Note: the following article was originally written in Spanish, and can be viewed in Spanish here.
Since I began my journey in horticultural therapy in 2010, I have been discovering horticultural therapy’s wide application and great potential in diverse settings. One of the settings that most captures my attention are school gardens.
Importance of School Gardens
There are many organizations and programs today raising awareness on the benefits and importance of school gardens for the holistic development of children, as well as the school curriculum skills that can be acquired in the school garden. Organizations such as Life Lab, Children & Nature Network, Kids Gardening, SPEC, Out Teach, Massachusetts Farm to School, Collective School Garden Network, School Gardening RHS, Ask Nature, Teaching in Nature’s Classroom, Wisconsin School Garden Network, Green Schoolyards, or Edible Schoolyards, are some of the organizations that have developed excellent programs and resources. However, none of these programs have a therapeutic approach.
Schoolchildren face many challenges, among which we can mention:
1. Academic stress – intense competition or other academic pressures (even in young children).
2. Coping with bullying or anti-social behavior – being teased for being yourself is one of the biggest problems in schools today.
3. Homesickness – separation anxiety is a common feeling, especially in preschoolers who must face a new and unfamiliar space away from their parents.
4. Poor self-confidence/self-esteem due to comparison – this occurs especially in middle school. At this stage of development, kids compare themselves to their friends or schoolmates, even virtual friends. They compare grades, the way they dress, or how good they are at a specific sport. Gradually, they distance themselves from their friends, isolating themselves.
5. Risk of experimenting with substance abuse such as alcohol, cigarettes or drugs.
6. Make new friends
7. Poor concentration in class – difficulty taking notes in class or keeping up with the teacher.
8. Organization and routine
The most common approach to the needs or problems of children and adolescents is pharmacotherapy or psychotherapy, alternatives that many families cannot access, or as we will see later, parents prefer approaches with fewer side effects and more natural approaches. The issues mentioned above made me reflect on the enormous potential for horticultural therapy in school settings, a cost-effective, inclusive, accessible and very flexible option that not only benefits the primary beneficiaries (children/adolescents), but also family members, teachers and school.
Potential for the Horticultural Therapist
For the past year, I have developed a school garden program with a therapeutic approach called Roots in Nature. The school garden with its therapeutic approach is an unattended niche with great potential for horticultural therapists, especially considering the present context in which mental health disorder rates are very high in children. This year in Peru, we are implementing a pilot program in a small rural school (Escuela del Mar) in the northern part of the country, the Piura Region.
Throughout the years, my work with children and plants has allowed me to empirically demonstrate that through the work in the garden, many of the problems and needs of school children can be addressed. Hearing, more and more frequently, the ease with which children with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders are medicated as the only option, seems to me very worrying for the reasons I will explain:
The medication used to treat ADHD is a stimulant drug with side effects such as: agitation or aggression, headaches, decreased appetite, stomach pain, nervousness, difficulty sleeping, irritability, sweating, rapid heart rate, weight loss, or dizziness. In addition, the medication could create or exacerbate existing behavioral problems, bipolar disorder, or Tourette’s syndrome so this means that the assessment before prescribing medication should be very thorough. As a Schedule II Simulant, it has the potential to become a drug of abuse and addiction. The long-term effects of these stimulant drugs have not yet been determined (J. Rodden). In recent years, there have been many comments in various media about the over-diagnosis of ADHD and the over-use of stimulant medications. Many parents are looking for other ways to help their children, avoiding resorting to pharmacotherapy. Gardening is a very effective alternative, especially if offered by a trained person such as a horticultural therapist. As with other therapeutic modalities, perseverance and patience is essential.
Skills Addressed by Gardening
According to Dr. Robin Pauc, neurologist, and author of the book “Is This My Child?”, many learning difficulties, including ADHD, are caused by an underlying developmental delay that occurs at four months of a child’s life. At this stage of development, a second wave of nerve cell generation should occur, in which spindle cells (big cells which allow connections between cells and enable the transmission of thoughts and feelings in a faster way) form in the prefrontal cortex of the brain (the front part of the brain). The prefrontal cortex is involved in directing attention, memory, the ability to plan, the development of social skills, impulse control, and the ability to delay gratification. All of these skills can be addressed and developed through gardening. A delay in this important phase of brain development can result in ADHD, dyspraxia, dyslexia, Tourette syndrome, and OCD. Medical treatment with pharmacotherapy serves to manage the symptoms, but does not treat the cause (Rosemary Murphy).
