Horticulture Therapy Case Study
In April 2009 Parrs Wood High School was approached by MCC Children’s Services’ Emotional and Trauma Support Team (ETS), with the offer of making use of the Rural Studies Centre to run sessions for students at Parrs Wood, in order to meet their specific needs and once again harness the potential of this exceptional resource.
After discussion it was agreed that the therapeutic horticulture intervention would be offered to a group of six students who had poor attendance records and underlying social or emotional issues.
The rationale for this was to re-engage vulnerable young people within the school environment and potentially improve attendance by:
- Providing an enjoyable and practical activity
- Providing a focus out of a traditional classroom setting
- Offering a relaxed forum in which underlying issues could be explored
Setting the pilot up
A cohort of students was identified as being suitable and after an initial visit to the space and to meet with the staff, all readily agreed to participate in the trial period. A central tenet of the working model is to give choice and responsibility within sessions, so whilst all students were given advice and support if they sought it, each were given very open choices in what to grow and how to use the time available.
Initial engagement and enthusiasm were such that by the student’s own request the weekly sessions were quickly extended from one and a half to two hours.
All chose to grow a variety of indoor and outdoor crops, and the students appeared to work comfortably across the different spaces available.
‘Break-times’ also formed part of the sessions, during which time issues that had been precipitated by the horticultural activity could be reflected upon and explored. Some such issues included familial relationships, the nature of success and failure, and self and identity.
Example of the working process
After an initial burst of planning and digging several students had successfully created weed-free and structured beds, of which they were demonstrably proud.
However on return from a week’s half term holiday, they were visibly deflated by the transformation of these spaces into a chaos of weeds and tangled growth. Through a process of group reflection and exploration an insight and acceptance was arrived at that such unpredictable change in their lives was inevitable. After supported discussion, the young people arrived at the conclusion that each had their own resilience and strategies to motivate themselves to overcome this and other adversities.
It was possible to develop such situations due to the ETS team members’ considerable knowledge and experience of working with social, emotional and psychological issues through the context and medium of horticulture.
- The aim of engaging students was extremely successful. They grew and harvested a range of crops and produce, taking demonstrable pride and pleasure in both the processes and outcomes
- Attendance to horticulture sessions during the summer term for the cohort as a whole was 73.5% (which figure excludes occasions when pupils were in school and willing but unable to attend horticulture due to other one-off events).
- This compares to an average attendance for five of the group of 61.5% for the whole academic year, and an average attendance during the period of the intervention of 67%.
- The sixth pupil attended the site on 6 out of a possible 10 occasions, solely for horticulture, and as a ‘school refuser’ these were the only occasions he came on site this year ie his prior attendance in 2009 was zero.
- All pupils requested that the sessions be continued and extended through the next academic year.
A selection of verbatim quotes taken from the detailed session notes, kept by staff, give a flavour of the level of interactions:
Ja (first session) “I didn't realise it would be this good”, (second session) “I was stupid, I can't believe that I nearly didn't come, it's brilliant here”
K (when walking round woodland for the first time) “I can't believe this is here, why doesn't everyone come here?”
Ji (session where he was feeling disheartened by weeds in his bed) “my bed is hostile territory, nothing wants to grow in my bed. I'm going to fill my bed with weeds, everyone else will have beautiful plants” ... “it's just me against everything…. maybe me and Ja could team up… but I'm my own man”. He surrounded his “army of radishes” with a “wall of slug pellets”.
D (on horticulture and the future) “I've struggled, things haven't been good for me, you understand. It feels dead right to be here and I love it… I want to do more of it, I want to get mending machinery.”
“I feel calmer now, being up here” [by the pond, after earlier being involved in an aggressive altercation in school]
C “This is weird fun ... it's work but it doesn't feel like work, I don't usually do any work, but this feels like fun”
Preparation, sowing and harvesting:
Conclusions: Enjoyment, Reflection, Sharing, Fascination
Whilst it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions from such a short intervention, it seems apparent that the all attendees certainly viewed the sessions as a positive and enjoyable experience, and the limited data available from attendance figures supports this.
Of equal or greater significance are some of the presentations, discussions and comments noted within the sessions. No incidents occurred during sessions and students generally presented as considerate and compliant both with staff and peers.
All used the opportunities that arose to reflect on specific and general aspects of their lives, sometimes disclosing and exploring quite personal issues.
Before the therapeutic horticulture and after the intervention, the change in the allotment space is incredible and the young people felt proud in transforming the land with the help of Emotional and Trauma Support therapists from One Education.
Simon Read and Johanna Turner Baker
Tel: 0794 634 1674
With thanks to
Jackie Bond - Attendance Officer
Karen Maddocks - Senior Learning Mentor
Phil Prince - Head of careers and vocational curriculum