Tips and Resources for Gardening with Children with Special Needs

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We’ve gleaned the following advice and resource links to help you prepare to garden with children with special needs and manage activities to make the most of their experiences. In addition to the Oregon State University Extension Service (OSUES) and NGA’s education staff, we tapped the wisdom of Joan Ershler, Director of the Waisman Early Childhood Program (WECP) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Joan’s program serves children with developmental challenges and as well as those with typical development. WECP focuses on creating standards for best practices for working with children with special needs in inclusive programs, and on training future teachers. (You can read a short profile of her program here.)

Preparation and Planning

Joan Ershler suggests:

  • Balance time between activities with immediate results (such as weeding) and delayed results (such as seed planting).

  • Foreshadow the day's events before going out to the garden. Once in the garden, begin by modeling behaviors. Continue to remind students of the task at hand and the objectives of the activity, and reinforce procedures with additional demonstrations throughout the experience.

  • Develop a routine so that students feel comfortable and confident with the activities they are performing.

OSUES suggests:

  • Garden frequently but for short time periods.

  • Keep drinks and snacks available.

  • Provide child-size tools. Use small hand tools, old spoons, and plastic tool sets.

  • Bigger seeds are easier for smaller or less coordinated hands to manage. To ease the planting of small seeds and allow more even distribution, obtain some empty spice and herb bottles that have shaker tops. Fill bottles with a mixture of seeds and sand or peat moss, and shake out the mixture to plant.

  • Plant things that are quick and easy to grow that the children like (for example, snap peas instead of beets). As much as possible, let the children decide what to plant.

NGA suggests:

  • Break large tasks into numerous small tasks and make sure to clearly demonstrate each task.

  • Think about how kids will move through the space. Consider path size and surfacing, and the location of tools and your water source. Always keep safety in mind.

  • Adapt tools and garden beds as needed, such as using lightweight equipment and providing seating areas along the edges of planting beds. Check out Gardens are for Everyone for ideas.

  • Prepare for the elements. Avoid dehydration and provide protection from sun (overheating and excessive sun exposure can be especially problematic for children taking certain medications).

Adapting and Managing Activities

Joan Ershler suggests:

  • Have plenty of adult helpers, with a ratio of at least 1 adult for every 4 children.

  • Adapt the pace of the activity so students do not feel rushed. "Flexible timing is probably the most common adaptation, and one of the most important, in working with students with special needs."

  • Children with sensory defensiveness can be easily frightened and quickly become overwhelmed, so give them a chance to run away and release energy, or time to quietly take everything in (depending on the type of stimulation needed to engage them).

OSUES suggests:

  • Vary activities often and allow frequent breaks. Let the children choose chores they enjoy. Try to provide more encouragement than direction.

  • Look at an unexpected or disappointing outcome as an interesting opportunity to learn rather than as a failure. Focus on ability, not disability.

  • Take and display pictures of the children's gardening activities. Invite others to visit the garden or view the projects.

NGA suggests:

  • Give each student a different task and allow him or her to take on a developmentally appropriate amount of responsibility.

  • Be patient and consistent in the garden.

  • Provide plenty of recognition and praise for accomplishments.

  • Most importantly, have fun! Don't ever use gardening tasks as punishment.

For more background information and highlights of two exemplary programs, please read Gardening with Children with Special Needs.

Related Resources

From NGA:
Adaptive Seedstarting Methods
Adapting Common Garden Tasks
Gardens are for Everyone
Growing Bridges
Growing Kids in Accessible Gardens
Plant Sale Grows Kids
Cultivating Connections:Friendship Garden Project

Additional Resources:
Resources for Working with Youth with Special Needs
Gardening Ideas for Children with Special Needs
Gardening for Life (PDF; includes specific design suggestions, plant lists, safety considerations, list of adaptive tools)

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