According to Dr. Pauc, an evaluation of brain development should be performed and other alternatives should be sought, such as:
- Developmental Movement Therapy to correct the delay. This therapy addresses aspects such as: spatial orientation, body awareness, visual perception skills, balance, and fine and gross motor skills.
- Primitive Reflex Retention. Many children with ADHD have a group of retained primitive reflexes controlled by the primitive part of the brain. Normally these reflexes should disappear by four months of age. If they do not disappear by that age, they can result in hyperactivity. For example, one of these reflexes interferes with the development of grip, which is necessary for handwriting and other fine motor skills.
- Neurodevelopmental therapy. Retention of primitive reflexes interferes with: focus, concentration and cognitive functioning. The horticultural therapist can work hand in hand with an occupational therapist trained in neurodevelopmental therapy to help remove primitive reflexes.
- Changes in eating habits. Excessive consumption of sugar and food additives have a significant impact on children with ADHD, dyspraxia, dyslexia, Tourette syndrome, and OCD.
The therapeutic school garden would address, in addition to ADHD, other problems and needs of children such as:
- Stress, anxiety, depression
- Cognitive disorders
- Developmental disorders
- Bullying or harassment
- Emotional regulation
- Lack of autonomy and independence
- Lack of organization/routine
- Soft skills
- Pro-social skills
- School performance
- Family ties
- Motor skills, physical activity, coordination
- Executive functioning
- Fear or sadness
- Lack of self-esteem
- Self-knowledge, self-care
Why can school gardens be therapeutic spaces?
Richard Louv in his book “Last Child in the Woods” (2005), highlighted the consequences of disconnection with nature in children, and coined the term nature deficit disorder, starting a worldwide movement to raise awareness of this major problem.
Humans and plants have an interdependent relationship: plants produce the air we breathe. Spaces surrounded by plants, such as the school garden, are alive, friendly, non-threatening environments that capture children’s attention, where the discovery of something new is permanent, where nothing remains the same from one day to the next; where the child enters a state of “flow”, bringing his or her attention to the present moment. The garden is a space where the child learns to work autonomously and independently; where he learns to respect individuality; where he learns to respect the times and rhythms of nature; where he learns about delayed gratification, lacking in modern life; where he can cultivate his tranquility and make his senses flourish, so important to maintain good mental health; where he learns to take care of himself, to know and trust himself. The garden allows children to acquire a Sense of Effectiveness (difficult to obtain in the modern world), and is a space for Sensory-motor (Piaget) vs. conceptual learning – “Learning by doing”.
Through targeted gardening activities, children can be helped to regulate their emotions; improve their executive functioning; improve math or verbal skills that directly impact their self-esteem; work with the bully to see what is going on with him/her; develop a sense of place and belonging; and cultivate a sense of care, a sense that is not fostered in modern life:
The most important thing is that in the therapeutic school garden, there is always a place for everyone.
The school-based horticultural therapist becomes the ally of teachers, speech therapists, psychotherapists, occupational therapists, and parents.
- Sally Goddard, 2005, Fern Ridge Press, Oregon, USA – “Reflexes, Learning and Behaviour: A Window into the Child’s Mind”
- Rosemary Murphy, “ADHD & Ritalin: The Pros, Cons and Natural Alternatives”, Developmental Learning Centre – New Zealand – www.developlearning.co.nz
- Sideman, Roger A., “Nature’s Ritalin: the effects of green spaces on symptoms of attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder” (2012). Master’s Thesis, Smith College, Northampton, MA. https://scholarworks.smith.edu/theses/880
- Alice W.Burlingame – 1974 – “Hoe for Health”
- Richard Louv (2005, 2008) – Last Child in the Woods – Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill