Did you ever think about the benefits of gardening for children with special needs? Specialists who help our children with special needs work in various settings. Some work from their clinics, from school, from your home, and today you will meet Natasha Etherington, a horticultural therapist who works from a garden. In her book, Gardening for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Special Educational Needs – Engaging with Nature to Combat Anxiety, Promote Sensory Integration and Build Social Skills, Natasha provides parents, teachers, and other caregivers step-by-step instructions how to effectively engage children with different abilities and ages to experience the therapeutic benefits of garden related activities. Read my review of her book here to see how horticultural therapy helps individuals with special needs to learn, play and strengthen body and mind.
Lorna: Welcome to our Author Interview Series! We are so pleased to share with our readers more details about your book, Gardening for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Special Educational Needs, and learn about the services a horticultural therapist provides. Let’s start with a bit about yourself, your studies, your reasons to choose this field of work, and your move from the UK to our beautiful British Columbia, Canada.
Natasha Etherington >>Thank you Lorna! I married a Canadian in London and we moved to British Columbia in Canada in 2006. Formerly I worked for BBC2 TV which is the home of Gardeners’ World and was fortunate enough to meet some amazing gardeners and visit some beautiful gardens. In London we lived next door to Kew Botanical Gardens which is where my daughter learned to walk. After emigrating to Canada I trained as a Master Gardener at the VanDusen Botanical Gardens and while I was there a new Horticutural Therapy program started which I joined in its second year. Since then I have taken the Advanced Master Gardener program. The coming together of horticulture and therapy is fascinating and I absolutely love my job. There is so much to learn about people and plants – I’ve always enjoyed a good challenge.
Lorna : Your book just came out in 2012. Was this a project that you had always planned to do? Tell us your reasons for writing it and the comments you are hearing about it.
Natasha Etherington >> Initially I started to write a paper for the American Horticultural Therapy Journal on how children with ASD benefited from regular exposure to a school garden but at the same time was being asked by support teachers how to engage with children with special needs in the garden setting – how was I doing this, approach and activities etc. This made me realise that there were many perceived barriers to working with children with special needs outdoors. I wanted to empower support teachers with a little bit of horticultural know how which I hope I have made attainable in my book. Jessica Kingsley Publishers immediately said they would publish the book and it took me just over a year to complete.
Lorna: So that our readers understand the wide scope horticultural therapy has and for our readers to not only think it is just about digging and planting please explain the benefits of gardening for children with special needs.
Natasha Etherington >> Gardening will show you a different side to a child. Together you will share experiences and you will see how self esteem and positive behaviours can develop. By introducing the concept of the people-plant relationship children gain an understanding that interconnectiveness is a fundamental principle of nature and a source of great comfort. As Christopher Lloyd said “gardening – it is a humanising occupation.” By this I mean that over time our minds and bodies strengthen sufficiently to generate energy for taking action in our lives. Through greater self awareness comes a positive state of mind which is the first step to overcome feelings of hopelessness and lethargy. It’s also great fun watching plants grow and flower and all kinds of bugs in the garden!
Lorna: You have chapters specifically for individuals who fall under the following
- 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. Tell us about some of the children you have worked with and how horticultural therapy was able to “reach them” when other therapies failed.
Natasha Etherington >> I don’t think many of the children I garden with are in any kind of therapy to be honest. However, in the first instance you are giving a child a break from the classroom which is welcomed by that child. Then you’re building a mutual interest in a place together which is special. Through this allowed autonomy in the garden a curiosity grows from within the mind of the child through which you can help teach horticultural and life skills.
The outdoor classroom becomes a multi-sensory space that is not available to a support teacher in an indoor classroom. Some examples are, children that have overcome their tactile defensiveness and anxieties regarding dirt, understanding that soil is a very precious element in our lives and the difference between inorganic and organic matter for instance. Building self esteem and appreciating a self awareness and understanding different feelings and emotions, what we like, what we don’t like and what we feel pretty neutral about. Empathy for others is key to me and sharing and being polite. Utimately gaining an interest in learning. Critically important to me is that students are experiencing activities in context, far better for memory recall and key to learning strategies that help students who learn differently.
Lorna: In my review I wrote, “… I wonder if in the majority of our public schools can find the space, the financing, and the personnel to have a horticultural therapy program? Is it doable in our present, public educational facilities?” Here is your chance for a rebuttal and prove me wrong.
Natasha Etherington >> This is why I wrote the book – to enable anyone to run a gardening program with a therapeutic function. There are many grants available for creating gardens particularly for children with special needs. I have been given grants to buy tools, build, purchase plants and trees and for an honorarium as a garden coordinator – all feasible under a grant application. You don’t need a big space, it could be a corner outside by a wall, or a tree that you decide to build a garden under – but it should be outdoors. This outdoor classroom then becomes embedded into the child’s schedule and visits are made maybe two or three times a week with a support worker. This is also a space a school counselor can use for children suffering from anxiety or in need of some time for peace and quiet seeking refuge with low mental health.
Lorna: Yes, thanks for that great suggestion about schools applying for grants and I see that you do not need a big space. My other concern was about our public schools with a July and August school break and in our temperate climates with comfortable outdoor weather only in mid-May and June then again in September and mid-October. What do you suggest for schools in these areas? Would gardening in a greenhouse have some of the same benefits and be the solution to some of the questions I raised?
Natasha Etherington >>These are the most common barriers that prohibit the growth of school gardens. I have an easy solution which is the purchase of a timed drip irrigation system. They range from $50-100. We have one which I turn on the last day of school, it automatically comes on every other day for an hour and this is sufficient for our summers in British Columbia. If you live in hotter climates you can adjust the timer frequency. This is battery run so no need for a power outlet just a tap for the hose to run water through.
My greenhouse at work doesn’t accommodate too many people but I do know HTs that run their programs from inside a greenhouse and these become really interesting and social areas. A hub of activity and interaction which is rather special.
Lorna: A drip irrigation system, a wonderful solution, thanks! I agree completely about benefits of gardening for children with special needs as I am an avid gardener myself. One wonderful thing about learning about gardens and related activities when they are children is this will probably stay with them into adulthood. It is a great life skill to acquire. Please elaborate.
Natasha Etherington >> As you know gardening allows for some time for reflection in a safe environment. Simply getting outside is the fresh air is a benefit but here are more:
- Physiological – improved fine and gross motor skills, physical fitness through movement involved
- Psychological – increased self esteem, increased sense of self, redirecting aggressive behaviour
- Cognitive – stimulating curiosity, counting sequences and seasonal changes
- Recreational – age appropriate leisure skills
- Socialization benefits – opportunities to join garden clubs
- Vocational – transferable employment skills.
Lorna : Thank you very much for taking part in our interview series. What is on Natasha’s To-do list for the coming months? Please give us your links to follow you.
Natasha Etherington >. I’m really looking forward to harvesting and drying some herbs this month and then I will need to do a final clean up/set up the drip irrigation soon at the school gardening program to prepare for the summer.