What is this book about? The descriptive title says it all, Gardening for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Special Educational Needs – Engaging with Nature to Combat Anxiety, Promote Sensory Integration and Build Social Skills by Natasha Etherington. Does gardening work to help children with special needs? Is it practical and enjoyable? Ms. Etherington, a horticultural therapist, does a fine job of convincing her readers that not only do the children with special needs benefit from gardening but so do their peers, caregivers and educators. Is it doable in our present, public educational facilities? Read the review and decide.
What is Horticultural Therapy?
The author tells us, “Horticultural Therapy (HT) is the engagement of a person in gardening related activities, facilitated by a trained therapist, to achieve specific treatment goals. During this therapy, plants, gardens, and natural landscapes are utilized to engage and improve cognitive, physical, social, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing.” In short it is helping people of various ages and abilities to experience garden related activities. HT helps individuals with special needs to learn, play and strengthen body and mind.
Who is the Target Audience?
The author writes that she was inspired to write this book for teachers, school counsellors, support assistants, and parents regardless of their horticultural know-how. She feels that a horticultural therapy programme offers benefits not available in an indoor classroom.
Gardening is motivational for the child and is great for the mental health of all involved. An added bonus for the adults is that gardening side by side with a child will show you a different side of his personality and increase positive behaviors. For parents, they can build lasting memories from sharing this gardening experience with their child. I know this to be true because my fondest memory of my paternal grandmother is helping her with their vegetable garden over sixty years ago. Now a grandmother myself, my own children have gardens of their own and it is a great pleasure to help my grandchildren with their vegetable patch!
What Does the Book Offer?
Gardening for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Special Educational Needs has all you need to start gardening and enjoying this unique experience with the child in your care. The first chapters explain why horticultural therapy is important, how to introduce the concept of people-plant relationship to show that interconnectiveness is a great comfort to people. Readers will appreciate the black and white photos with captions.
The author shows how the mindfulness approach, the awareness of mind and body, can be enhanced through regular participation in the garden. Tasks can be set up so the child is able to stop, consider and examine his emotions and thoughts. Ms. Etherington feels when we are absorbed in an activity such as weeding or sowing seeds, we calm our minds and start subconsciously to analyse our experiences in life.
She recommends everyone to read her chapter on the benefits of digging and then choose the chapters dealing with the special needs of the child you are working with. Digging provides numerous learning experiences and benefits the whole child. The following are some of the benefits of digging:
- Gives children the time to play and explore in the soil incorporating play and gross motor skills.
- Reduces muscle tension and lowers blood pressure.
- Builds endurance and hand dexterity.
- Provides opportunity to develop speech to share discoveries while playing in the soil.
- Gives a chance for the child to learn how to coorperate with buddies or the caregiver.
- Gives practice is following instructions and safety regulations.
- Helps lessen negative feelings, anxieties, aggressive tendencies, etc.
- Helps to reduce tactile defensiveness.
The subsequent chapters show the benefits of gardening in relation to a special need or condition:
- Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Anxiety, Anger and Depression
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
- Developmental Disability
- Wheelchair Users
Each of the above chapters has four or five complete lesson plans with easy-to-follow sections: Aim, Tools, The Activity written in bulleted format and numbered sequences.
Leaving no stone unturned, Natasha Etherington includes chapters on Poisonous Plants, Gardens for Children who Suffer from Asthma and Allergies and has appendixes on the top ten potential hazards in the garden or nature setting, the top ten sensory plants and must have herbs, and examples of themed containers and gardens.
The author has been generous with giving you numerous links to resources on the benefits of horticultural therapy and therapeutic gardens. You will find references, a reading list, and recommended resources.
Best of all, the comprehensive index makes Gardening for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Special Educational Needs a handy resource book you will use and reuse.
From a “Snoozle lawn” to planting “hanging baskets”, all the activities and the concepts behind Horticultural Therapy seem so much fun and so beneficial. I can easily see this happening in a home setting or in a school where children with special needs have lots of individual support and generous budgets, however I wonder if in the majority of our public schools can find the space, the financing, and the personnel to have a horticultural therapy programme?
Many of the activities suggested could be modified and carried out at the rural school where I taught… but which adult in the school would be responsible for doing the horticultural therapy programme? Which programme would it replace or compliment? Who cares for the garden during the eight weeks of summer holidays? How do you prevent kids from damaging the garden during evenings, weekends, and school breaks?
If every penny for education is being fought for and budgets are being slashed each year, who will fund the expenses for the garden? I’m afraid Ms. Etherington’s gardening project for the majority of our public schools with a July and August school break does not seem easily doable. In our temperate climates with comfortable outdoor weather only from mid-May and June then again in September and to mid-October what is suggested in this book for our public schools it is not very practical… would gardening in a greenhouse have some of the same benefits and be the solution to some of the questions I raised?
Natasha Etherington is a horticultural therapist and volunteer master gardener. She emigrated to Canada from the UK in 2006. Following the Master Gardener training program she retrained as a Horticultural Therapist at The VanDusen Botanical Gardens. She offers customized gardening programs and designs with a mindfulness approach. She designs gardens and adapts horticultural activities to enable people with barriers to enjoy the experience of gardening. Her therapeutic garden design at Pitt Meadows Elementary School won the 2010 Accessibility and Leisure and Recreation Award from the City of Maple Ridge. She lives in British Columbia with her husband Jason and two children. Her website can be visited at www.experiencegardening.com.