Gardening with (and for) Children with Special Educational Needs

I can’t believe I’ve been blogging for two years without dedicating at least one post to students with special needs. As a former classroom teacher, I worked with students with a range of academic, social-emotional, developmental, and behavioral needs, always with an overarching goal of inclusion. School gardening is no different. In fact, the school garden offers a variety of ways to include children with special educational needs that the general education classroom does not.

School gardens appeal to a wider range of senses than typical classrooms. The gurgling sound of running water in a fountain or the perfume smell of citrus blossoms invite an altogether different sensory response than the typical walled classroom. Some students may be more at ease by the variety of stimuli in the garden, while others may be unnerved by this slightly less predictable environment.

Knowing your students will ensure that your school garden design has something for everyone, whether identified with special needs or not. Sensory gardens and adaptive gardens are just two types of spaces that can be designed to match the needs of students with special needs.

sensory garden is a garden with plants and features that appeal to more than sight or sound. According to the NC State Natural Learning Initiative, pathways or keyhole plantings make excellent spaces for sensory exploration. Leaves with interesting textures, edible flowers, or wind chimes focus students with attention difficulties. Be mindful, however, that strong smells or textures may be off-putting for students with sensory integration challenges. This site offers some helpful tips for visiting the garden with students who need extra support with attention or sensory processing.

Sensory gardens provide intimate spaces where young children can be immersed in the scents, textures and colors of plants and related elements.  ~NC State Natural Learning Initiative

An adaptive garden is a space specially designed for the physical limitations some students may have. At The Riverwood Conservancy youth participate in the “enabling garden” which provides programs for students with a wide range of needs. Building at least one bed that is wheelchair accessible is just one adaptation that can–and should– be incorporated into any school.

Although not new, the field of horticultural therapy has experienced a resurgence as educators and medical professionals alike remember the healing power of nature.  Gardens designed specifically for the blind, vegetable gardens that grow “greens for gray matter,”  (to support brain function), and therapeutic programs for veterans are all ways to be inclusive. The American Horticultural Therapy Association features several other examples of successful garden spaces throughout the country.

Image result for horticultural therapy
Horticultural Therapy is defined as the engagement of a person in gardening and plant-based activities, facilitated by a trained therapist, to achieve specific therapeutic treatment goals.

In my ongoing work with school gardens, I have met several dedicated educators who who use the garden almost exclusively with their students with special needs. Whether the space provides a much-needed break from the classroom or a place to practice mindfulness, the school garden has just as many benefits for social-emotional, developmental, and behavioral growth as it does for academic learning.

A few years ago the UC Master Gardener School Garden Task Force enjoyed student-led garden tours guided by a special day class at Silverado Middle School in Napa. The enthusiasm and motivation the students displayed as they shared their favorite features of the garden attest to the need for including students with special needs in school garden planning and design.



The School Garden Doctor is a registered nonprofit agency that empowers teachers, schools, and communities to grow school gardens that enhance science education, nurture wellness, and foster environmental literacy.




One Comment Add yours

  1. marcynb says:

    LOVELY blog, Carrie! Thank you! (And yes, the enthusiasm and pride in their knowledge that the SMS students shared was absolutely wonderful).



    Liked by 1 person

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