When I walk into the Stephen Knolls School’s greenhouse, cheerfully bright even on an overcast day, the humidity frizzes my hair into a delirious halo. The school’s principal, Kim Redgrave, is explaining the school’s gardening program to me when three boys who are maybe 10 to 12 years old join us. Two of them are in wheelchairs. The third walks unsteadily, led by a grown-up holding his hand. I try to catch the eye of this third boy, but he plops down onto a stool and avoids my gaze. I turn to one of the boys in wheelchairs, who rewards me with a giant, hammy smile.
“They are here to measure their plants,” explains their teacher. From the looks of the seedlings in their plastic pots, the boys have planted their seeds just a few weeks ago, and they are growing vigorously.
Just a few years ago, I hate to admit that in my total ignorance of disability, I would have assumed that these boys were barely aware of their environments. More attuned, I now see how all three boys become absorbed in their plants’ progress.
Stephen Knolls School is a public school in a Maryland suburb of Washington DC. The entire school has fewer than 100 students. About half of these are preschool students with varying levels of special needs. The other half are, according to the school’s website, “school-aged students 5 to 21 years old with severe to profound/multiple disabilities.” The majority of the school-aged students are nonverbal and not fully ambulatory. When I was growing up, many of these students would probably have been in residential centers more focused on their maintenance than on their education and flourishing. One of my three sons is a student who thrives there, due in no small part to innovative programs like its greenhouse and gardens.
Reams of research demonstrate that gardens and plant care can help students with disabilities develop crucial knowledge, skills, emotional regulation, and self-reliance: those with less intensive disabilities, more intensive disabilities, cognitive disabilities, physical disabilities. Even children without disabilities, for that matter, experience the same benefits.
As a result of this research, there has been a growing movement to include what are known as “sensory gardens” in many schools for children with disabilities, as well as many botanical gardens and children’s hospitals. Sensory gardens are gardens that are designed not only to be accessible to people with disabilities, such as having winding paths appropriate for wheelchairs, but to “systematically and sensitively nourish the five basic senses,” says Amy Wagenfeld, professor of occupational therapy at Rush University and one of the authors of the forthcoming book Therapeutic Gardens: Design for Healing Spaces. Such gardens provide opportunities to see, smell, touch, listen to—and sometimes taste—plant life and garden fixtures, such as scented herbs, smooth river rocks, or velvety lamb’s ears.
“But sensory gardens,” Wagenfeld adds, “aren’t restricted to the five basic senses. They also provide vestibular, proprioceptive, and kinesthetic input.” These senses include our awareness of our bodies’ movements, position, and balance. Swinging high in the air, squeezing into a nook, or rolling down a hill might provide these sorts of sensory input.
Naomi Sachs is the Founding Director of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network and co-author of the book Therapeutic Landscapes: An Evidence-Based Approach to Designing Healing Gardens and Restorative Outdoor Spaces, which marshals an impressive amount of evidence about the healing benefits of gardens as well as practical design advice. “Kids are spending so much more time indoors and on screens rather than outside, connecting with nature and interacting with each other,” said Sachs. Indeed, it turns out that taking kids away from TVs, phones, and tablets for just five days showed measurable improvements in some measures of emotional intelligence.
Gardens, it seems, are sort of like exercise. Both have a surprisingly broad array of positive effects. Exercise improves not only physical fitness and health, but also mood and cognition. So too do gardens. And while everyone benefits from gardens, they can provide an extra boost for kids with special needs. “Spending time in gardens can reduce the need for medication in children with ADHD,” Sachs pointed out, even after walks that last just 20 minutes.
One of the most important things that gardens can do for kids with disabilities, however, is allow them to socialize with typically-functioning peers. Gardens can be designed to be accessible and interesting to people of all levels of abilities. Gwenn Fried is a Horticultural Therapist at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine at NYU Medical Center. She frequently works with people with multiple intensive needs, like the students at Stephen Knolls School. “Something as simple as a hammock,” she said, “is a way for kids with intensive needs to share a moment with maybe a parent and a sibling who is often doing stuff the kid with disabilities cannot.”
Sachs agrees. “Sensory gardens should be a place not only for kids with disabilities, but where their siblings can run and play and their parents can relax. It should provide affordances for all levels of abilities.” An affordance is a feature that offers garden-goers a chance to interact with a garden. For example, there could be a boulder for a child to climb and sit on, a swing set, a tree under which a child might lie down and look up at the pattern of leaves moving gently against the sky.
Providing a variety of affordances that might be used by people of all levels of ability also provides a chance for kids with disabilities to challenge themselves. “We live in a risk averse society. Kids with disabilities are especially protected (sometimes overprotected) from risk,” said Sachs. “Something as simple as stepping stones that a child can climb on, with a soft surface in case he falls, can provide a chance for a child with disabilities to take some risks.”
“Gardens can provide kids with disabilities a greater level of autonomy,” said Fried. She suggested a possible design feature for children who can’t walk might be a hill they can roll down, with a gently sloping path back to the top so that they might crawl back up themselves. “They can choose which experiences to seek out, and choose which they might withdraw from.”
The “sensory” part of sensory gardens, that is, the integrated sensory experience of nature, seems to provide the best benefits. “Our sensory systems seek out intact sensory experiences,” says Wagenfeld. Sachs adds, “All the senses that connect us with nature are important.” So when designing, “It’s not a great idea to have an air conditioner humming or an exhaust fan blowing the smell of cooking hamburgers over the garden.”
The present Stephen Knolls School garden, with its carefully manicured grass, bright flowers, seashells, birdhouses, vivid blue bench settled beneath a tree, and a large container spilling with petunias and sweet potato vine, sits at the entryway to the school. The garden serves as a memorial to some of the students who have passed away. Principal Redgrave points out that it is not only a place for mourning, but for celebration of the students’ lives. Students have lessons, activities, and socialize in the garden. They learn about science, plant bulbs and watch them grow, and identify birds who visit the birdhouses.
The garden is supported not only by the school, but by the community. Community members donate materials; students from nearby high schools volunteer to help with the garden’s upkeep. I spoke with Jeff Gray, the Building Services Manager at Stephen Knolls who is in charge of maintaining the garden. “It is a pride and an honor to work in this garden,” he said emphatically. “Sometimes I even come on Saturdays to make sure it’s in good shape.”
Stephen Knolls is planning to enhance their garden program by creating a second garden that focuses on creating greater sensory variety. This garden is in its early design phases, but the school is planning to have plants to touch and see and smell at wheelchair height and standing height. It will provide places where all the students, of all abilities can take safe risks and have fun, where they can socialize or have some peaceful outdoor alone time. It will allow kids with disabilities to experience that special joy that seems hard-wired in us all—when we feel the breeze on our faces, smell a flower, hear the wind blow through the grass, or plant a seed and watch the seedling emerge and begin to thrive.