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Planting the Seeds of Responsibility

By Meghan Vivo

How Tending to a Garden Benefits Children with Special Needs

Gardening is a pastime that is taking the country by storm. With limited food budgets, soaring grocery costs, and increasing rates of childhood obesity, more Americans are re-learning the joy of getting their hands dirty. Even First Lady Michelle Obama is getting involved, planting a garden on the South Lawn to grow 55 varieties of vegetables for the White House residents and staff.

What the Research Shows

Of course, gardens aren’t just for parents and politicians – they have also proven beneficial for children and teens, particularly those with special needs such as Asperger’s syndrome, high-functioning autism, attention deficit disorder (ADHD), and related issues.

Studies suggest that children and teens who participate in cultivating a garden at home or at school show greater willingness to try new foods, improved eating habits and knowledge about nutrition, and increased consumption of fruits and vegetables. In a study of elementary school and junior high school students, researchers found that young people also developed more positive attitudes about environmental issues after participating in a school garden program (Waliczek, T.M., Zajicek, J.M. (1999)).

School gardening programs have also been associated with higher scores on science achievement tests and improved life skills. Studies in Bexar County, Texas showed that gardening increased self-esteem, helped students develop a sense of ownership and responsibility, helped foster relationships with family members, and increased parental involvement (Alexander, J. & D. Hendren, (1998)). In studies of children with learning disabilities, gardening was linked with enhanced nonverbal communication skills, cooperation, and relationship-building skills (Sarver, M. (1985)).

Changing Attitudes about Nutrition and the Environment

The benefits of working in a garden come as no surprise to Julie Walicki, a staff counselor at Southeast Journeys, a semester-long school program for adolescents ages 13-17 with Asperger’s syndrome, high-functioning autism, ADHD, nonverbal learning disorder, and related disorders. Julie has been gardening with children with special needs since she started working with Southeast Journeys.

The students at Southeast Journeys are involved in every aspect of cultivating the school garden, from deciding which seeds to plant to harvesting produce which they use in cooking meals for the school. They also built a composting system, in which scraps from the kitchen are used as fertilizer to nourish the crops.

Despite being notoriously picky eaters, Julie has noticed that children with Asperger’s and related disorders are more likely to try new foods when they participate in growing a garden. “When the students are the ones planting and harvesting the produce, they get so excited about watching the plants grow and sampling the finished product,” she says. “Kids who hate peas will get excited about eating them with dinner that night if they helped grow them.”

Gardening is also an outlet to teach young people with special needs about sustainable living practices. Students at Southeast Journeys don’t use chemicals in the garden, and use a rainwater catch system to conserve water. By growing their own garden, Julie explains, their food doesn’t have to be transported across the country using fossil fuels, and the students are able to eat local, in-season produce which ensures freshness and great taste. 

Learning Responsibility and Teamwork

In her work with the students at Southeast Journeys, Julie has discovered that gardening is a unique opportunity for students to take on manageable chores and contribute to a team effort in a meaningful way.

Each student chooses the crops and chores they want to be responsible for in the garden. This way, they take pride in their work and are excited to share their success with other students and staff. By working together in small groups, the students learn the value of teamwork and positive ways to resolve conflict.

“In the garden, we see a side of these students that doesn’t come out in their usual interactions with peers,” says Julie. “They become nurturing caregivers who are excited to try new things and take responsibility for their particular crop. To them, taking care of a garden is almost like having a pet.”

The staff at Southeast Journeys uses the garden as a metaphor for many topics, including reproduction, healthy living, the life cycle, and others. Because they are learning through hands-on experience, students are more interested than if they read about these topics in a textbook.

Building Relationships

Children and teens with Asperger’s, ADHD, and related disorders often have a hard time expressing themselves through words. For this reason, the staff at Southeast Journeys also uses gardening time as an opportunity to build a relationship with each child.

“Trying to engage these students in an eye-to-eye conversation can be difficult,” says Julie, “but when you’re shoveling compost together and your hands are busy and you’re working as part of a team, it feels less intimidating to them to open up and share what’s on their minds.”

Because the staff understands the special needs of children with Asperger’s, ADHD, and other learning challenges, they utilize a number of visual aids in the form of maps of the garden, lists of steps required to compost or turn the soil, chore charts, and various other charts, graphs, lists, and maps. The students also keep a garden journal in which they describe what they did each day and what they’re looking forward to doing the next day and in the coming week.

Reaping the ‘Fruits’ of Their Labor

Another advantage of gardening for special needs children is that it’s an active, outdoor hobby. A number of studies have shown that physical activity and “green” time can significantly reduce ADHD symptoms. For the same reason summer camps have proven beneficial for children with Asperger’s and ADHD, gardens can be helpful in increasing children’s focus.
In the garden, Southeast Journeys’ students’ hands are busy, and they’re moving around releasing pent-up energy. If they get distracted, they experience the direct consequences of their actions – in the short term, they see the plants wilting or failing to produce; in the long term, if they don’t feed the plants, the food won’t grow. In this way, students learn patience and have opportunities to discuss long-term goals, which can otherwise be challenging for some special needs students.

“In the traditional classroom, children with ADHD are often fidgeting and distracted and can’t remember the question or assignment,” explains Julie. “But in the outdoor experiential classroom, they are so focused and dedicated to the work, all of that disappears.”

As with every activity at Southeast Journeys, the staff provides plenty of positive reinforcement and praise, and encourages students to provide the same support to one another.

Returning to the Simple Joys

Gardening is now a favorite activity among the students at Southeast Journeys, with many students requesting additional time in the garden and trips to the local farmer’s market to sample new produce and buy seeds. And the staff enjoy it, too, in part because it is an enjoyable pastime but also because there are so many teachable moments that arise.

“The garden was a simple idea, but it’s one the students get so much out of,” says Julie. “At home, these kids are glued to their video games and television screens, but here they are anxious to get outside and into the garden. It’s fun to watch the process come full circle – from the garden to their dinner plates.”

In these difficult economic times, try returning to the simple joys of cultivating a garden with your own family. You’ll not only save money and have plenty of nutritious fruits and vegetables to eat, but you’ll enjoy a little extra quality time together.


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