Small Clients, Big Challenges: Horticultural Therapy for Children in Peru

Healing Garden in Lima Peru

In April 2019 we implemented a Healing Garden at an orphanage in Lima, Peru and in May 2 the horticultural therapy program began by serving children (boys and girls) ages 6 to 12.

Identifying sad plants in the garden

During COVID-19 every activity was taken away from the kids for months including a move to distance education. This difficult circumstance made children very hostile and aggressive. In July, we started working with 45 boys, ages 6 to 17, many of whom were acting-out and had lost all sense of control.

Most of the children we work with are victims of abuse or neglect, and some have cognitive problems. At the institution they grow up under very difficult circumstances, without a family structure to nurture them, unprepared caregivers, and with no proper education. They are “emotionally broken” kids. Around 90 percent of the children have no contact with their parents or relatives, a fact that contributes to their aggressiveness. Some children have been institutionalized for many years, others for months. Unfortunately, Peru does not have a foster family program, reducing these kids’ chances of being adopted and they will remain institutionalized until 18 years of age. With this in mind, our horticultural therapy program has been almost tailored for each child.

As horticultural therapists we know that this modality uses horticulture, gardening and related activities as tools to attain specific individual goals and help them cultivate a relationship with plants, but during each session we have to make use of different strategies, skills and therapeutic models. We do this, not only to build a rapport with our clients, but also to obtain positive results.  Some of the strategies and therapeutic models I personally use are:

  • Charles E. Majuri “Compassionate Care Theoretical Perspective”
  • Renee Taylor’s “The Intentional Relationship: Occupational Therapy and Use of Self”
  • Jane Nelsen’s Positive Discipline Model
  • Anna Llenas’s book: “The Color Monster: A Story About Emotions” as an aid for emotional identification

 Program Goals

Our program’s focus is to put the kids in the care-giving role to help them build confidence, sense of control, belonging, and self-esteem.

The major goal areas are:

  1. Emotional intelligence
  2. Pro-social behavior
  3. Scientific investigation

From day one we made children responsible for their own plants, such as potatoes, strawberry or an ornamental plant for a sibling. This not only promotes responsibility in the child but gives them a reason to attend their sessions which take place twice a week in groups of five children.  in some cases, the sessions are held individually for 20-minute periods. This is just enough time to capture their attention.

Ultimately, we want gardening to be part of their natural daily life and not seen as punishment, but creating a nurturing environment where learning is fun!

Quoting Jane Nelsen’s phrase: “Where did we ever get the crazy idea from that in order to make a child do better, first we have to make them feel worse. Children DO better when they FEEL better!

Strategies and Techniques

Some of the strategies or techniques we use interchangeably in every session, depending on the child’s emotional status, are:

  1. Conscious breathing/ Mindfulness
  2. Positive discipline The Positive Discipline Model aims at developing mutually respectful relationships by using kindness and firmness at the same time, without punishment or permissiveness.
  3. Sensory stimulation
  4. Metaphors and symbolism

Activities

1. Positive discipline

“The Color Monster: A Story about Emotions” by Anna Llenas

We use this activity to help children identify their emotion in the present moment. The color green represents calm, yellow represents happiness, red represents anger and blue represents sadness.

 

 

 

One child we were working with could not identify his emotions, so he used many colored cloths. But then he wandered around the garden and found a withered Hibiscus tiliaceus leaf with many holes and said: “this leaf has the shape of a heart and is broken, we can give this leaf tenderness with a lambs ear leaf (Stachys byzantina)!”

 

 

Aromatherapy massage

Aromatherapy Massage

During practice, we must be able to sense if a child is not “in the mood” for the planned activity and offer him comfort, like an aromatherapy massage. This technique will not only relax the child but will help bring his attention to the present moment and continue with the planned activity.

 

 

2. Conscious breathing/ Mindfulness

This technique helps children bring their attention to the present moment and for for self-regulation

3. Sensory Stimulation

Pennisetum Sataceum flowers for sensory stimulation

 

 

 

 

4. Earthworms for the tingling sensation

Earthworms for the tingling sensation

4. Metaphors and symbolism

Resilience

Resilience

We use seedlings to teach the concept of Resilience. Plants, as humans, need some time to adapt to their new environment. While nurturing this plant for his sister, a child said: “my fingers are like the towel I use to clean myself”.

