How to Incorporate Gardening into your Practice: Tips for Recreational Therapists

The therapeutic world is witnessing a wonderful merge of recreational therapy and therapeutic horticulture, creating a holistic approach to well-being and healing. Recreational therapy, known for its diverse activities like sports, arts, and community engagement, focuses on improving physical, mental, and emotional health. It’s tailored to fit the unique needs of each individual, making it a versatile and engaging form of therapy.

Adding to this, therapeutic horticulture, or horticultural therapy, goes beyond basic gardening to include the entire experience of interacting with nature, offering stress relief, mood enhancement, and cognitive benefits. The combination of recreational and therapeutic horticulture provides not just fun activities, but also taps into nature’s healing power, making it especially beneficial for people with disabilities, cognitive impairments, and a spectrum of physical and mental health challenges. It’s a progressive step in therapy, enhancing lives with nature-based activities that nurture both body and mind.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the benefits of structured gardening programs in recreational therapy and explore activities you can add into your practice. We’ll dive into the social and therapeutic benefits of therapeutic horticulture, both indoors and outdoors, and discuss its integration with other therapeutic methods for overall health and well-being.

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The Benefits of Therapeutic Horticulture within Therapeutic Recreation

The benefits of therapeutic horticulture are extensive and diverse, catering to a wide range of patients. One of the biggest advantages is its ability to reduce stress and anxiety. Engaging in gardening activities, allows people to step away from the stresses of daily life, leading to a decrease in cortisol levels, the body’s primary stress hormone. This aspect of therapeutic horticulture is especially beneficial for those grappling with mental health challenges.

Physically, therapeutic horticulture promotes exercise in a gentle, yet effective way. Activities like flower arranging, digging, planting seeds, and weeding enhance motor skills, improve physical strength, and boost endurance. This makes it particularly beneficial for those in physical rehabilitation or with mobility issues. The adaptability of therapeutic horticulture activities ensures that they can be tailored to suit various physical abilities, making it an inclusive form of therapy.

Cognitively, therapeutic horticulture stimulates the brain, aiding in the improvement of memory, focus, and overall cognitive function. Planning a garden, learning about and engaging with different sensory plants, and remembering gardening techniques can be particularly beneficial for individuals with cognitive impairments, including those with dementia.

Communal gardens (such as a patio garden, solarium or raised garden plot), often a key setting for therapeutic horticulture, offer more than just a space for cultivating plants; they serve as hubs for social interaction, support and opportunities for passive or active engagement. These gardens can become shared spaces where individuals come together, work side by side, and foster connections with others. The act of gardening in a communal setting encourages collaboration, communication, and the building of relationships, which are essential for individuals who might otherwise feel isolated or disconnected.

recreational therapists

Simple Horticulture Activities for Recreational Therapists

Incorporating simple horticultural activities into therapeutic recreation practices offers a range of benefits and can be easily adapted to suit various needs. One of the most accessible activities involves the use of raised planters. These elevated garden beds can be ideal for clients with mobility issues or those who find it difficult to bend or kneel. They can engage in gardening tasks such as planting, watering, and harvesting at a comfortable height.

Raised planters can be used for growing a variety of plants, from flowers to vegetables and herbs, providing a sensory-rich environment. 

Another simple yet effective horticultural activity is container gardening. This is the perfect activity for indoor settings or limited outdoor spaces. Containers can be placed on tables or windowsills, making them easily accessible. Clients can enjoy the process of potting plants, enhancing hand-eye coordination and cognitive skills through planning and caring for their plants.

A few more activities that you can include in your practice are:

Horticulture: involves practices related to the cultivation, care, and management of plants.

