Gardening as a tool to support positive mental health in children
As a paediatric Occupational Therapist, I have worked with hundreds of children, diagnosed with a range neurological and mental health disorders. In fact, the second main reason for referral to my therapy services, only after Autism Spectrum Disorder, is anxiety and the resulting behavioural responses and difficulty with emotion regulation.
Outcomes of the ‘Young Minds Matter’ survey, conducted by the Australian Government in 2014, revealed 1 in 7 children and adolescents, aged 4-17 years, were assessed as experiencing mental health disorders in the previous twelve months- more than half a million children! To acknowledge National Mental Health Awareness Month, I wanted to share one of my favourite activities to support positive mental health in children - gardening.
When Covid-19 first hit our country and the course of the virus was unknown and unpredictable, we made the decision to transition to delivering therapy services via an online format. We started thinking about ways to transfer in-person therapy to the screen and the online OT world became flooded with telehealth therapy ideas.
But what soon became apparent to me was that many kids and families were experiencing such significant stress and anxiety as a result of the ongoing changes and uncertainty of the pandemic, that our zoom sessions needed to focus on supporting the mental health of our families rather than pre-covid therapy goals.
So, I decided to implement activities that got kids moving gently, activities that increased their time outside and got them connecting to nature. I also chose activities that were rich in sensory input, that provided opportunities for caregiving and nurturing and that redirected their attention to the here and now.
Of all the activities I chose, gardening and growing projects were the most successful. The sensory and emotion-regulation outcomes of gardening, the accessibility to all children and the connectedness that children experienced made it a wonderful activity choice for home, school and pre-school environments.
The benefits of gardening are abundant and personal to each individual, however, following are my top five reasons to get kids involved in gardening:
1. Sensory-Emotion connection
Gardening exposes children to an incredible amount of sensory input, and it is through sensory experiences, that we develop a perception of ourselves, the world around us and who we are in relation to the world.
Each of these sensory experiences are coded with emotion so, not only does our perception of the sensory world develop self-awareness and security in our bodies and mind, but also forges a connection, a felt sense of being, that comes from attaching emotion to the sensation. Think about the nostalgia you feel when you smell the earthy elements, the sensation of soil in your hands, the calm feeling when you watch water fall onto the plants- this is connection.
It’s a sense of belonging, a sense that you are home and it is from this felt sense that we can then build connections with others,- meaningful, secure relationships along with self-awareness and self-regulation.
When we are anxious, our thoughts, worries and fears are quite often focused on a previous or future event and rarely is our mind and attention grounded in the here and now. Mindfulness activities involve quietening the mind and allow us to stay present in the moment, aware and accepting of our feelings which, in turn, can support a calm, focused state.
Encouraging children to engage in tactile (touch) activities brings their eyes and hands to the body and the midline (an invisible line down the middle, separating left and right sides of the body), thus bringing their attention and awareness to the near space around them and into the present moment.
Rich in tactile sensations and “doing” with the hands (pushing, digging, sprinkling, carrying) gardening is the perfect activity to promote mindfulness in children.
3. A platform for nurturing and compassion
Caring for another being, whether it be a person, animal or plant, is a wonderful way to reduce stress in kids (and adults alike). The genuine act of nurturing floods our body with oxytocin- the feel good hormone that counteracts the stress hormone, cortisol, facilitates connection, and is a platform for empathy and compassion.
Gardening provides children with an opportunity to nurture, to be kind and gentle and to consider the Earth and environment and, as the seeds sprout, plants grow, flowers bloom, and bees and bugs seek shelter and nutrients, compassion and empathy is reinforced.
4. Gentle Movement
Movement is widely acknowledged and accepted as an anecdote for stress and anxiety as movement releases endorphins- chemicals that interact in the brain to create a “feel good” sensation.
In addition, often when children are worried, fearful or overwhelmed- just like adults- they can go into a state of “freeze”- a stress response that can often present as being unmotivated, fatigued, foggy, disconnected and inattentive.
Encouraging movement, even gentle movement, can help shift a child out of this state and back towards a place of calm and alertness. Gardening requires slow-paced gentle movement as pots are filled, holes are dug, soil is poked, seeds are planted, weeds are removed and watering cans are carried and poured.
5. Providing Balance
It is undeniable that we are living in a faster-paced time than ever before and there is no exception for children- they are equally overwhelmed by over-scheduling, pressure from expectations and the constant motion of the days, weeks and year.
Gardening is a wonderful opportunity for children to take some time out from the busy-ness of life- time out from noise, from expectations, from interacting with others, from decision-making, from instructions- and provides them with unstructured opportunities to restore balance, to be mindful, to be curious, to be creative and to experience joy.