Benefits of Gardening in Special Needs Population
With spring almost here, it’s a good time to think about the health benefits of being in nature. For special needs children there are many particular benefits to gardening and working with plants. Horticultural therapy is defined as gardening or any plant-based activity, facilitated by a trained therapist, to achieve specific therapeutic treatment goals. According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, horticultural therapy is widely used within a broad range of rehabilitative, vocational, and community settings with positive results.
Learning about plants and gardening teaches children about the planet and how it lives, grows, and changes. Outdoor learning boosts children’s cognitive development by focusing their attention and improving concentration. Horticultural therapy helps improve memory, cognitive abilities, task initiation, language skills, and socialization. Outdoor exposure can also improve their concentration in addition to learning new skills..
Many sports may not be practical for children with certain disabilities. But gardening works their muscles through bending, pulling, stretching, and some light lifting. This can help strengthen muscles and improve coordination, motor skills, balance, and endurance.
Children with special needs may have few opportunities for social interactions, but gardening with a group of students offers a safe place to engage with others and make friends. A community that focuses on plant growth together creates natural opportunities to connect and form relationships. While gardening helps students learn to work independently, problem solve, and follow directions, their natural curiosity about the outdoors can help improve communication skills as they are inspired to initiate conversation.
Over some time, while working in a garden, students develop patience and the ability to delay gratification. Gardening provides a sense of purpose, confidence, and achievement as students watch their seeds grow into plants. Furthermore, just connecting with nature can reduce students’ tension and improve moods by taking their focus away from stressors. Focusing on the fresh air, the feeling of sunlight, and the scenery of plants can have a relaxing, therapeutic effect on children with special needs, allowing them to take a break from negative stimuli.
Children with autism may have extreme sensory reactions to some elements of the outdoors, but gardening can help them to explore their senses in a positive way: seeing a variety of plants, hearing leaves rustle, touching soil, or smelling flowers. Children with sensory sensitivities may benefit from a therapeutic sensory garden, a sensory-oriented plant selection focused on color, texture, and fragrance that is specifically designed to facilitate interaction with the soothing elements of nature. With repeated exposure and guidance, their negative responses may decrease and give way to positive outdoor experiences.
With so many benefits, gardening with special needs kids truly has the power to transform children’s lives, regardless of their age or ability.
These photos in this article are from Sarah Martin's class of 2019-2020
Alpha School an private special education school in New Jersey
Our Mission at The Alpha School is to help all of our special needs students with the learning, social, language, and behavioral support they deserve. Our highly skilled staff are committed daily to helping each student to becoming the best they can while providing a safe and nurturing educational environment.
We would be more than happy to discuss your child’s specific needs and challenges, so please call us at 732.370.1150, or request a tour of Alpha School of Jackson, NJ located just minutes off of Route 9 and Route 195 in Ocean County.
— John Gonzalez, Principal-Alpha School, Jackson, NJ