floor is covered in leaf litter which feels spongy footstep upon footstep. The forest floor teems with a whole host of life forms such as insects, fungi, birds, small animals and reptiles. The Tropical Spice Garden and the Penang Butterfly Farm are both located in Malaysian tropical rainforest where the trees are dense and plants such as ferns, creepers, palm-like cycads and pitcher plants grow in abundance. Shafts of light penetrating the forest canopy create a spectacular effect. The jungle is full of surprises and the children expressed from early morning that they were keen to explore a space that rocks the plant kingdom. In tropical rainforests the atmosphere ranges from moody and quiet just before a rainstorm to noisy when birds squawk, trees rustle, insects crawl and monkeys babble in the aftermath of a downpour. Here in the Tropics it is warm and humid all year round with frequent downpours. We experienced a rain-free day during the school field trip.

Colours in tropical rainforests are not shy; it is vivid and vibrant, brilliant and flamboyant. The Tropical Spice Garden features the full spectrum of green in the vegetation interspersed by colour injections from manmade props such as the stripy Mayan hammock, the child size globe of the world, the red paddling boat on the ornamental lake and the white pebbles scattered along the footpaths. Visiting the rainforest is not a subdued affair but an uninhibited multi-sensory experience. The experience is also contradictory as my senses were on high alert which left me feeling energized but at the same time the heat and the weight of my camera, lenses and backpack left me feeling slightly lethargic. Odours of spice, fruit and fermentation, earth, organic matter and rain permeate the senses at various setting throughout the two manmade sites, the Tropical Spice Garden and the Penang Butterfly Farm.

Being in the rainforest normally is a profound experience for me where I feel peaceful and calm, where there is little need to talk and lots of need to listen. Accompanying a group of schoolchildren to the rainforest has the opposite effect as their eagerness to explore the space takes on a different dimension to mine, shattering the atmosphere into a thousand little light bolts. The experience bombarded my senses and left me feeling eager to participate and explore with the children, to see through their senses the insects scuttling of and birds flapping their wings noisily rather than the age old feeling of trees sighing and hugging. The Tropical Spice Garden and the Penang Butterfly Farm are furthermore manmade spaces, bringing forth a whole new involvement with the setting.

The Tropical Spice Garden is located within an open protected space where the boundaries are indicated through careful placement of plants, streams, an ornamental pond, pathways, pavilions, gazebos, benches, gateways, signposts and decking. The Penang Butterfly Farm is located in a spacious walk-in aviary, a closed protected space in order to keep the butterflies confined. Whereas it is more difficult to see the fauna in the Tropical Spice Garden, signs of animal life are very apparent from the moment one steps foot into the Penang Butterfly Farm. What is also apparent is that these critters are living a confined existence. It left me with a sense of frustration which I overcame by once more “hanging around” and “hanging out” with the children. I opened the shutter of my camera and continued my journey with the class teacher, the science teacher, three parents and twenty students, thirteen of whom were participants in this study. Joining us at various stages were the male guide at the Tropical Spice Garden and four female staff members working at the Education Centre of the Penang Butterfly Farm. The field trip thus took place in a Tropical Rainforest setting on a bright and sunny day.


I experienced some limitations in this study. The children studied Rainforests as a topic for a several weeks and during this time also visited the Bukit Merah Orang-utan sanctuary and the Penang Botanic Gardens. I accompanied them to the latter but not the former. It was beyond the scope of this study to include Bukit Merah and the Penang Botanic Gardens. It emerged however during the image-elicitation interviews that the children frequently included Bukit Merah and the Penang Botanic Gardens in their responses. Bukit Merah in addition to the orang-utan sanctuary also features a water park, eco-park and resort style hotel complex. It can be considered a Theme Park. The Botanic Gardens are significant too since the Penang Heritage Trust has launched a proposal for the consideration of the Gardens and Penang Hill to be included in the World Heritage Status that UNESCO granted George Town in July 2008 (Jones, 2002). The children seemed to prefer their field trips to Bukit Merah and the Penang Botanic Gardens above the Tropical Spice Garden and Penang Butterfly farm according to their responses. Another limitation is the lack of literature pertaining to sensory ethnography and I had to rely rather heavily on literature published by Sarah Pink who seems to be one of only a handful of sociologists attempting to provide some sort of guidelines to researchers. Lastly I view my own western understanding of the senses as a limitation in view of the fact that cross-cultural research reveals that senses such as audition, balance, kinaesthesia and synaesthesia are equally part of embodied experiences (Pink 2011).


