Special-Needs students in the Garden

In the inner-city schools, where Green Thumbs runs food garden programs for children, we’ve had a particularly positive experience with special education and special needs students. Time and time again, we’ve witnessed students who are labelled as having behaviour problems become effectively engaged by the outdoor, hands-on learning opportunities found in the garden. Students who have trouble paying attention in class have taken pride in planting and caring for seedlings. The learning achievements of special needs students in the outdoor classroom also have the potential to increase their in-classroom success.

A 2004 study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found children as young as five showed a significant reduction in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) symptoms when they engaged with nature. The study measured responses to two types of activities: those in green landscapes—such as grassy backyards, parks, and farmland—and those in indoor playgrounds and paved recreation areas. The researchers designed the study to account for any effects of physical exercise so they could measure only the influence of green settings. They also factored out age, gender, family income, geographic region, size of community, and the severity of diagnosis. In 54 of 56 cases, outdoor activities in more natural settings led to a greater reduction in ADHD symptoms than activities in less natural areas. A 2003 study by researchers at the New York State College of Human Ecology reached similar conclusions. Nancy Wells, the lead researcher, said that exposure to nature resulted in “profound differences” in children’s attention capacities and that “green spaces may enable children to think more clearly and cope more effectively with life stress.” In reporting on these studies, Richard Louv coined a new term: Nature Deficit Disorder. (Louv, Richard, Orion Magazine, July-August, 2005-10-20)