Gardening with special needs: The benefits of horticultural therapy

Gardening activities can provide horticultural therapy for those with disabilities

Sara Tower, a teacher at Kent Intermediate School District’s Pine Grove Learning Center, contacted Kendra Wills, Michigan State University (MSU) Extension educator, to conduct a gardening activity at the school this past April. Pine Grove is a school for students with special needs ages five to 26. Several students rely on wheelchairs and need around-the-clock care.

Mrs. Tower wanted to give her students a chance to work with plants in the spring to help prepare them for outdoor activities this summer in the school’s sensory garden. As a Master Gardener and community food systems educator, Wills prepared an activity where students would follow step-by-step photographic images to plant a seed in a small pot and water it. Students got a chance to put their fingers in the soil and feel its texture. Placing a seed in the soil and covering it requires dexterity and coordination. Watering works the muscles of the arms. These activities benefit the body and the mind.

To complement the planting activity, Mrs. Tower prepared a special treat for the students so they could taste something from the garden – strawberry shortcake. Wills and Tower explained that the seeds students planted will grow and become food for people and animals. Learning how to grow fruits and vegetables is a valuable skill for everyone.

Gardening is so effective in providing therapy to those with disabilities, there is an entire field dedicated to this work. Horticultural therapy involves the use of plants and related activities as tools to promote healing and rehabilitate people with special needs. Special needs populations include those with physical disabilities as well as those with mental illness, prisoners and people working to overcome additions. The general purpose of horticultural therapy is to improve a person’s physical and mental well-being.

Horticultural therapy can be conducted year round. In the winter, participants can work on garden related crafts such as birdhouses and painting flower pots. Participants can also plant terrariums or even make a garden using photographs when an outdoor garden isn’t accessible. However, working outside in the soil and caring for plants is a key ingredient of Horticultural therapy.

Additional resources on this topic are available through the American Horticultural Therapy Association, the Horticultural Therapy Institute and the Michigan Horticultural Therapy Association. MSU Extension published a bulletin on horticultural therapy in 1997. Bulletin (E1847) is available as a PDF for $0.50 from the MSU Extension Bookstore.

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