7. Analysis and Discussion

Pink argues that the analysis of a sensory ethnography is an “intuitive, messy and sometimes serendipitous task” (2009, p.119). She is adamant that it would be misguiding to rigidly distinguish fieldwork and analysis as two separate stages, a viewpoint that is also clear in this sensory ethnography in which I followed an approach and not a standard procedure. Pink (2009) calls attention to the practice where ethnographers write extensively about doing research, their experiences and encounters with others, but that they write much less about a specific stage of analysis. 

The analysis of this study is thus situated within the knowledge production process, as knowing as well as part of my reflexivity. Pink (2009) moreover points out that the analysis during sensory ethnography can be conceptualised at times or points in the research where there are particularly intense treatments of the research materials. In this study visual analysis of images produced by the Penang Butterfly Farm as well as the maps created by the children occurred before the image-elicitation interviews. Analysis was important then as I needed to identify emerging patterns in order to compile the interview guide and probing questions for the image-elicitation interviews. This indicates a certain degree of intentionality but not the distinct stages as can be observed in other types of qualitative research. It was however, also possible to discover and sense patterns during the experience and within the images produced in order to put forth arguments about the sensory experiences of the children. 


On a warm, humid morning during the first half of 2011, I joined the children in their colourful and bright classroom. We assembled in order for the teacher to take the register prior to us departing on the fieldtrip which spanned a full morning and part of the afternoon. I was greeted cheerfully by the children and then the class teacher reminded them about my role during the field trip, referring to me by my name. I have asked on a previous occasion to be introduced to the children by my first name in order to distinguish myself from school staff and teachers who are addressed by their surnames. The distinction was important as the children respected my role as researcher whilst I became approachable to them at the same time. Calling me by my first name also helped to build rapport with the children. The children were eager to board the bus in order for the journey to start. Listening to their comments, the children were excited by the prospect of someone other than a parent or the teacher sharing the trip with them. 

By 8:30am we hopped onto one of the yellow school buses, accompanied by the class teacher, science teacher and three parents. During the short bus trip of about 3km to the Tropical Spice Garden, the children interacted somewhat with me, but remained neutral whilst none of them asked me any questions. Heyl (2007) suggests that it is basic ethnographic skill not to ask questions too early in the game as participants would just clam up. A researcher listening intently would learn almost everything. I listened intently. The children were thrilled about their trip and looked forward to their activities. The journey on the bus was short-lived and took no longer than a few minutes before we arrived at the Tropical Spice Garden. 

Stride for stride at the Tropical Spice Garden 

One can cut the air with a knife, it is heavy and humid. Delicate trickling of water in nearby streams provides a cooling sensation. Mynas gorge on forest floor fodder; mosquitoes ready themselves to feed on sweet young blood. The excitement of the group of children huddled at the entrance is palpable, their bright yellow, black and green batik print school shirts instantly connecting with the vivid tropical rainforest backdrop. Boundaries between spice gardens and tropical forest blur with moss cladding the pathways, stepping stones resting in shallow streams and the gardens wearing the tree canopy like a wide brimmed hat. One by one the children spray their bare arms and legs with citronella oil to ward of the annoying mosquitoes. Very quickly the intense uplifting lemony aroma of citronella oil scents the stuffy air. A few children set out on a bug hunt whilst others feed the fish cruising between two giant water lily plants in the ornamental pond. 

A few children make use of the opportunity to buy something from a small gift shop near the entrance. There are two gift shops located at the Tropical Spice garden, a small one near the trails and a bigger one nearer the Monkey Tree Restaurant, in front of the Pavilion where the children concluded their activities. The small gift shop carries a limited selection of gifts and only a handful of the children, mostly girls, were interested in buying a trinket from the shop. The children were not given the opportunity to explore the bigger gift shop later. We were waiting for the guides to turn up. As soon as the class teacher realized that the guides would take at least another 15 minutes to turn up, she asked the children to eat their morning snack. Food containers were snapped open, foil paper from energy bars peeled away and fruit savoured. 

