Countering Misconceptions About Physical Disabilities in Children’s Gardening

Outcome: By the end of this lesson you will have reflected on common misconceptions about children with physical disabilities in the garden. Through this reflection, you will have a better understanding of how to adapt garden-based programs to include children of all abilities.

Lesson Length : 20 minutes

Instructions:

  1. Read through the introduction and answer Pause & Reflect questions.
  2. Read the common misconceptions and consider alternatives. 
  3. Take action to make your programs and garden spaces more accessible.

Introduction

Garden-play engages all of the senses, encourages healthy eating habits, and teaches children how to be environmental stewards. Time in the garden is a great place for children to develop self-confidence, patience, spark their creativity, and can be a great place to help children regulate their emotions. The garden is ideal for team building and bonding with others. Garden-play also helps children learn how to make observations, ask questions, problem-solve, plan, organize, and is a great way to introduce scientific concepts. Most importantly, garden-play is fun, can be a form of exercise and is a gateway for children to develop a meaningful connection to the natural world.

ALL children benefit from time in the garden. Yet, far too often children with disabilities are excluded from summer camp and after-school programs that offer garden-play opportunities. 

When we lead workshops at the PlayGarden, we often get asked questions like “How do we most effectively involve students with physical abilities in gardening like planting and digging?”

Pause and Reflect:

1. What does this question imply about who is currently “involved” in garden-related activities and experiences?

2. What assumptions may be under the surface of this question regarding children with physical disabilities?

COUNTERING MISCONCEPTIONS

Misconception 1: Having a physical disability means you use a wheelchair.

This misconception seems silly to write out yet, far too often when we talk about increasing accessibility, for many the image that comes to mind when referring to someone with a physical disability is the image of a person who uses a wheelchair or walker. This image makes sense as it is one of the most common physical representations of disability we see in our day-to-day life.

Consider: There are many different kinds of disabilities and many different kinds of physical disabilities that influence a person’s life in a wide range of ways.

Different types of physical disabilities may affect, either temporarily or permanently, a person’s physical mobility, dexterity, or stamina. There are many different causes of physical disabilities including inherited or genetic disorders, serious illnesses, and injury such as an acquired Brain Injury, Spinal Cord injury, Spina Bifida, Cerebral Palsy, Cystic fibrosis, or Epilepsy. 

For the rest of this lesson, the term physical disability will be used. Remember that a physical disability does not directly mean that a person has limited mobility. It can also be related to a person’s vision, hearing, coordination, balance, memory, information processing, communication  and more. 

If you are unfamiliar with different kinds of physical disabilities, this link is a great resource to learn a bit more about different physical disabilities. 

Misconception 2: Children with physical disabilities are different from other children.

No they are not. Kids are kids and they all want similar things- to play, make friends and feel included. Consider however, that participation may look different for each child. A common assumption that could be subconsciously made is that to involve children with physical disabilities in gardening you must do something different than what you would do with children without physical disabilities. This is simply not true.

Consider: Effectively involving children in gardening is the same for all children, whether or not they have a disability. Engage them by paying close attention to what they are interested in, helping them connect with the garden in a personal way and providing children with the tools and support they need to be successful.

Remind yourself that ALL children want and benefit from experiences like digging in the soil, planting seeds, watering, harvesting vegetables and observing nature.  As an educator, it’s your job to be creative in how to make that happen. 

Misconception 3: Children with physical disabilities can’t do the same things in the garden as the rest of the group.

Many children are left out of garden activities because of assumptions that adults make around what a child can and cannot do. Planting, harvesting, weeding, moving soil, digging, harvesting....those are all very physical things, so how can a child with physical disabilities do them? Consider that participation will look different for each child.

Meet Liam: 

Liam is a 6-year-old PlayGardener. He was one of our preschoolers and has come to camp for many years. Liam has Cerebral Palsy and because of that has physical disabilities that limit his ability to walk or sit up on his own. He uses a stroller to help him get around and chairs with backs to support him in a sitting position. Liam is an example of a child that at first glance may stump educators on how to help him participate in gardening. 

Although it is true that Liam cannot just pick up a shovel the way some of his peers can, it does not mean that he can’t play in the garden or that he does not want to be involved in group garden activities. 

