The Rewards of Gardening Therapy for Kids on the Autism Spectrum

Gardening can be a personally rewarding and gratifying activity. Some can equate gardening to your favorite leisure activity. It’s certainly mine. I only wish I had more time to be in the garden because it makes me feel calm, centered, satisfied, and happy.

The Rewards of Gardening Therapy for Kids on the Autism Spectrum

The next best thing to gardening is to share a few ideas of garden-related activities that you can do as a family.

The therapeutic rewards for introducing a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to gardening include improving sensory, olfactory, tactile, and fine motor skills.

One of the most precious things about gardening is that plants are not biased. They don’t care if you are young or old, what color you are, your gender, or if you have any type of difference.

Plants simply thrive when they are tended to. I also think that we are tended when we tend our gardens. In fact, research supports this: gardening improves our physical and mental health.

It can make us stronger and feel calmer, happier, and more hopeful, compassionate, and relaxed. It can help to make us better thinkers and feel connected to others.

Gardening is a multi-sensory experience that includes taste, touch, hearing, smell, and looking, not to mention challenges our balance and position in space (have you ever worked to stay up-right when pulling out that firmly rooted weed, only to find yourself on your hind end?).

Let’s get gardening.

I share with you, three activities that take you and your favorite gardener/s from seed to harvest. I also include suggestions for simplifying and complicating each activity.

Please note that these ideas are merely guides. Feel free to adapt them as they work best for you and your gardener. Most of all, have fun and enjoy a good dose of vitamin “G”!

Activity One: Seed Starting

Materials:

  • Toilet paper or paper towel tubes cut into approximately 2” segments
  • Chopstick with a red ring line drawn in permanent marker 1.5” up from the pointed end of the stick
  • Plastic tray (Be resourceful! The tray can be the lid to a plastic container, plastic shoe box, clean grocery tray. The tray is merely to collect overflow water and make transporting easier.)
  • Mister bottle
  • Seed starting mix
  • Seeds
  • Plastic spoons or small scoops
  • Permanent marker
  • Gloves (as needed)

Directions:

  • Label the plastic tray with the name of the seeds (I recommend keeping only one type of seed tube on each tray)
  • Set paper tube segments upright on plastic tray
  • Fill paper tubes with soil
  • Using the chopstick, poke a hole in the center of the soil to the depth of the red line
  • Place one seed in the hole
  • Gently close the hole by shifting the soil back to the center
  • Mist the soil
  • Place in a sunny spot, turning the tray 180 degrees one time daily, once the seeds sprout
  • When the seedlings are a couple of inches tall, gently remove them from the tubes and plant outside, in a garden or pot, depending on the type of garden you have available.

Impact:

  • Sensory
  • Tactile—touching the soil and seedling (gently)
  • Proprioception—taking care to remove the seedlings from the tubes without squishing them
  • Visual—what do you see
  • Olfactory—flowers, herbs, and tomato plants have distinct odors
  • Fine motor
  • Bilateral—scoop and fill the tubes; one hand stabilizes and the other fills
  • Pincher grip to pick up a seed and place it in the hole
  • Cognitive—deciding what type of seed to plant
  • Counting the leaves on the seedling
  • Measuring the seedling and determining when it is ready to transplant (can graph the growth)

Make it Easier

  • Pour soil into the tubes using a small spouted measuring cup or through a funnel
  • Plant larger seeds such as beans or peas

Make it Harder

  • Pick up and plant the seed using tweezers
  • Moisten the soil and water the seedling using an eye dropper

Activity Two: Is it a Weed?

Materials:

  • Laminated photographs of common weeds found in your garden environment
  • For easy reading, label the weed by name on the photo using a highly contrasting colored marker
  • Laminated photographs of ‘intended’ plants in your garden
  • For easy reading, label the intended plants by name on the photo using a highly contrasting colored marker
  • Weed bucket or bag

eggplant

lemon balm

sunflower

tomatoes

plantain

dandelion

zinnias

grass

Directions:

  • Sort the photos by weeds and intended plants
  • Using the photos, ask children to identify weeds and intended plants in the garden
  • Place the photos beside their ‘match’ in the garden


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Impact:

  • Sensory
  • Tactile—touching weeds
  • Visual—what do you see
  • Proprioceptive—using the right amount of force to remove the entire weed, root and all
  • Fine motor
  • Remove the weeds from the garden
  • Deadhead spent flowers or pinch off the flowers from the tops of herbs
  • Cognitive
  • Match photo to plant
  • Distinguish between weed and intended plant
  • Compare and contrast various features of the weeds and intended plants, such as size, color, and leaf shape

Make it easier

  • Hand child one photo at a time to match with the corresponding plant

Make it harder

  • Provide child with multiple photos to match with the plant
  • Ask child to read the name of the weed/intended plant as labeled on the photo
  • Once weeds are identified, child removes them from the garden
  • Dispose of weeds

Activity Three: Herbal Infused Water

Materials:

  • Two 24-32-ounce clear plastic pitchers
  • Water
  • Plastic tray or plastic plate
  • Strainer that will rest over the mouth of the pitchers without allowing spillage
  • 3-4 robust stalks/stems of fresh leafy herbs such as mint (chocolate mint is particularly lovely), lemon verbena, or lemon balm
  • A large handful of fresh chamomile flowers also works well
  • Cups

Directions:

  • Remove the leaves from the stalks/stems and place them on the plate or tray
  • Gently crush the leaves to release the fragrant oils
  • Place the herbs in one of the pitchers
  • Fill the pitcher with water, making sure the leaves are submerged
  • Set the pitcher in a sunny spot for an hour or two
  • Place the strainer over the top of the empty pitcher
  • Slowly pour the contents of the herb and water pitcher through the strainer and into the empty pitcher
  • Compost the leaves left behind in the strainer
  • Pour the herbal infused water into cups and enjoy

Impact:

  • Sensory
  • Tactile—touching the leaves from the stalks/stems and crushing them
  • Visual—looking at the leaves
  • Olfactory—smelling the herbs
  • Gustatory—tasting the water
  • Fine motor
  • Removing the leaves from the stalks
  • Bilateral—one hand stabilizes the pitcher and the other pours the water from one pitcher to the other
  • Cognitive
  • Counting the number of leaves (or flowers) used
  • Tracking the number of leaves from each stalk/stem
  • Identifying the shape of the leaves or the number of petals a flower

Make it easier

  • Strip leaves from stems

Make it harder

  • Individually pinch the leaves from the stems

I hope you enjoy these gardening activities and I look forward to sharing more with you in the future. Remember, green can be a goal! Go slowly and let nature be your guide.

This article was featured in Issue 101 – Balancing The Autism Journey

Amy Wagenfeld

Amy Wagenfeld

Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA is Principal of design+cOnsulTation, an organization that works with designers to create therapeutic landscapes and evaluate their outcomes. She is also the co-author of many articles and books, including, Therapeutic Gardens: Design for Healing Spaces, published by Timber Press.

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