The children put away their lunchboxes, washed their hands, slipped their caps back onto their heads and we were once again ready to start the planned activities. The twenty children who came along on the school field trip were randomly divided by the class teacher in five groups of four children each for their activities at both the Tropical Spice Garden and the Penang Butterfly Farm. The various groups were led by the class teacher, the science teacher, and the three parents. Then it became apparent that there would only be two guides and the teacher divided the children once more, this time into two groups of ten each. After a quick head count and glance, I joined the group with a higher number of participants in my study. Out of the twenty children on the fieldtrip, thirteen are participating in the study. I memorized the names, faces, nationalities and genders of all the participating children before and am well aware of which children are non-participants. This was crucial since I was documenting activities with a camera. At first I was slightly concerned that the children might find my big camera lens intrusive but I very quickly realized that they were happily snapping away themselves and I found myself becoming the subject of their photos too. We bonded through the viewfinders, eyeing one another, gazing nature, pressing buttons. Stride for stride. 

The guided tours included a Jungle Trail and Spice Trail. During the Jungle Trail Guided Tour we were shown different plant species and spices and we enjoyed the opportunity to smell and touch the flowers and spices. This trail meanders on an elevated pathway through the jungle and the tour consisted out of a lot of looking and listening and a little touching whilst walking on pebbles covering the pathways, crunching underfoot interspersed with areas covered in old leaves, left to rot on the forest floor. The guide compiled his own folder of visuals which proved popular with the children as he also included pictures of local food made from the spices to which they animatedly related. The pictures were large and colourful and the children seemed eager to answer questions and identify a wide range of flowers, plants and spices from the gardens as well as the folder. The guide however, was understandably reluctant to share a copy of the folder with me as most of the pictures were obtained without copyright from the web. 

About a third into the tour we reached a wooden bench where a dry spice mix, a spicy sauce made from this mix and sausages were set out in order for the children to take a bite of sausage dipped into this piquant sauce. This short break afforded the children a chance to taste the very spices we had just looked at, touched and smelled. The sauce was a wonderful explosion of rich flavours and a few children savouring the bite went back for more, commenting on the flavour. 

The Spice tour consists out of experiencing more than a hundred varieties of tropical herbs and spices displayed in spice terraces. On this trail the group that I did not accompany was getting hands on experience in grinding spices with mortar and pestle as well as rolling pins on stone next to an installation of a child sized Spices of the World globe. We did not linger at the globe although it would have been interesting to trace the historical spice routes. In fact not once during the tour did we get any information regarding the history of the ancient spice routes and the spice trades although a small museum with antique photographs, sketches and maps about the ancient trade forms part of the Tropical Spice Garden site. The focus was on the “now” and engaging the children in sensory experience as well as re-enforcing the Rainforest Unit of Inquiry. Our group was given the opportunity to fold leaves, a local practice called Daun Sirih. The leaves are chewed by the Indian and Nyonya ethnic groups of the Malaysian population and consist of folded Sirih leaves, stuffed with shredded betel nut, edible chalk, lime and occasionally local spices (See image 2). 

After eating the sausages, we continued the Spice Trail where giant leaves, plants and trees give way to smaller but dense vegetation, herbs and spices. The guide cut some of the plants in order for the children to smell and touch these spices, leaving the air headily scented with wonderful aromas. The trail is visually appealing through props such as the globe, viewing stations and wooden frames from which glass and wooden doors were fitted under a small tiled canopy. These doors lean a fairytale feeling to the experience as it is a thoroughly unexpected and surprising prop beckoning the visitor with a sense of mystery to the next section of the trail. The children hopped and skipped through the open door and down the steps in pure joy de vivre. 

