There is something therapeutic about gardening for both young and old alike.
Maybe it’s the feel of the dirt between your fingers. Maybe it’s the sun shining down and the feel of the wind blowing. Or maybe it’s the work that is put into the garden, sometimes daily, and the reward of seeing (and tasting) the literal fruits of your labor. Whatever it is, gardening does have positive effects on a person’s mental, physical and emotional health, and can be an excellent tool for the development of children with special needs.
According to the American Autism Association, “Gardening can help individuals with autism develop social, behavioral and sensorimotor skills. Through gardening, individuals with autism learn to communicate with others, cooperate with others and engage in sensory activities. In many horticultural therapy sessions, individuals with autism are given instructions with multiple tasks while they garden.”
In addition to these benefits, gardening also helps children develop new skills, gain confidence and improve overall well-being.
What if your child doesn’t like the foods that would be grown in a garden? Some children with Autism Spectrum Disorder have a difficult time with certain foods. They may be bothered by the texture, or smell, or maybe they only have a couple of foods they will eat consistently. The act of gardening may help to expand your child’s interest in new foods as they participate in the process of their growth.
If the idea of creating a garden sounds appealing to you, here are some things to consider:
- If your child struggles with a disruption in routine, you may want to take time talking about, and planning, the garden for a little while before the process begins. Create a schedule, or storyboard, showing the different steps. You also may want to write on the calendar what times and days you will be tending the garden. Talk about the steps that will be repetitious, such as watering.
- Read books about gardening and show your child images of gardens, and the tools needed to create the garden. Consider showing images of a garden at different stages, so they can anticipate what it will look like at different times.
- If your child does not like getting dirty, or the feel of something new, talk about how dirt may feel and introduce it to them in small doses. Let them know they can wear gloves, and use shovels to dig holes if they don’t want to put their hands in the dirt.
- Prepare them for the next steps. After the holes are dug and the seeds are planted, remind them it will take a while before they will see the food. Consider planting things that will grow at different times — some may grow fairly quickly and others will take more time. Talk about watering the garden, and the importance of the sun and the rain for growth.
- Add birdfeeders, brightly colored flowers, non-toxic scented plants like lavender, mint or jasmine to add different sensory experiences.
- If you are not able to create a full garden, consider potting plants in pots, hanging planters or wooden boxes.
Another wonderful thing about gardening with your child is that developing a love for gardening at a young age can be carried on, and benefit, children with special needs as they grow into adulthood. Not only will they be able to grow and maintain a garden for the purpose of food, but also can use the skills learned to gain employment by growing food later in life, if interested.