Gardening and SEN


Damien Newman extols the merits of social and therapeutic horticulture

Social and therapeutic horticulture is a description of using horticulture and other garden related activities to support people towards health and wellbeing. In other parts of the world, it can be described as Horticulture therapy and although there are some academically subtle differences between these and other descriptions of using gardens for health and wellbeing outcomes for the children involved or the practitioner providing a programme of activities, this is less important than choosing an approach to using gardens to support children in SEN education.

Gardens in school come under several different styles, with different or overlapping uses:

  • Gardens for respite
  • Gardens for learning and teaching
  • Gardens for wellness (general health and wellbeing)
  • Gardens for therapy (achieving specific health and wellbeing outcomes)

Social and therapeutic horticulture provides three valuable therapeutic opportunities: time in nature, time being occupied and time in a social environment. These three separate mechanisms independently support health and wellbeing but they also interact to enhance each individual mechanism in the way it achieves benefits to each individual.

Occupation has been associated with health and wellbeing through the profession of occupational therapy with occupational competence and occupational identity being associated with good health and quality of life outcomes. Similarly positive social environments can be obviously healthy and enriching in our lives and if you add these to the benefits now know for ‘time in nature’ and for many SEND children we have an opportunity to engage them in something that could potentially provide a lifetime of benefits.

We provide access to SEND children either through whole class access or through people attending specific programmes, such as the Pots and Petals programme in Birmingham. Young people at the Fox Hollies Special School have been attending sessions for several years.

Teacher Ruth Henderson says “We saw greatly increased stamina and concentration with regards to their energy levels and the length of time that they were able to stick at a task. They learnt to enjoy working outdoors and some were fascinated by the changing seasons and how these affect the gardens. Learning about the world of work, they were able to practise these skills in a real work setting, for example timekeeping, meeting deadlines, working with others, problem solving, and health and safety. We saw increased self-esteem and improved confidence in our students and a real sense of pride in their work, as they were able to see tangible results, from preparing a vegetable patch for planting through to growing beautiful plants from seeds. The young people that worked with Thrive were not all from the same class group but developed a wonderful camaraderie, supporting and encouraging each other. They became a real team, aware that they were a part of something special that belonged just to them.”

Alongside our organisation, many schools and other organisations have used gardening for health and wellbeing to demonstrably good effect. However, research specific to children with SEND is less than the research for social and therapeutic horticulture with adults experiencing mental ill health, or other user groups. What research is available is often small in scale and like much other SEND research, difficult to conduct, but what we can do is look at how this research corroborates across multiple smaller studies to find a more solid way of describing its benefits and incorporate some findings from research looking at groups with similar needs.

In general school-age populations, engagement in social and therapeutic horticulture and school gardening programmes has a positive impact upon general wellbeing, development of psychosocial skills, improved self-esteem and improved physical exercise. Across all user groups, mental health improved significantly, and we can predict similar results for children with SEND. The inherent value of gardens as being sensorially rich with sensorial indicators to promote recovery from stress and wellbeing through evolutionary mechanisms appear a good start in using gardens in SEND settings and can mean that investment in the garden is returned even if some children decline to take a more active role through an social and therapeutic horticulture programme.

With active involvement in the cultivation of plants and activities centered on plants and gardens, we find more value with finding improved self-efficacy, leadership, teamwork, problem solving and confidence improving during an American summer camp based on horticulture therapy. In this study we can see the importance of getting to know each child in relation to the garden. We need to know them in relation to their skills, physical, sensorial, cognitive, social and emotional, their personalities and perhaps more uniquely to social and therapeutic horticulture their affinity for nature or volition for gardening related tasks.

A wider review of reading related to social and therapeutic horticulture for SEN reveals other important considerations and when setting up a new social and therapeutic horticulture programme in an SEN setting, it is important to realise that you can learn from others before you. Remembering that gardens nurture whole ecosystems as well as plants and using the kindness shown to the natural world to emanate towards kindness to each other. Being amazed at how children with SEN can grasp new learning once provided in a more tangible format than the abstract ideas that can be tough in a classroom is reported regularly. Children who decline to count in maths will sometimes count seeds and pots without issue with a clearer purpose alongside the tangible objects. Learning is available across a garden and with good planning a whole curriculum can be included. So many involved in social and therapeutic horticulture for children with SEN will report how the changed learning environment provides a chance for others to excel when in classrooms they may find learning more difficult.

We always greatly appreciate how through social and therapeutic horticulture the cared for become the carers, nurturing a garden that others appreciate and benefit from or growing plants to cook with, use in art and craft or give as gifts or sell for profit. This feeling that many children gain in our gardens of being a provider, someone whose contribution and skills matter, someone we rely on, call a team player, a friend, new identities and new opportunities through time in nature, time being occupied and time in a social environment.

Damien Newman

Damien is responsible for the Training, Education and Consultancy work of Thrive, the gardening for health charity.

Twitter: @thrivecharity
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You Tube: @ThriveCharityUK



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