We proceeded to the giant forest swing which seats about four to five children and the squeals of laughter of the children enjoying the swinging rang through the forest. Those who were not on the swing snapped away and a great number of photos were taken of classmates swinging. Soon hereafter we joined with the other group to enjoy yet another treat in the form of a traditional Malaysian pull-tea, Teh Tarik. The drink is made from black tea and condensed milk and the piping hot tea is poured from a height, back and forth between containers, until frothy on the top. Teh Tarik is about showmanship and culture – pure poetry in motion. The visual involves strong, steady and fast movement of the hands and arms. Ah, the smell and taste is humble and rich simultaneously. 

After enjoying the Teh Tarik and taking a short break, we proceeded to a pavilion also utilised for cooking classes so that the children could to participate in a Spice Buzz, their final activity at the Tropical Spice Garden. They children participated in three sensory activities namely smelling and tasting of five different ground spices, and touching of five different whole, unprocessed spices whilst being blindfolded. They each received a flyer on which to document their answers. Tummies full after all the sausage and tea sampling, contented after playing on the giant swing, the children seemed keen to conclude their activities at the Tropical Spice Garden. A lot of cheating and rushing, licking, feeling and crushing, smelling and spitting occurred during this activity with the majority of the children picking up the containers to take a glance at the correct answers stuck to the bottoms of the containers. 

One of the spices smelled and tasted was ground white pepper and one child swallowed a whole teaspoon full of pepper instead of tasting a pinch, resulting in a coughing fit. No-one was concerned however and everyone carried on with their own business of identifying the spices through sniffing, savouring and scrutinizing. Another child wasn't overly impressed with his pinch of ground cinnamon either and left a ring of cinnamon around his mouth, not keen to take a lick to clean his lips, pulling his face in dismay of the taste. The aroma was wonderful, yet it appeared to me that it is by far more a sensually intense practice to experience these spices in their habitat opposed to it being handled in bottles and bowls. After they completed all three tasks, each child was given a beautiful poster map of the Tropical Spice Garden as a reward. These maps are also sold in the gift shop, yet none of the children showed any interest in buying one earlier. Once the children were in possession of their maps, they kicked back and enjoyed their packed lunches before we departed once again for a whirlwind visit to the Penang Butterfly Farm. 

The Penang Butterfly Farm – Rushing through, crunch for crunch

We arrived at the Penang Butterfly Farm about ten minutes after we left the Tropical Spice Garden. The children were enthusiastic for the next experience to commence but also came across as content and satisfied after the morning’s activities and their lunch, strolling towards the entrance of the farm. The apparent laziness was to change however with a snap of the shutter. We had barely lined up in a queue to enter the double door space when the children spotted the huge bird’s eye view map of the Penang Butterfly Farm near the entrance, got revved up, and started snapping away pictures of the map. This posed a huge ethical dilemma for me since I had asked the children to draw me a bird’s eye view map of the Penang Butterfly Farm at home later that afternoon. I asked them to think about their experience and draw from memory. The children thought they had hit gold. I took a split second decision and decided to intervene solely because of the copy culture that is so prevalent in the East, starting with years practicing to exactly copy characters in the Chinese, Japanese and Korean alphabet to eventually being masters in copying anything, from DVD’s, paintings, logos and business ideas to high end designer handbags (Cox, 2008). The children ignored a similar map on display at the Tropical Spice Garden and they also did not unfold the maps they were given after completion of their activities at the gardens. The children were reminded by the class teacher that I was interested in their own maps and they promptly deleted the images, showing me that they had indeed done so. It left me feeling like a critter myself. 

The Tropical Spice Garden was all about lingering longer whilst learning stride for stride, smelling the most wonderfully complex fruity and spicy aromas. The visit to the Penang Butterfly Farm however, was to be all about fast and hard, musty and mouldy, crunchy and creepy experiences. We were literally running behind time and would thus be running through the planned activities spending only half the time here than what was allocated to the Tropical Spice Garden. The activities also involved carrying critters and “wearing” creepy crawlies, so more running was involved. Furthermore, the children finally had the opportunity to do a few last minute purchases from a large gift shop and had to grab and buy something en route to running to the bus. 

