Occupational Therapy ~

L to R: Isaac Hutchinson, Michelle Desjardins, Kathy Perry, Donna Marble and Mark Bullard


Read the full article in the American Horticultural
Therapy Association Magazine:

By Kathy Perry, MA, OTR/L, HTR

What’s it time for?” inquires Colleen Griffin, a horticultural therapy intern, to a group of three Monarch School of New England students and their staff , sitting around a table adapted for wheelchairs in the therapeutic garden gazebo. Damien, with assistance from his speech language pathologist, locates the word “garden” on his iPad. Smiling, he pushes the icon, and the iPad mechanically says “garden.”

The next student, Hayley, a girl whose elbow an educational technician is supporting, pulls off a bright yellow trowel “velcroed” to her object cue book, handing it to Colleen. “Yes, it is time for gardening, Hayley,” Colleen says. “Thank you!”

The third student, Anthony, points to the “garden” symbol on his schedule book, enthusiastically shouting, “Time for gardening!” as he jumps out of his seat. An occupational therapist helps Anthony sit back down, takes three deep breaths and gives himself “hand squeezes,” techniques he uses to calm down. Each student then takes a turn pushing the large, brightly colored button on an assistive technology device to hear Paul McCartney serenely sing “Inch Worm”; listening to a garden- related theme song each week is motivating. It provides the context for the treatment activity.

Located in Rochester, New Hampshire, the Monarch School of New England (MSNE) is a unique, comprehensive, private, non-profit, year-round, specialized day school for 56 students, ages 5 to 21 years, who have severe physical, intellectual, emotional, medical and developmental disabilities. Recognized for their excellence, MSNE’s programs are based on an integrated team approach and a vast array of traditional and innovative programs, including horticultural therapy.

Inspired by this year’s ecology theme, the group is creating a healthy soil habitat for husk cherry plants the students grew from seeds harvested last fall. To their soil trays, they add compost (from the school’s compost pile), shredded leaves, chopped seaweed, water and earthworms (also from the compost pile). They carry the trays to the raised bed, mix the contents into the soil and plant a husk cherry seedling. After the lesson is complete, each student chooses a favorite activity in the garden; preferred activities include watering plants, swinging on the garden swing or digging in the compost pile.

During this horticultural therapy session, each student works on goals specified in their Individualized Education Program. For example, given a strip of pictures representing each step, Anthony works on safely completing a multi-step, work-based learning task without leaving the area. Meanwhile, Hayley uses adaptive devices to improve her upper body coordination. One requires her to push down on a pair of spring-loaded scissors to cut the seaweed; another to press a switch to prompt a mechanized pouring appliance to transfer the chopped seaweed into her soil tray. And Damien uses his iPad to express his needs and wants such as how many leaves he wants to crumble or if he wants a big or little worm in his soil tray.

MSNE has two sites. The outdoor classroom-therapeutic garden at the elementary/middle school was completed after eight years of planning and fundraising. The second is home to the new high school and vocational training center, which includes an indoor horticulture room as well as outdoor space to create a therapeutic garden. As with all its endeavors, MSNE will plan for the high school therapeutic garden through a collaborative process. Therapists from all disciplines, special educators, administrators, and students will work together to ensure a design which is user-friendly.

Obviously, the outdoors is valued at MSNE, and the outdoor classroom at the elementary-middle school provides a safe and motivating place for students and sta to interact with plants and nature. At any given time,
a visitor may observe students watering plants with the horticultural therapist, walking with a mobility aid and accompanied by a teacher of the visually impaired, pushing a wheelbarrow with a physical therapist,
naming the qualities of plants with a speech language pathologist, or performing a science experiment with a special educator. Sta members also relish the garden as a peaceful place to have meetings and take breaks. Besides the outdoor classroom, the elementary-middle school also has a forest playground and a nature trail.

For the past 18 years, horticulture has been a vital and ever- growing component of the therapeutic, vocational, and educational programs at MSNE. It is valued by visionary boards of directors and executive directors, as well as by dedicated therapists and sta . The next step in the progression will be a Farm to Table program at the new high school.

Beginning in the late 1990’s, Master Gardener volunteer Bill Sammis and former Executive Director Alan Reed-Erickson built the school’s first raised beds in a narrow grassy area near the parking lot. In 1999, Reed-Erickson hired Christina Richardson, an occupational therapist with an additional degree in horticulture, to develop a therapeutic horticulture program. Richardson and Sammis built a greenhouse, planted perennial beds and acquired tools and supplies. Horticulture became a respected occupational therapy intervention to reduce stress and accomplish therapy goals.

Kathy Perry is an occupational therapist hired in 2006 who was inspired by Richardson and supported by new Executive Director Diane Bessey to pursue horticultural therapy coursework, which she completed through Kansas State University and the New York Botanical Garden. After completing a distance internship under Erin Backus, HTR, Perry became, in 2016, a registered horticultural therapist. She manages MSNE’s horticultural therapy program full time.

Being school-based, MSNE’s horticultural therapy curriculum promotes both therapeutic and educational goals. Connections through the New Hampshire School and Youth Gardens Network provide a rich array of resources. Following an annual theme, Perry incorporates academics into gardening activities. Funded by an Eco-Schools N.H. grant, the 2017 theme ― Ecology in the Garden ― focuses on creating a healthy school ecosystem through garden habitats supporting human well-being as well as wildlife biodiversity. Themes from previous years include art in the garden, historical gardens, gardens from around the world, story gardens and science in the garden.

Just like the school’s motto, “Unlimited Possibilities for Students with Special Needs,” the outlook for the MSNE horticultural therapy program is bright.