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Over the last 12 years I have been involved in developing with my colleague Simon Read a way of using horticulture as therapy within school settings. It has become of recent years a major feature on programmes such as Gardeners World, Chelsea Flower Show, and Countyfile about the positive and health-promoting benefits of nature-based activities.
The work I have developed with my colleague starts with the premise that just being near and in nature can have beneficial benefits for our health and well-being. Take the idea that looking out of a window onto a green space is more preferable than a bland and oppressive concrete or brick wall. We yearn for the contact and if we can’t have access we bring it into our space with house plants. It’s something we obviously need and want but the benefits are now becoming more recognised and researched. This need to be near or close to nature is often termed biophilia which means ‘love of life or living systems’. Eric Fromm described it as a psychological orientation of being attracted to all that is alive and vital.
When we work with the children and young people in schools we have an open space for all possibilities in the green space we use. It is like a blank canvas in art in as much anything can happen and also it can be just left blank for a while. You can do or you can just be in the space.
We explain to the young people who attend that this is their space and that they can use it in anyway that they want – build dens, explore the parameters of the space, sit, rest, and listen to what they notice, create objects like bug hotels and bird boxes, make the place look pretty and grow flowers, and grow fruit and vegetables to eat raw, cook on site, or take home and share with family or friends.
We have seen over the past 12 years via observation, informal interviews with the young people, teachers, and parents the very real benefit of using horticulture as therapy for a wide range of children with different needs such as neurodevelopmental conditions, emotional and behavioural problems, and those affected by traumatic histories such as asylum/refugee children.
Often they gain benefit from simply being outdoors, using all that the garden has to offer, working together and solving garden problems, nurturing and growing plants, and just being in a green space. It can and has had a transformative effect on emotional and social health as well as improved school attendance, changed behavior, better social relationships, and for some better literacy.
We have captured these changes using the five ways to well-being as our template for change in conjunction with photocapture attaching comments around the five ways to each photo they choose for each session. The five ways is a excellent method for children and young people to highlight what they have been aware of: Give, Be Active, Take Notice, Learn, and Connect. It is a really creative way to note changes via the photos taken and also the comments attached to the five ways. One can see the changes in perception of themselves, their relationships with others, and the wider environment in which they find themselves in the garden.
Using horticulture as therapy is an emerging and under-researched area within children and young people’s mental health and well-being that is why my colleagues from the University of Liverpool and myself have carried out a research on this area.
The work continues and we refine what we are trying to do and the important aspect of using horticulture as therapy to improve and maintain the five ways to well being for children and young people.
Carl Dutton is a psychodrama psychotherapist working in the NHS in FRESH CAMHS at Alderhey Children’s NHS Foundation Trust.
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