PLACE TO GROW IS APROPOS
As plants thrive in a garden, so do the students who tend them.
Throughout history, gardening has been prescribed therapy.
As biblical lore goes, Jesus sought solace in a garden near Jerusalem and,
upon emerging, felt strengthened from his stay. Ancient Egyptians
prescribed walks in gardens to people with mental-health issues.
Now, Barbara Clayton hopes to bring similar results to students in her
exceptional student education (ESE) program at Polk County’s Doris Sanders
Although the program is rare in public schools, the trend toward
horticulture for healing purposes — called horticulture therapy — is
spreading in places such as assisted-living facilities and hospitals.
South Lake Hospital in Clermont, affiliated with Orlando Regional Medical
Center — opened a meditation garden earlier this year.
Scientists have found profound connections between plants and people.
Everyone from those with physical disabilities to developmentally delayed
students can benefit, they say.
“Students excel in working with hands-on learning activities related to
horticulture, landscaping, plant-nursery production and plant care,
maintenance, and using tools and equipment safely,” said Clayton, an
Thirty-five students ages 14 to 22 in the program experience real-world
horticulture jobs at the Polk County Environmental Education Resource
Center, a 30-year-old facility on 17 acres in Auburndale. The students
have cognitive abilities at levels ranging from lower than pre-K to grade
6 and work with staff and master gardeners on their projects.
They derive benefits from physical exercise such as bending, walking and
working as well as “fitting in” as they share gardening experiences. The
opportunity to share a universal activity can provide deep senses of
accomplishment to such students, researchers say.
“They are responsible for all aspects of plant care: planting, potting,
cuttings, watering, trimming, fertilizing, pest and disease control,”
Researchers have found that horticulture therapy also can boost
self-esteem. As early as the late 1700s, American researchers had figured
out that farm field work had positive effects on people’s mental health.
By the early 1800s, they had determined that even parklike settings in an
urban area would help awaken senses and redirect negative feelings.
At the PEER center, the ESE students have been cleaning up a trellis
overgrown with weeds, helping in the butterfly garden, clearing out
exotics such as the air-potato vine in favor of natives such as beauty
berry, and mulching and planting.
“It’s always good to do some real-world things where you do a job and do
it well,” said Diane Herron, an environmental-resource teacher at the
The students don’t only work, however. They also take time to peruse the
center’s “track boxes,” two structures that look like a child’s sandbox,
near a creek with lots of brush.
During the night, animals cross the area, leaving tracks that the children
later try to identify.
Herron planned to bring a small bundle of animal fur and bones, the
remains of a barn owl’s nighttime diet, into the classroom. Because they
can’t digest the bones and fur of small mammals such as mice, the owls
spit up the leftovers, giving clues to their diet, Herron said. The
remains are able to be dissected and even reassembled into two-dimensional
“We try to teach them something fun, too,” she said. “If it was all work,
that wouldn’t be too fun.”
Many agriculture educators, however, aren’t being prepared for working
with developmentally delayed students, according to researchers. Many
colleges surveyed did not offer their agriculture majors specific skills
in working with the population, according to researchers. Such skills,
though, could be a key in leading some ESE students to productive jobs in
the future, they say.
More than 65 percent of ESE students out of school for three to five years
will be unemployed, according to ARC of the United States, a nonprofit
that works with people with intellectual disabilities.
Meanwhile, Clayton, who recently was named teacher of the year by the Polk
County Farm Bureau, has assisted with developing a modified Future Farmers
of America program for ESE students, which includes career development.
“Our students exemplify the FFA motto: ‘Learning to Do, Doing to Learn,
Earning to Live, and Living to Serve.’ ”
Guidance from an elder brother
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