Learning to Grow Through Horticultural Therapy

Outdoor classroom fitted with adaptive chairs at the Monarch School
The outdoor classroom is fitted with adaptive chairs and plenty of room for students in wheelchairs.

A horticultural therapy garden is the heart of the Monarch School of New England

There is something about gardens that offers hope. With a little nurturing, they can awaken, grow, and blossom. The same could be said about the Monarch School of New England, a private school for students with special needs in Rochester, New Hampshire.

It’s no coincidence that a therapy garden is the heart of this school, which serves 63 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. On a sunny fall day, this outdoor space is a classroom for a group of students harvesting carrots under the watchful eye and big heart of horticultural therapist Kathy Perry. This learning landscape—as well as the greenhouse where classes are conducted in winter—has been carefully designed to allow for motorized wheelchairs, provide adaptive learning, and have plenty of room for the one-on-one aides who help each student. The group looks like friends delighting in nature, with lots of joy and laughter.

Registered Horticultural Therapist Kathy Perry at Monarch School of New England
Monarch’s Kathy Perry is one of only two registered horticultural therapists in New Hampshire.
Birdhouse amongst purple flowers
A birdhouse attracts feathered friends.

Perry aims to catch students’ attention in a positive way as soon as they enter the garden, part of a lesson plan tailored to each student’s Individualized Education Program. The class on harvesting carrots will integrate goals from all disciplines: special education (counting, identifying colors, and parts of the carrot); speech and language (greeting one another, songs, following directions); physical therapy (maneuvering through the garden, sitting upright at the table); occupational therapy (pulling out, breaking, washing, and juicing the carrots), and life skills (washing the vegetables and turning them into juice). Perry keeps each step interesting and engaging for each individual level of learning, with plenty of rituals, repetition, and opportunities for free choice activities.

“We like to have what we call ‘positive affordances’ in the garden,” says Perry, “things that make you stop and look and draw you in.” These may include toy dinosaurs nestled in the plants, vertical or animal-shaped planters, and decorations and activity stations designed to draw students’ attention. Children who show a particular interest in the garden become Perry’s Garden Helpers and do special jobs and projects outside the group setting as a way to increase their enthusiasm and learning opportunities.

Cheerful message on red bike in Monarch therapy garden
A cheerful bike and sign are among the garden’s many “positive affordances.”

One such student is Tyler, who experienced a major transformation thanks to the garden. “When Tyler first started, he ran away from all new activities and new people due to anxiety,” says Amanda Martineau, director of community engagement for the school. “He had significant aggressive behaviors and required two to three staff members with him at all times for safety. But when he attended his first horticultural therapy group, Tyler stayed for 15 minutes. He was calmer and more engaged than the staff had previously seen him. Over time, he demonstrated a real aptitude for, and enjoyment of gardening activities.” Tyler now has a job at a local garden center and is an enthusiastic member of his class at the high school Monarch built just down the road in 2017.

A second therapy garden is in the works at the new campus, where students in vocational training classes are helping build beds, select plants, and plan the layout. It is slated for completion this November with an opening ceremony planned for May. Among the goals for the garden is to give students like Tyler an opportunity to provide produce for school lunches and area restaurants. “We’re hoping they can participate in the farm-to-table movement,” says Martineau. “A few years out as production grows, we hope to set up a farmers’ market as a way for our students to sell the produce they’ve grown and get some hands-on retail experience.”

Edible plants in the Monarch School of New England Therapy Garden
Edible plants are part of the curriculum.
Kathy Perry working with students turning vegetables into juice.
Students turn vegetables into juice.

“We don’t see what they can’t do; we see what they can.” – Amanda Martineau, director of community engagement

Anyone who visits the Monarch School can quickly see that it is the staff’s vision and caring that makes it such a special place. The school’s motto, “unlimited possibilities for students with special needs,” is embodied in the teachers, therapists, nurses, and aides who work with the whole individual and bring learning to each student. The horticultural therapy program has been instrumental in their quest. As Martineau explains it, “We don’t see what they can’t do; we see what they can.”

For more information about the Monarch School of New England, visit Monarchschoolne.org.

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