Start Small, Grow Tall: Therapeutic Gardening at KidsPeace Berks Campus in Temple, PA

By Fred Indenbaum, Ed.S, LPC

The sub-acute second and third graders, many with ADHD, gather round the tree, touching the bark, feeling its texture. Looking up, they see strong boughs with leaves reaching toward the sun - a 100-year-old living being breathing for us, and we breathing for it. We note the scars in the trunk and how human-like the wound is. Our yoga exercise reflects the seasons of the tree, and all the children grow quiet in winter and awake in spring. Carlos says he feels peaceful.

In our partial hospitalization facility, we provide educational services for grades 1 through 12 at three levels of psychiatric care – acute, sub-acute and school based. Children are referred to us from schools, medical practitioners and social service agencies across Berks County, PA. Our staff was interested in developing an activity on campus that would engage our students therapeutically on many different levels. We turned to gardening. Since its inception, the students have been involved in every aspect of the development of the garden, and their input helped us create three broad goals:

1. Establish an on-going Therapeutic Gardening program at the KidsPeace Berks campus that contributes to the students’ well-being in multiple ways
2. Enhance the students’ affective, cognitive and coping skills through planning, creating, cultivating, growing and harvesting vegetables and ornamentals

3. Enhance campus life through Therapeutic Gardening and provide year-round constructive, engaging and interactive activities on campus.

Building a 12 X 8 foot garden shed required the sub-acute high school students to work as a team to construct, paint and seal hundreds of pieces of wood.  Many had never used hand tools; none had used power tools. They learned to encourage each other rather than to tease. They gained self-confidence by acquiring new skills. Julie soon became quite proficient with a hammer. Working only an hour or two a week, progress was slow. As winter set in, they wanted to continue working. In the cold, their faces etched with a mixture of pride and amazement, they watched their efforts take shape.

Because our students are at-risk with emotional, psychological, behavioral and learning disorders, many of them are not athletically inclined. Gardening provides them with a safe, non-competitive activity in which their success literally grows in front of them, boosting their self-esteem and sense of achievement. Students are awe-struck by the 7-foot tall sunflowers that they nurtured into existence. Tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, green beans, herbs and peppers are taken with great delight to the lunchroom or home to show Mom and Dad.

Steven finds great solace in the garden. At 13, he still grieves the loss of his mother two years ago to suicide and the loss of his grandfather last year. He enjoys caring for the garden and has been an eager student. Since many of Steven’s peers do not have access to outdoor settings, he helps them with garden tasks. He also helps the younger children. Recently, he talked to them before harvesting and offered this observation: “Treat these plants with respect because they give us gifts – food, flowers and the air we breathe. Now, we have to take care of them.”

The garden is a profound teacher of many of life’s lessons and provides ample opportunities for positive adult mentoring between students and staff. The garden is a classroom for learning about diversity, self-control, communication, respect and teamwork. Kids unaccustomed to nature learn to watch bees, unafraid, and to admire the little insects’ work ethic. Tiny hands clutch freshly pulled carrots. Tiny faces marvel at the miracle that they created. Health habits such as eating fresh fruits and vegetables, getting adequate sunshine and being active are now positive experiences for our kids. They feel the joy of planting bulbs, growing their flowers and bringing their beauty home to Mom.

Nicole sat with her therapist in her 4th grade school-based classroom, nervous about her presentation. She opened the package of tomato seeds for her peers to touch. Nicole explained that one little seed would grow into a huge plant. She poked her finger into the soil of the large flowerpot that she and her therapist had prepared. She dropped a seed into the hole and gently covered it. She placed a tomato cage in the pot and explained that, in a few weeks, the plant would come out of the soil and search for the cage. She said the plant would not feel trapped.  “The plant needs this support to live so it grabs hold and lifts itself up. It’s like our parents, friends and teachers supporting us. We are not in a cage. We are surrounded by love.”

Affectively, the children benefit from gardening through increased motivation and reduced stress, anxiety and tension. Cognitively, the children have learned planning, goal setting and decision-making. Behaviorally, the children have assumed responsibility, worked hard and learned patience and self-control. Gardening has provided a personal satisfaction for many of our students that may lead to a lifelong avocation.

In the garden, the children have found an appreciation for nature’s beauty and the gift of sharing nature’s bounty with others. They have learned to make healthy food choices at school, which is positively influencing their food choices at home. They are learning about plants, insects, ecology and environmental issues. Students are learning gardening skills and how to use and respect garden equipment. The garden has also enhanced our sense as a campus community.

Billy had a bad night at home. He refused to cooperate in class. He was angry and ready to explode. The crisis team was called, along with his therapist. He went silently, hesitantly with his therapist to the garden. The two worked quietly, using trowels to loosen a row of soil.  Billy applied himself, sweating out his anger and hurt. The therapist left another row of soil unworked, the soil too compressed for planting. The therapist gave Billy seeds to plant. The seeds went easily into the worked soil, but lay on top of the unworked soil.  The therapist noted, “Billy, your heart is hard right now like this soil that can’t accept these seeds. Nothing will grow there. This softened soil took your seeds and will grow them. An open heart, Billy, will nurture the seeds you have within – your creativity, your intelligence, your humor.”

The staff sought assistance in the community and found it. Lowes of Reading donated the materials and staff to build 13 raised beds (660 sq. ft.). DEKA Batteries and private donors gave cash to fund garden equipment and seeds. The Center for TMJ and Sleep Disorders donated funds to purchase seeds and two complete seed starter kits. The Rodale Institute donated horticultural books and expertise. To commemorate the garden, Van Scoy Jewelers donated a decorative fountain, and local poet, Jennifer Gittings-Dalton wrote a poem. Redner’s Warehouse donated food and gardening materials. Our sponsors are neighbors who are firmly committed to offering these children hope, health and healing.

Fred Indenbaum, Ed.S, LPC, is a Mental Health Professional who is a therapist at KidsPeace Berks Campus, providing individual, group and family therapy to elementary and secondary children with behavioral, emotional and psychological disorders. He has over 25 years of therapeutic experience working with youth and adults in community agencies, secondary education and higher education. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of West Florida, Master’s Degree in Counseling Education from the University of Florida, and Specialist’s Degree in Counseling Education from the University of Florida. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.


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