Why?  A tree is a universally recognised symbol with clear metaphorical meanings, which people can use to explore issues or processes from a new angle.

When? Tree graphics can be used in many situations and at any time.

How? The various elements of a tree working together in a cycle are a basic metaphor for almost any situation to be analysed: 

  • - The trunk usually symbolises the situation to be studied;
  • - The roots represent inputs, whether that be causes of a situation, past events leading up to it, or things necessary for its existence, or income;
  • - The branches are the consequences or outputs of the situation, or expenditure;
  • - Fruits may be added to represent possible solutions or actions.

The first time that the technique is used, it might be useful for the group to study a real tree and discuss its various parts and how these could be used to discover, compare and analyse an aspect of community or family life.  The group then finds a place to 'plant' their tree, developing the image using locally available, symbolic and movable objects.

Once the basic idea has been established, participants can develop their analysis in rich directions, often with much artistic expression, representing complex connections and relationships in a relatively simple image.  As long as participants develop the image in consultation with each other, it will be linked to a serious structured discussion about the situation being addressed - of the causes and effects of what we are studying, of implications and comparisons. 

In practice, participants often continue the metaphor to add other elements to the tree, such as:

  • - threats or limitations to a situation represented by weeds, fungus or pests;
  • - fundamental damage or major risks shown for example as lightening;
  • - environmental factors, such as the quality of the soil, nutrients that can be added, or the climate;
  • - different living creatures in the tree whether positive or negative forces, within or outside of the participants' control.

Analysis of the full tree highlights the fact that problems cannot be addressed by concentrating on the branches, or effects, alone - the roots are key.  Participants might consider whether the resulting tree is sustainable, or whether the weight of all the branches and fruit is too much for the roots to bear.   Finally, the image is copied onto flipchart paper so that a permanent record remains of the work and the collective conclusions.

Examples from Practice:  In Bolivia, the tree is used to explore family relations and identity, with all present members as branches and the different levels of roots representing the ancestors - layered in their depth in the soil according to how far back they go.  This image of personal continuity and change is then used to discuss, amongst other things, the languages spoken by different generations and local history.

In the Save the Children guide to education advocacy, they suggest using a tree to plan a campaign.  In this case, the roots represent the resources available to the campaign: the allies, opportunities, networks, money and capacity.  The branches are planned activities and the fruits are the desired outcomes.  The higher the fruits are placed on the tree, the longer term the projected achievement.  Participants are then encouraged to trace links from the roots to the fruits.

In India, Yakshi used the dual images of a healthy tree and an unhealthy tree to encourage analysis of health issues. The healthy tree illustrated the factors that promote good health (as roots) and the consequences of good health (as branches), whilst the unhealthy tree showed how poverty, poor diet and addiction fed into a negative cycle and led to social breakdown.

Other uses of trees have included:

  • - the analysis of household income and expenditure in Ghana
  • - the causes and effects of conflict in Liberia
  • - the causes and effects of HIV/AIDS in Uganda
  • - the roots and features of the traveller community's cultural identity in Ireland.

If you have an interesting or innovative experience of working with this tool please add your comments here.