Notice these two photos. The teachers have thought of two different ways to help Liam water the garden. By some facilitation and planning on the teachers part, Liam is participating fully in this gardening activity. Having Liam water the garden while being supported in different chairs is a perfect example of how to involve every child in garden activities. 

Misconception 4: Children with physical disabilities are fragile.

A common misconception that holds educators back from engaging children with disabilities, especially those with physical disabilities, in various activities is the fear that they are fragile.

Consider:  Every kid wants to play and be played with. While it may be true that some children are more medically fragile than others, the most important thing is to keep them safe. But it’s also important that ALL children get to have fun. If adults caring for children that are medically fragile are too nervous to play with them, how will they have fun?

Remember, children are not as fragile as adults think. Children are tough, resilient, and more often than not, they crave rough-tumble play and movement.

  1. Don’t be afraid to get children out of their wheelchairs or down from their walkers. If you are going to take a child out of their wheelchair or walker, consider how you will help provide a different kind of support for them. This could look like you sitting down on the ground with them and using your body to offer support or bringing support with you into the garden such as different kinds of chairs, blankets, or cushions.
  2. Don’t be afraid to get close and provide hand-over-hand support.
  3. Don’t be afraid if it takes two adults to help a child or teen participate.

Misconception 5: It doesn’t really count as the child participating if I am doing the physical work of the task. Aren’t they just watching then?

Consider: How great it would be for someone to bring you something like a flower or a freshly harvested vegetable to eye level if you couldn’t reach down and pick it yourself. To avoid the child “just watching,” find creative ways for the child or teen to interact with the flowers, vegetables, and tools by engaging all of their senses and talking to them about what you are doing.

Notice these photos. Liz is bringing a variety of plants to eye level, placing them on Natahlia’s tray so she can reach them, helping her smell and touch the plants.

Questions to ask yourself when in the garden with children:

Think…

  • How is this child or group of children already exploring the environment on their own terms? What are they noticing and what are they drawn too? 
  • Is there anything I can do to support them in expanding this exploration? 
  • What creative things may help this child or group of children experience the garden in the fullest way possible? 
  • Are they at the right height to engage with the garden in the most accessible way? 
  • Can I get down to their level or bring things to them?

Notice in the photo how each camper is participating in harvesting basil in a slightly different way with the support of the camp counselors. For example, some of these campers are able to harvest entirely on their own while others can pick the leaves off the stems and put them in the basket once the stem is close enough to them.

Building an accessible vegetable garden for children:

  1. Vertical gardens (which make use of walls, fences or garden structures) and raised containers can help make a garden accessible to people with physical disabilities. Raised beds reduce the amount of bending and stooping.
  2. Make paths wide enough for someone in a wheelchair to roll through. Consider how someone in a power wheelchair or a manual wheelchair would move through the garden. Pathways with curves could be easier to move through than those with sharp corners. 
  3. Use accessible surfacing such as putting burlap sacks down on the garden paths. This helps keep the paths from eroding and developing pot holes while also keeping the path smooth, non-slip and level. 
  4. Provide tables and farm stands that are wheelchair accessible where groups can do potting and planting together. Have tables of different heights to accommodate children of different ages and abilities. 
  5. Have supportive equipment available such as a variety of chairs, foam, & baskets with handles. 
  6. Note: Gardening equipment and tools can be modified to suit people with disabilities. Work individually with the children you have in your group to figure out what method will offer them the support they need. 
Group of teens gardening, two teens in a wheelchair

Pause and Reflect:

Now that you have reflected on some common misconceptions about children with physical disabilities and gardening, answer the following questions: 

    1. Which misconception or perceived barrier feels the most challenging to shift your thinking around? Why might that be? 
    2. Do you feel more prepared with tools or strategies to support children with physical disabilities in the garden?

Take Action: 

Observe the garden from the lens of having it be accessible for all. 

  1. What parts of it are currently accessible? What parts are not? Remember, accessibility includes more than just being wheelchair accessible.  
  2. Consider the children you serve, what support could you create or have on hand to better support their time in the garden? 
  3. Invite families to come and participate in your programs. Learn from their experiences and continue to make improvements.