All kids love to play in the dirt. Now, gardening is a natural warm-weather activity with proven therapeutic effects for children with ADHD.
Ah, spring! One afternoon a few weeks ago, I stepped out of my house to take a stroll around the backyard. But my in-house fantasies of chirping birds and a riot of blooming flowers quickly fled as I took in the reality of my post-winter garden: Broken skateboards and deflated kickballs lay strewn about empty flower beds, while punctured water floats and abandoned squirt guns peeped out from under piles of dead leaves.
Nevertheless, the warm weather woke up my brain and planted the seeds for a fun project.
All kids love to play in the dirt, so gardening is a natural warm-weather activity. And for kids with ADHD, like my son, natural settings have proven therapeutic effects. A study conducted by the Human-Environment Research Laboratory (HERL) at the University of Illinois found that green surroundings leave children with ADHD better able to concentrate, pay attention, and function on an overall level. Parents of children with ADHD know that a physical activity that engages more than one sense is always a good choice, and I think we’d all agree that gardening offers a bounty of visual, tactile, and olfactory delights.
Caring for plants can also yield long-term benefits for children: Watering the garden every day teaches responsibility, and the anticipation of late-season blooms or growing vegetables helps kids understand delayed gratification.
I remembered that my editorial assistant, Pat Wycliff, happens to be a master gardener, so I enlisted her help. We purchased basic gardening tools and an array of flowers, and recruited eight kids from two local middle schools to participate alongside my sons. As it turned out, half the kids had ADHD and half didn’t, but no one discussed ADHD and nobody knew who had it.
Cleaning out the beds and the yard took less than 10 minutes. Then Pat presented some basic rules of (green) thumb — break up the dirt surrounding the roots before planting, so air can reach them; don’t pot plants that need only occasional watering next to the ones that need it daily — and brought out the fun stuff. Each gardener received his own trowel, and got to pick his plants from a beautiful display of flowers.
As the kids got to work, Pat moved among them – showing one how deep to dig to make sure that all the roots would be covered with soil, and consulting with another on how to salvage a plant that had barely survived the winter.
When they finished, we celebrated with pizza and basketball. All the kids told us how much they loved the program.
As the afternoon progressed, it was clear that the flowers were not the only things blooming in my backyard. One child with poor social skills made plans to see a movie with another. Kids from different schools, who had never met and were usually shy with strangers, ended up collaborating on large pots and excitedly discussed Pat’s instructions. The social interaction, with peers and with the adults, was great for everyone involved.
Before they went home, the kids walked around to admire each other’s beautiful flower arrangements. And as I looked around at their sweaty, dirt-smeared faces — breaking out in grins, laughter, and compliments — I realized that I couldn’t imagine a lovelier sight myself.