The stuffy humidity and musty odour that hit me like a wall the moment we walked through the double doors, was part due to the Penang Butterfly Farm being encased in a greenhouse space and part due to the odours wafting from the open enclosures housing a few reptiles, birds and other critters. On our way towards the Education Centre located in one corner of the greenhouse space, I immediately noticed the prominent placement of two-dimensional Disney-like characters, Orni and Friends, throughout the farm. These characters were launched just two months earlier and their display throughout the farm as single figures and adorning the information boards and signs, the Education Centre and in the gift shop appeared quite vulgar. There was nothing subtle about these characters, neither their colours, nor their placement and the frequency of the placement. 

According to the promotional material distributed by the Penang Butterfly Farm, the roles of their new characters are those of nature ambassadors to raise environmental awareness, advocate nature-loving values and inspire children. Orni and Friends were designed in conjunction with Penang State’s one year initiative of a Cleaner Greener Penang, an initiative developed to restore the island’s living environment and improve the quality of life. The characters make their appearances during nature education workshops, events and conservation activities (Penang Butterfly Farm, 2010). 

The education centre itself struck me as an ordinary but uninspiring space with a lot of brown from the floor to the very old fashioned skirted tablecloths in shiny polyester. The space looked old and uninspiring and was saved from being completely dreary and drab only by the huge banner depicting a nature scene involving the five new cartoon-like characters and children’s colouring-in art hanging from spanned string. I felt transported to a scene from the 1970’s. 

At the Education Centre, four staff members of the Penang Butterfly Farm divided the twenty children into four groups and involved one child from each group in an ice-breaker activity. A small plastic basket was tied around the waists of the children and a ball hanging from a string was tied to the baskets. The children were to manipulate the ball into the basket sans the use of their hands before they could proceed with the Eco Bug Hunt. This resulted in a lot of grunting, laughing, cheering, jumping and twisting of bodies in order to land that ball into the basket. 

 The Eco Bug Hunt took place outside the education centre and in addition to the Penang Butterfly Farm site, also involved the adjoining plant nursery where plants are grown for the exclusive use in the upkeep of the Penang Butterfly Farm. At the time a number of children complained about the space as being boring, but quickly forgot about what they just said as soon as they started to participate. 

The hunt entailed activities at a few different locations within the Penang Butterfly Farm and each group received an information sheet with clues which they had to decipher in order to find the locations and understand the activities. Activities included one team member putting a 20cm, thumb thick millipede on their shoulder, another racing with giant stick and giant mantis insects and plopping the critters in containers, yet another counting insects and lastly photographing butterfly eggs and caterpillars. The activity was met with a lot of squealing and disgust, daring and encouragement from all the children involved. The insects were quite roughly handled, dropped back into the containers as quickly as possible in order to get away from the creepy crawlies. The children were asked to complete each task before the team was allowed to proceed with the next. The children also completed questionnaires within their groups during the activities. 

The children were instructed by the Penang Butterfly Farm staff to gather at the education centre as soon as they had completed all their tasks within their assigned groups. The answer sheets to the questionnaires were marked and they all waited in anticipation to hear who the winning team was. The winning team received a hamper with foodstuffs and small gifts to share. In addition to the hamper awarded to the winning team, all the children were rewarded with a pencil and butterfly pencil topper. By now it became evident that the children were eager to explore the Penang Butterfly Farm in their own leisure time and they became disinterested in the education centre. They were antsy so to speak and as soon as the teacher said that they were free to explore for 30 minutes, they left the centre with the speed of light, skipping off to the various enclosures, trails and ponds with a lot of ooohing and aaahing. 

The children were thrilled to explore the farm at their own leisure and once they were made aware of the time, dived for the gift shop where about half of the children finally made purchases ranging from pencils and little notebooks to key rings and soft toys. The purchases were wrapped in gift paper, Penang being a plastic free environment. Back in the bus the children were only somewhat interested in discussing their purchases. The day’s activities seemed far more interesting than their purchases and none of them opened their parcels. The parent of one of the children added more money to his allowance for the day so that he could afford to buy a soft toy, Toro the Atlas Beetle. Torro is one of the five cartoon-like characters launched by the Penang Butterfly Farm. 