 

Social distancing

The best way to help children understand the concept of  “social distancing” is using seedlings. Plants need adequate space for optimum growth and to avoid spreading diseases, as humans do.

Social Distancing

Social distancing

Wildflowers

Wildflowers

Wildflowers, not weeds, make excellent metaphors. In spite of their beautiful flowers, they grow wild, with no “family or social” support system. In order to do that, they have developed “survival mechanisms or adaptations” like sticky seeds or leaves, flowers with nectar to attract insects, or prickly seeds that stick to our clothes or the dandelion’s pappus which enables wind-aided dispersal over long distances. Also, thorny flowers, or fast growing rates to ensure the survival of their species. The question is: What do you prefer: to grow wild or cultivated and nurtured?” The answer was: “we prefer to be cultivated!”

Chlorophytum Comosu

Attached by the umbilical cord Chlorophytum comosum is an excellent plant to work with in a healing garden. It serves to teach the children how the offspring are attached to the mother by the “umbilical cord” but before the offspring touches ground, they produce roots, which allow them to detach from the mother and become self-sufficient to follow their own path.

 

 

Green firefighter

We use this activity to teach children how to “rescue” plants, in this case: succulents, which had been bitten by birds. We also teach them that plants as humans can be recovered, and that wounds heal.

 

5. Scientific investigation

Snail trap

 

We use Dr. Majuri’s IDEA model to stimulate a scientific mind. Through this model the child receives Information, Decides what to do with the information, receives Education, facts, about the subject matter to analyze them and be able to make a choice. Finally puts forth his decision through Action.

In this example, we used snails. Although snails are part of the garden, they are not welcome because they eat our strawberries, succulents and Crinum plants. We have to get rid of them but we do not want to crush them on the floor as that action is too aggressive, especially for this population group. We have to create a “friendlier” method. The child who created this trap loves coming to the Dream Garden and is very respectful towards living organisms. He collected snails in an empty plastic bottle (cut by half) then he put the upper half inverted inside the lower half of the bottle, and blocked the “escape route” with pebbles.

Filling a pot with soil

Filling a pot with soil

This simple activity allowed the child to think about a creative solution for filling the pot: he introduced the pot into the soil. Two goals were achieved: problem solving and no spills.

Hydroponic strawberries

Outcomes

After three months of intensive dedication, these are the outcomes:

  • Sense of time: every child is aware of the two days per week they attend the program, arriving promptly to the garden.
  • Respect towards the garden: they nurture the plants and know that the greenhouse is where the baby plants grow.
  • Sense of self: they have “personalized” their plants.
  • Sense of belonging and control: they know the garden is a safe place where they make their own decisions.
  • Self-regulation: they are learning strategies, aromatherapy and mindful breathing, to channel their negative emotions.
  • Creativity and scientific mind: the gardens allow them to explore and express themselves.

Conclusions

Mud cake

 Horticultural therapy is a beautiful dance of skills, techniques and strategies to help our clients “cultivate” a relationship with plants. At the end of the day, we might get a beautiful mud cake decorated with wildflowers!

References

  1. Charles E. Majuri, PhD –“Proposing Horticultural Therapy Programs in Residential or Day Treatment Facilities” – Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture – Volume XIII – 2002
  2. Charles E.Majuri, PhD – “Growing up green” – Perfectly Scientific Press – 2010
  3. Charles E. Majuri’s “Compassionate Care Theoretical Perspective” – Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture – 2009:XIX
  4. Anna Llenas – “The Color Monster: A Story About Emotions” – 2018
  5. Dreikurs & Adler – “Positive Discipline”
  6. David Goleman – Emotional Intelligence
  7. Daniel Siegel – “A Hand Model of the Brain” – Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gm9CIJ74Oxw
  8. Positive Discipline Association: https://www.positivediscipline.com/Renee Taylor – “The Intentional Relationship: Occupational Therapy and Use of Self” – A.Davis – 2020
  9. Renee Taylor – “The Intentional Relationship: Occupational Therapy and Use of Self” – F.A.Davis – 2020