Branching out


How spending time in the garden can open up exciting opportunities for children with special needs

Evidence shows that experiencing nature can bring significant benefits to all children, contributing to their mental health, stimulating creativity and imagination, improving behaviour and promoting social wellbeing (Taylor et al., 2001). Simply being outdoors in a natural environment can also aid recovery from stress or trauma and help restore the ability to focus and maintain attention.

For children with SEN, the benefits of spending time in a peaceful, yet stimulating, natural environment can be especially marked, and gardening can be a great way of getting these children motivated and engaged with the natural world.

Gardens are such restorative and calming environments. Research shows that children with conditions such attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are better able to concentrate following contact with nature.

Gardening can also have a very positive impact on mental health more generally. It is a great way to build optimism and a sense of purpose and achievement, and it can really help young people embrace hard work and regular routines. Gardening offers a sustainable interest which encourages young people with SEN to connect and cooperate with others, improve their communication skills and make friends. Developing such essential life skills can also provide a great boost to self-esteem.

Skills for life

Gardening tasks are infinitely flexible and adaptable and the skills learnt in the garden can easily be transferred to other situations. In simple terms, learning how to use secateurs for pruning helps with using scissors at home, and the action of watering is similar to that of pouring from a jug or kettle.

Everyone can get involved in the garden.Gardening programmes can be particularly effective at stimulating the senses of young people on the autistic spectrum and some of those with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD). Activities can be geared specifically towards the individual to make best use of their abilities and interests. Horticultural Therapist Becky Pinniger explains how Pots and Petals, a project she works on for the charity Thrive, works:

“We never do anything too quickly. We give the youngsters pictures of gardening jobs, such as putting compost around plants, making lavender bags or using foliage to make a decoration, and let them choose what to do.

“Activities are designed to fit in with the seasons. In autumn, there is enormous scope for just using leaves – scuffling through them, wheeling over piles of them, feeling their shape, matching colours, picking them up or just watching them fall. Simply sitting or lying under a tree’s canopy and seeing the sky through its leaves can be a hugely rewarding experience, as can smelling leaves and feeling the warmth in a pile of rotting leaves.

“Wherever possible, an element of play is included in any session, whether it be hurling leaves in the air, spraying each other with water, walking in long grass with bare feet or doing roly-poly down a hill. Play, after all, is the basis for all learning.”

These kinds of experiences can clearly provide fun and sensory stimulation for young people with SEN. They can also encourage them to make choices, learn to use their bodies in different ways and get used to being in different environments.

The case of one teenager clearly demonstrates how skills and confidence gained in the garden can pave the way for the next step in life. Rebecca has Down syndrome and had been struggling with school and unsettled at home. However, a practical approach to learning in a garden has seen her become a happy and enthusiastic member of her gardening group.

Rebecca usually spends time on the allotment; she enjoys digging and likes growing vegetables, particularly potatoes, even though she says it can be hard work. “I am now more involved and polite”, she says, “and I have learnt lots of things.” Rebecca’s new-found confidence has now enabled her to move on from the gardening group to enlist at agricultural college.

Working in a garden can also be a very therapeutic exercise, as the mother of one 16-year-old boy can testify: “Working with his hands, he found a place to express his creativity and showed an eagerness to learn. In gardening, he was able to come to terms with and manage his feeling of anger”.

Making gardening work for all

Here are a few idea to engage and stimulate children and young people with SEN through gardening:

  • find out what the young people themselves want to get out of their time in the garden. It can be useful to provide them with a few initial ideas about what is on offer and then give them a simple input sheet or questionnaire to help them collect their thoughts and ideas
  • start with a very small garden area which can be easily maintained. You can then create new areas as the weeks progress. Involve the young people in planning the work, with your guidance, and get them to identify rules and boundaries for the group. Incorporate their ideas as far as possible when planning the garden
  • help them keep a record of progress, such as a scrap book with photos, which they can keep updated and take ownership of
  • do a health and safety walk around the garden and identify any risks and hazards with the young people, so they are aware of health and safety at all times.

You may also want to consider splitting the garden into three different areas, such as:

  • a kitchen garden, in which the young people have the opportunity to grow vegetables from seed and harvest the crops for cooking
  • a wildlife area, to give participants the opportunity to learn about planting to attract wildlife and taking responsibility for living things. They can also grow a variety of plants and identify the range of creatures which live in a garden. This all helps develop greater awareness of their own environment and of more general environmental concerns
  • a sensory area, where the planting can reflect mood and feeling and stimulate the senses. Use plants with a variety of colour and texture. Lavender, for example, has a beautiful colour and scent and can be used to make lavender bags and floral displays.

Further information

Alyson Chorley is from the charity Thrive, which runs a range of schemes to engage children and young people in gardening:

Alyson Chorley
Author: Alyson Chorley

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