Throughout the visit to the Penang Butterfly Farm, the children documented their experiences. They were highly adept at handling their cameras. At times they were more interested into photographing one another and also turned the lens onto me, rather than documenting the animal and plant kingdom. The staff at the Education Centre also documented the children during participation in structured activity without gaining consent from them to do so. Neither the teachers nor the parents were perturbed by this. I was doing a fair amount of photo-documentation too and the children were aware that I was documenting both the site and their activities and they appeared not to be troubled by either my camera or those belonging to the Penang Butterfly Farm employees. The Penang Butterfly Farm employees however were also including my research activities during their documentation. I requested to be excluded from the visuals as not to put the study and the identity of the participants at risk. These photographs documenting the activities of the children were indeed published on the internet by the employees within the following 24 hours. 

The children whose parents also accompanied the group on the excursions seemed to experience the sites differently. During these field trips the parents going along influenced the experiences of their children either by dictating the activities or by the children themselves acting differently than had the parent not been there. One parent influenced a child’s activities whilst the reverse can be said about another as the child relied on the parent to complete some of the expected activities and tasks, especially with regard to taking photographs during the excursion. 


The idea of “walking” has lately become increasingly important as a vehicle through which academic narrative is produced as well as a means of create new embodied ways of knowing (Pink et al, 2010). Walking in the ethnographic sense of the word should not be merely seen as a means of getting from point “A” to “B” or from “Entrance” to “Exit” but is an activity integral to our engagement with social and natural environments. I argue that the children are also very well aware that the Penang Butterfly Farm is an enclosed space with boundaries through indicating “entrance” and “exit” quite distinctly on their maps. During the visit to the Tropical Spice Garden and the Penang Butterfly Farm the children walked, stalked, stepped, lingered, sauntered, strolled, followed, tracked, rushed, ran, darted, rushed and scampered through the rainforest from one encounter to the next. I matched their actions, stride for stride. Both these sites are recreated nature and many different human lain pathways leave the visitor with a variety of sensory experiences to optimise the experience of intentionally learning from and about these rainforest environments. Wylie (2005) propound that “walking corporealities and sensibilities: moments, movements, events, allow for reflection on the more-than-rational – for example, the shifting mood, tenor, colour or intensity of places and situations” (p.236). This view is succinctly illustrated in the conversations with the children below. 

It was through walking that the children made meaning of their space. This can be observed in the images they produced as well as what they said during the image-elicitation interviews.

These image elicitation interviews and images created by the children are however central to the thesis and provide the bulk of the analysis and discussion together with more detail about the sensory experiences during the field visits.

Grasping Gender
The faces of Orni and Friends facing the beholder
Children’s engagement with material culture
Natural Heritage and a Sense of Wonder
Copy Culture

Concluding Thoughts 

To provide a context for this sensory ethnography, relevant concluding thoughts are shared within the emergent literature on Interdisciplinary Child Studies in the New Sociology of Childhood. Children contribute their own values, attitudes and preferences to their close encounters of the natural kind. Through multi-method approaches, this sensory ethnography took the children’s perspectives into consideration and they provided unique insights into their social worlds, shedding light on their sensibilities and cultural practices. 

During the school field trip to the Tropical Spice Garden and the Penang Butterfly Farm I became critically aware of the length of my nose, the tip of my finger, the gaze of my eye, the gut feel in my belly and my footprints in the forest. Through reflexivity I was able to move beyond simply describing situations to critically experiencing the same. In this study I paid close attention to the multisensory ambiences of nature based school field trips and the meanings attributed to them. Sensory journeys brought learning about rainforests to live whilst creating meaningful experiences for sociologist and children alike. Our senses, sensations and sensibilities enabled and limited encounters with nature. Ansell (2008) posits that taste and touch require immediate proximity, sight and hearing permit perceptions from further afield. Engaging the senses, however, is also a situated practice and reveals the way we experience cultural space. Pink (2006) calls for such a spotlight on the senses as senses are “implicated in individual experience and agency rather than solely as expressive of the wider values and beliefs of holistic cultural systems” (p.43). 

Several themes emerged during the analysis. Firstly the children in this study showed a preference for sensuous refreshment without the interference of tour guides and structured activities. They want to create their own opportunity for play and learning through unguided exploration of the nature sites. Kong (2000) argues that environmental encounters for children must allow them to experience nature for themselves, separate from adult influence and control; policy and action programmes should scaffold this view. 

