The Children’s Center- Using Nature as a Teacher

By Bryan Dooley

children's center
children’s center

The Children’s Center for the Physically Disabled, established in 1952, provides an education for children with physical challenges. The Special Children’s School, established in 1973, also serves children with special needs. In July 2010, the two schools merged to form The Centers for Exceptional Children and continue to help children with disabilities grow.

In 2009, The Children’s Center added a Horticultural Therapy Program in order to provide an opportunity for the students to meet their physical, mental, and social goals using nature as a teacher.

In the school setting, nature based programs use hands-on activities to stimulate sensory, motor, cognitive and communication skills. JoAnn Yates, a registered horticultural therapist began the program with the aid of a few containers and a variety of colorful plants. Today, the entire campus provides opportunities to engage all the senses. The Special Children’s School also has a Horticultural Therapy Program, under the guidance of registered Horticultural Therapist, Jennifer Manning.

“Horticultural Therapy (HT) is the engagement of a person in nature and garden-related activities by a trained therapist, to achieve specific treatment goals,” said Yates. “In the school setting, nature-based programs use hands-on activities to stimulate sensory, motor, cognitive and communication skills. Teachers’ lessons about color, shape, and texture come alive when supplemented by a guided experience in the garden.”

People who garden know the benefits of gardening from personal experience. The field of horticultural therapy became popular during the 1940’s and 50’s with veterans returning from war, but there is documentation dating back to the late 1700’s.

Horticultural Therapy has proven cognitive, psychological, social, and physical benefits. For example, stress reduction, improved concentration, social interaction and improved immune responses and fine and gross motor skills, to name a few. In addition to these tangible benefits, horticultural therapies also provide metaphorical lessons.

According to The Children’s Center’s principal, Ted Burcaw, one of the main projects last spring, that the entire school participated in, was raising butterflies. Each classroom had all the necessary materials to transform a caterpillar into a butterfly. After Memorial Day, the entire school released the butterflies into the garden. Burcaw describes some of the lessons they learned. “For some, it was a very beautiful visual experience and others understood the transformation on a deeper level,” said Burcaw. “I took a few lessons away from this experience, myself. After the transformation, I looked at the nets and they looked like a crime scene. I realized growth and transformation is messy.”Burcaw continued.

“The lessons are really endless,” said Burcaw. “They are only limited by the teachers and the horticultural therapist’s abilities to notice the lessons and be able to articulate them.”

Horticultural therapists train to notice and articulate lessons incorporating all subjects. HT degrees and programs can be found throughout the United States and abroad. HT requires a foundation in human and plant sciences, psychology and more. Yates took a meandering path to her true calling. She started out in business and then later found the Horticultural Therapy Institute in Denver, Colorado. Horticultural therapists are required to do an internship, which landed her at The Children’s Center. Yates pitched her idea to Mike Britt, the then Executive Director. Director of Development, Karla Fisher, reflects on both Britt and the school’s garden.

“Mike saw the possibility in everything and no challenge, no project, ever seemed too daunting to him,” Fisher said. “When JoAnn Yates was ready to start a horticultural therapy program here, Mike was the first one to say let’s make it happen. He liked to support people who were excited about projects.”

Yates has learned as much from her interactions with students, as they have from her.

children's  center
children’s center

“The students are my finest teachers,” said Yates. “They have taught me the meaning of true success, compassion, and pure joy. The biggest lesson has been that they are kids first. Kids like to play with the water, play in the dirt, get messy, and run around. It is just that our students might be using wheelchairs and walkers to get around the garden.
Therapeutic gardens are often utilized by hospitals, hospice, schools, rehabilitation centers, senior centers, and other healthcare organizations, as well as in residential back yards. Several examples in Winston Salem include multiple community gardens, hospice, and several schools.

Horticultural Therapy programs need your support. They can all benefit from volunteerism. They need watering and weed pulling, especially in the growing season. Financial contributions, gift cards to garden centers, plants, supplies, expertise in gardening are all welcomed. They also make for great corporate or civic volunteer projects. Burcaw offers a story to illustrate the benefits of horticultural therapy.

“For different reasons, I spend time one on one with the children. It may be that they just can’t sleep during rest time or they need extra attention, for whatever reason,” said Burcaw. “The gardens are there to stroll through. It makes for a very peaceful place, where people like to be.”








Bryan Dooley is a graduate of Guilford College, where while earning a degree in History, he wrote for the The Guilfordian as a Staff Writer from 2011 to 2013, a Senior Writer from 2012 to 2013, and worked as a Diversity Coordinator. He now is a journalist and columnist with CCD. Bryan, who himself has cerebral palsy, is also an advocate for people with disabilities.