Although gardening is an exciting and engaging activity for all children, the opportunities for hands-on learning through exploration, experimentation and nurturing can be especially beneficial for children with special needs. Gardens provide "real world" examples and experiences that boost learning for students who thrive on practical instruction. Activities in the garden can be adapted for various skill levels and allow children to connect with nature and each other in unique and important ways. Gardening results in products the students can be proud of and share with others for praise and recognition.
"Special needs" can describe a host of children: those with physical, mental, social, and emotional challenges including mental retardation, autism, sensory impairment, learning disabilities, or physical or mental developmental delays. These students are often included in traditional classrooms, but some require content and activities adapted and delivered in specific ways in order to master the same educational content as their peers.
An article from the National Science Teacher's Association recommends that science educators "create lessons based on themes or big ideas" to help students with special needs be successful in the classroom. As Marcee Steele writes in her article in the October 2007 edition of NSTA's Science and Children, "Lessons based on themes help students with mild disabilities focus on a few important ideas rather than getting lost in numerous details. In addition, the major science themes integrate and relate ideas across the curriculum, thus giving even more review in another context for students who have problems with memory and generalization." School gardens are a perfect fit for addressing this recommendation.
Though the following list of benefits of applies to all children, they are especially evident for children with special needs:
Gardens provide hands-on experiences that allow students to see cause-and-effect relationships.
Garden activities can be used to teach multiple disciplines and create connections across the curriculum.
The beauty of a garden and the rewards of harvest provide positive intrinsic reinforcement; the praise and admiration of others who enjoying the results of students’ work offer extrinsic reinforcement.
Garden activities are often completed in teams, providing opportunities for students to practice communication skills and work closely with others toward a common goal in a non-threatening environment.
Students feel empowered by their ability to make improvements to their environment and community.
Tending plants helps students develop patience, responsibility, and self-confidence.
Garden activities provide opportunities for sensory exploration, the expression of creativity, and practice of inquiry. The physical nature of gardening especially engages students who have trouble sitting still and concentrating in a traditional classroom setting.
Garden work helps to build gross and fine motor skills.
Gardening can decrease stress.
Gardening skills can translate into job skills later in life or become a life-long hobby.
Here are highlights from educators who use gardening activities to engage students with special needs.
The Discovery Garden at The Waisman Early Childhood Program, Madison, Wisconsin
"Our children spend a part of every day outside," says Joan Ershler, Director of the Waisman Early Childhood Program (WECP) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Waisman Center is dedicated to the advancement of knowledge about human development, developmental disabilities, and neurodegenerative diseases. The Early Childhood Program serves children with developmental challenges and as well as those with typical development. The focus is on creating standards for best practices for working with children with special needs in inclusive programs and on training future teachers.
A very important component of the WECP is a 1½ acre outdoor learning play space known as the Discovery Garden. Since renovation in 2000, this playground space now includes gardens, shrubs, trees, and equipment. It features a butterfly garden, sand and water play areas, climbing equipment, swings, and lots of green space for exploring, imagining, and running, making the area a favorite of the children.
Joan explains, "Since our program includes children with and without special needs, we adapt activities to reach a broad range of developmental levels within each classroom with a focus on sensory experiences. We have installed vertical planters and accessible paths to ease use by all."
Joan has found through experience that obtaining expensive equipment for gardening is not as important as the time spent planning the garden activities. "Equipment is easy to adapt. The actual delivery and planning for each child is what is most important for success." Educators must take the time to consider the needs of their students and then create ways to tailor the experience for maximum learning impact. "They should ask themselves 'what do I need to do to make this work for each child?'"
Eisenhower Middle School, Succasunna, NJ
Educator Barbara Delaney uses the school greenhouse and gardens to bring learning alive for her seventh grade special education students. "They take great pride in their outdoor projects. The hands-on activities are excellent tools for learning, and students really profit by developing practical life skills."
Barbara goes on to enumerate other exciting benefits of the garden. “Students connect learning to a real-life experience, so daily lessons become more meaningful. There’s something magical about being outdoors, and the kids love the physical aspect of planting a garden. I also find that students are more motivated to learn when they’re looking forward to something!”
She continues, "Another important goal of the program is to help our students feel connected to their peers and to their community. They have opportunities to share experiences with students and adults who are not part of our class, and this has led to new friendships and mutual understanding. The regular education students want to be included with our students, and the special education students feel needed and valued. This boosts their self-confidence, and that carries over into academic areas."
Barbara's class is planning to add a Japanese garden to the school courtyard. Students will be involved in every step of the process from planning to maintenance. They’ll share ideas and experiences with a California middle school class that is installing their own Japanese garden. Designing the new garden will provide many opportunities for academic and personal growth. Each student will have an assigned job during the process and work in small groups to accomplish their tasks. Barbara notes enthusiastically, “My students gain confidence and self-assurance when high expectations are placed on them. They rise to new challenges when they are in a nurturing and supportive environment."
For specific advice and resources for maximizing the benefits for special needs students in the garden, please read Tips and Resources for Gardening with Children with Special Needs.