  • Seed Starting and Propagation: Teach participants how to start plants from seeds or propagate from existing plants. This activity can be particularly rewarding as it allows individuals to witness the growth process from the very beginning.
  • Garden Maintenance (watering, weeding, pruning etc.): Engaging in garden maintenance tasks provides physical exercise, promoting improved mobility and overall fitness. These activities also instill a sense of responsibility and accomplishment, contributing to enhanced self-esteem and a positive mindset.
Nature Studies and Connection: involves exploring, observing and connecting with the natural world.
  • Therapeutic Garden Walks: Organize guided walks through the garden, neighborhood or nearby public/community gardens or forests, focusing on mindfulness and relaxation techniques. This can help clients connect with nature on a deeper, more peaceful level.
  • Garden Yoga or Tai Chi: Conduct gentle yoga or Tai Chi sessions in the garden setting. The natural surroundings can enhance the relaxation and mindfulness aspects of these practices.
  • Meditation and Mindfulness: The integration of meditation and mindfulness (such as mindful eating in the garden or garden-themed grounding exercises) within horticultural therapy activities provides a unique avenue for exercise and relaxation, promoting both physical and mental well-being.
Botanical Crafts: involves using plant materials to create artistic or decorative items.
  • Garden Art and Decoration: Incorporate creative activities like painting garden pots or creating garden markers. This not only adds a personal touch to the garden but also encourages artistic expression.
  • Flower Arranging: Flower arranging activities promote fine motor skills and foster a sense of creativity and mindfulness. The focused engagement with flowers, their colors, textures, and the arrangement process contributes to emotional well-being, providing a therapeutic outlet for individuals to express themselves through nature. Plus, who doesn’t love taking some fresh flowers home to enjoy!
Culinary: utilizing edible plants and herbs for cooking and culinary purposes.
  • Herbal Teas/Infusions: Herbal tea cultivation and preparation serve as an effective horticultural therapy activity by connecting individuals to the therapeutic properties of plants and fostering sensory engagement. Growing, harvesting, and brewing herbs for teas not only provides a hands-on horticultural experience but also offers a calming and mindful ritual, contributing to overall well-being.
  • Smoothies: Creating smoothies with garden fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs can be a wonderful way for participants with various dietary needs to taste the garden. 

Integrating Gardening with Other Therapies

For a recreational therapist, combining gardening with other therapies is a strategic approach to improve client care and outcomes. For example, integrating gardening and culinary activities is not just educational; it provides clients a full-circle experience from nurturing plants to using them in meal preparation, enriching their understanding of nutrition and self-reliance. This unique blend of therapeutic elements offers participants with novel and multifaceted opportunities for holistic well-being. By combining recreational activities with plant-based interventions, individuals not only engage in enjoyable and purposeful experiences but also benefit from the unique synergy that addresses both physical and mental health aspects, fostering a comprehensive approach to their overall development and resilience.

Incorporating creative writing into therapeutic horticulture sessions can be especially beneficial. The natural setting of the garden offers a serene backdrop that can inspire clients to express their thoughts and emotions through writing. This method can be particularly effective for clients processing emotional or psychological issues.

Merging art therapy with gardening activities also allows clients to engage their senses and creativity. Using elements from the garden in art projects can boost their sensory engagement and provide a tangible link to the work they’ve done in the garden, enhancing their sense of achievement.

Additionally, utilizing the garden for mindfulness and relaxation therapies offers a peaceful environment conducive to mental health practices. This setting can amplify the effectiveness of mindfulness exercises, leveraging the garden’s natural tranquility.

Professional Development and Networking Opportunities

In the evolving field of therapeutic horticulture, continuous professional development and networking are crucial for recreational therapists. Staying up to date with the latest research, techniques, and trends in therapeutic horticulture not only increases your skills but also ensures you can provide the most effective treatment for your clients. Engaging in professional development through workshops, online courses, and certification programs in horticultural therapy can expand your therapeutic practice.

One key resource for you to consider is Root in Nature’s virtual, self-paced “Intro to Therapeutic Horticulture” course. This online course provides an essential overview of the principles and practices of horticultural therapy, underlining the physical, social, and psychological benefits of working with plants. It’s an excellent starting point for therapists looking to deepen their understanding of this therapeutic approach.

Networking also plays a vital role in this field. Connecting with peers and experts through conferences, professional associations, and online forums offers opportunities to share experiences, learn from others, and stay informed about advancements in therapeutic horticulture. These interactions can lead to collaborations, new ideas, and a deeper understanding of how therapeutic horticulture can be integrated into therapeutic recreation practices.

Our GrowTH Community serves as a professional resource platform, offering a wealth of knowledge and networking opportunities for therapeutic horticulture practitioners and allied health professionals. With activities and resources available on our platform, therapists can stay updated on the latest developments in the field and connect with peers and experts.

To summarize, merging recreational therapy with gardening marks a big leap in our approach to healing. It’s more than just adding fun activities to spice up sessions; it’s about creating a strong connection with nature, which is beneficial for our health and can deeply impact our clients’ well-being.