In the second place walking the various trails of the Nature Centres was an act of place-making whilst the children actively engaged with nature, claiming cultural space. The children enjoyed being together and doing things together (James & Bixler, 2008); meaning that they experienced their nature venture as a field trip with rather than an excursion to. 

Thirdly during discussions the children often referred to another field trip visiting the Penang Botanic Gardens and indicated that they liked that excursion the most since they had more choices in activities and more time to freely explore the site. In other words, more time for informal social interaction. Less structured encounters boosted meaningfulness of the school field trips. During the school field trips the children enjoyed social interaction with their class teacher, other parents, the guides, educational centre staff and each other. It was however, the relationships with one another, child-to-child, that was most prevalent. During the image elicitation interviews the children reinterpreted their collective experiences and the natural environment became not the centre but the setting to their social interactions. 

In the fourth place, the study contributes to our understanding of how the children perceive natural heritage and conservation. The children recognised the Nature Centres as recreational space through expression of their feelings and sensory encounters, but they also demonstrated a thorough awareness of rainforests as a valuable resource, the Nature Centres as places of conservation. Their attitude is pro-environmental and they showed an acute understanding of sense of place. 

Another concluding thought is that during the image-elicitation interviews, the majority of recollections were embedded within descriptions of sensory experiences. Moreover the children connected their feelings to their senses and often described how they felt whilst engaging the senses. The sense of touch was often mentioned in reference to experiences at both Nature Centres since it provided intimate interaction with the plant and animal kingdom. At the Tropical Spice Garden the sense of taste was dominant too, whilst the visual was more pronounced at the Penang Butterfly Farm. Sight sometimes discouraged the children from participation, especially looking at the live giant critters and dead creepy crawlies at the Penang Butterfly Farm. 

Responses from the children during the image elicitation interviews indicated that they identified the merchandise available from the gift shops as gender specific and the boys felt let down by the lack of suitable token gifts sold by the shops. They barely recognized the silk butterflies on sale and expressed their dismay at the lack of live butterflies for sale, given that they visited a butterfly “farm”. A natural distinction between activities favored by the boys and girls was evident too. The children furthermore challenged the gender roles ascribed to the characters by the Penang Butterfly Farm and call the gender of Orni the male butterfly in question. All of the children agreed unanimously that Orni was female. The Orni and Friends characters display stereotypical gendered roles, representative of gender inequality still evident amongst the larger Malaysian society. At the same time, it is evident that Orni straddles the gender divide. 

Regardless of intense efforts by the Penang Butterfly Farm to create a responsiveness of their newly launched, colorful cartoonlike characters, the children were hardly aware of and barely interested in the characters. The children showed no knowledge of the character’s roles as nature ambassadors, nor were they particularly interested in branded gifts on sale from the gift shop. This is remarkable since these cartoonlike characters with their big eyes and smiles are mostly associated with fun activities and entertainment. Even though the children said that the field trips were fun, they were more interested in engagement and encounters with real animals and plants. 

Media plays a central role in shaping children’s consumer culture and childhood today is recognised as being entrenched in a product-universe through which children negotiate identity in terms of consumer choice (Langer, 2002; Carrington, 2003). Consumer patterns revealed in this study indicate that the children were acutely aware of the material value of commodities and showed that when they felt something did not represent value for money, they simply did not purchase it. Children consume differently to adults, however it is adults who make select items for sale in the gift shops. Whilst some children documented their field trip by purchasing token gifts, the majority preferred not to spend their money, even though it was supplied by their parents for the purpose of buying something during the excursions. 

The children participating in this sensory ethnography provided a unique glimpse into their culture enabling me to present numerous arguments for a more substantive focus on children’s embodied and emplaced experiences during school field trips to Nature Centres. Through their participation at the sites, images created after the field trip and during image-elicitation interviews the children provided rich descriptions of their cultural worlds, achieving in the aims of the study. Through sensory approaches and the enactment of innovative research methods, I was able to take an up-close and personal look at the children’s multisensory experiences, practices, recollections and thoughts, enabling me to share the same with my audience.

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