Occupational Therapy in the Garden


I’m an Occupational Therapy Assistant

who worked with the children at Kiser for 13 years before developing the school garden in 2015.   The Kiser School Garden began with about 7 “rings or partial barrels”, which I believe were dropped off by the Garden Club of Dayton ladies, a few years before I became aware of them.  When I noticed them idle, and since I love to garden, I decided to put them to good use.  That spring, I took all the students on my caseload out in the area beside the library to clean out the rings, paint and decorate them, plant seeds, keep our plants watered (we had to carry 5 gallon buckets for this), and then harvest the fruit of our labor.  I wish I had taken pictures of those early gardeners. I remember I had a student who was visually impaired who helped me make a trellis using bamboo stakes and weaving jute through it.


I had a student in a wheelchair, so I found a lunch tray and he helped with starting some seeds. We grew watermelons, carrots, lettuce, spinach, radishes, and peas.  We also tried potatoes, but they didn’t do so good.  I remember cutting into the watermelon when we returned in the late summer, and how excited the kids were.  I remember pulling a carrot that was huge, and taking it to class and sharing with those who wanted some (and it was truly one of the best carrots I’ve ever eaten), and watching students as they picked the lettuce and spinach and ate it right there….It was amazing.

It didn’t take long at all for students who were not on my caseload to come ask if they could garden with us.


Kids asked me in the hallways.  Kids asked me in the lunchroom.  Kids asked me on the playground, kids asked me while I walked to my car…I decided right then and there, that I would need a bigger space.

As I’ve talked about in other areas, Occupational Therapy looks at the whole child.   We look at how a child uses their hands, their vision, their motor abilities in general, how they process sensory information, socialize with others, and that their social and emotional needs are met.  I can’t think of a better therapy space than a garden to address all of these and more, and in essence, I was able to create the perfect therapy space!

I’ll give you a few examples of how each of these was addressed in our garden.

We had an outdoor chalkboard where I spent many hours with students (on a vertical surface, and while using a very short, old-fashioned, tactile tool -called chalk) learning to write their shapes, letters, names, and spelling words correctly.  We also spent time learning to draw a person and drawing flowers, birds, bees, etc that they saw in the garden.  We used both of our hands together while gathering seeds from large sunflowers,  building houses with sticks,  planting flowers and seeds,  and packaging our seeds to sell at our fundraisers.

To address visual motor and perceptual skills, (besides the chalkboard drawings), we explored and talked about the flowers and vegetables, naming their parts, and describing what they looked like, we completed puzzles of “nature things”, we pulled weeds, and learned to identify the difference between weeds and things we wanted to keep, but the biggest hit of all was-scavenger hunts.  The kids absolutely LOVED scavenger hunts in the garden.  Sometimes I would hide cute little characters or their favorite superheroes in the garden.  Other times the scavenger hunt would be finding specific flowers or plants, or even where tools were kept.  Kids begged to do this, and we even did it in the late fall and winter for Christmas and Thanksgiving.


occupational therapy in the garden
mothers day sale

The garden was the perfect place to work on motor planning, and motor skills.

Kids felt “free” when they were in the garden, and would often just run around in the grass.  We also had logs to jump on and made several games where they had to jump on a specific #log that was called out.  Getting up and down while planting or weeding was another motor planning skill.  Our pathway was gravel (we didn’t have much choice in this), so those students with walkers and wheelchairs were sometimes challenged, but they were so excited to be out in the garden, they worked very hard to get where they wanted to be.

The sensory area was one of the most obvious areas to address in the garden.  We had a “sensory” area, where we planted herbs that were soft, smelled wonderful, and had a variety of tactile properties.  We had several activities involving bubbles in the garden.  We also had a natural play area, with sandboxes, water tables (we even had a vertical water wall), fossils to explore, and a teepee covered with bean and morning glory vines.  Students loved being inside this teepee, and it was one of our “phase one” items because so many children had asked for “a place I can be alone”.

I wish I could describe to you the feeling when you watch students who don’t normally get along, build a house together out of sticks and be sooo excited about their finished product.  Socialization was huge in the garden, as we asked questions, learned the answers, and explored together.   Students had to take their turns when planting or harvesting.  They had to learn to work together when playing games and working in the garden.   They had to share tools and learn to be responsible to put those tools away.  I loved watching kids pretend to cook, take care of children, hunt for food, etc as they participated in imaginary play inside the teepee and in other places in the garden.

You cannot beat a garden/outdoor learning lab to spend lots of time “just being”, and enjoying the much-needed peace and quiet that only a garden can bring.  We often spent time sitting on the bench and looking at the beauty surrounding us.  Sometimes we just sat and watched the birds with their young, or watched them flitter around the garden eating the sunflower seeds or insects.  Students felt safe in the garden, and they would often talk about things they were worried about or couldn’t quite figure out.  Being in Nature is one of the most soothing and regenerating things we can do for ourselves…and IT’S ALL FREE!!!



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