Compassionate Care

Gardening Teaches Life Lessons and Helps to Heal

Patients throughout our system reap the many benefits of gardens

Shriners Hospitals for Children strives to provide an encouraging, nurturing environment where children and families can find respite, calm and emotional strength. At Shriners Hospitals, we offer what we call “wrap-around care” – care that includes an awareness of the overall health and well-being of our patients and provides support and services to help them recover to the fullest extent possible.

At some locations, this includes having gardens available for our patients and families. The styles and purposes of the gardens are as diverse as nature itself. They range from quiet places, to gardens that can be used for rehabilitative and therapeutic purposes, to actual vegetable and herb gardens where patients can plant, grow, harvest and enjoy the end results. Here are a few examples:

Backyards and butterflies

Shriners Hospitals for Children — Chicago has award-winning backyard gardens and is a registered official monarch butterfly waystation. Patients like 4-year-old Anastasia can learn to care for plants, and raise and release butterflies as part of their recreational therapy.

“That is one of Anastasia’s favorite places in the world,” her grandmother, Angela, said. “She still talks about it.”

The recreational therapy staff say experiences like raising butterflies help patients work toward individual therapy goals. “Working with plants and in nature can calm and focus the mind, allowing for progress in a child’s goal areas. The same garden activity can work on one patient’s fine motor skills, while another patient may experience improved development of appropriate conversation skills,” said Amanda Hogle, CTRS, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist.

In addition, every Tuesday the hospital offers horticultural therapy in partnership with the Chicago Botanic Garden. The partnership was featured on the PBS program Urban Nature.

The Chicago hospital’s gardens have specific functions around the backyard. “Each of the areas of our accessible patient gardens has a therapeutic purpose … the butterfly garden, the aqua garden and fairy gardens, and most recently the serenity garden, which features a bubbling fountain, covered pergola and bricked pathways,” said Hogle.

A bountiful harvest

Patients learn to cook with the produce they grow. 

Timmy’s Garden began in 2015 in the backyard of the Shriners Hospitals facility in Erie, Pennsylvania. It has bloomed into a place where patients plant fruits and vegetables and tend to them as the summer progresses. The patients love being outside, getting their hands dirty, digging holes, planting seeds and working the hose. The activities do not end after harvesting the crops. Patients also learn how to cook the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor and can even enter a cooking competition. Patients are divided into teams and asked to create their best dish. At the end of the day, everyone is a winner with Timmy’s Garden.

A cultivating experience

Kids who go to gardening camp also get valuable lessons in critical thinking.

Working with Portland Nursery, Shriners Hospitals for Children — Portland offers a weeklong gardening camp. “Our annual gardening camp incorporates different activities to encourage social interaction and shared experiences amongst our patients,” said Caroline Scott, recreational therapist. “On our first day of camp, we plant a seed, and each day when the patients arrive, they check on how the seed is growing.

This encourages critical thinking and exploration in a setting that’s not as high-pressure as school, and they’re not being compared to their peers. Juliet, a patient at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Portland, has attended the weeklong gardening camp twice. “Bug day” was one of Juliet’s favorite memories of gardening camp. “Everyone got a chance to learn about bugs, and at the end of the day, the kids released ladybugs outside in the garden,” said her mother Karen.

A rehabilitative landscape

At our Pasadena, California, location, the landscape design creates a healing environment especially conducive to rehabilitation. The series of therapy gardens on the first floor uses different materials for varying levels of patient recovery.

The berm garden features braided pathways and embankments for patients to climb and crawl over. Between these are ramps and stairs with handrails designed at different slopes for patients to begin learning to walk over more challenging terrain. Benches make the recovery experience more inclusive for parents and family members.

The medical center building features multilevel, healing-centered landscapes. The second-floor Therapy Balcony and Light-Well Garden provide spaces for healing and rehabilitation without leaving the building, allowing patients at different recovery levels to experience the landscape before advancing to the exterior therapy gardens. The third-floor Sky Garden provides hospital staff panoramic views of the outdoor courtyards, plazas and gardens below and beyond the San Gabriel Mountains.

Gardening can teach children life skills.

A new purpose for a playground

During the summer, the playground at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Shreveport is home to the Garden of Eatin’. Conceived by the hospital’s nutrition services staff in conjunction with the Northwest Louisiana Master Gardeners Association, the Garden of Eatin’ provides an opportunity for patients to plant, harvest and taste fresh vegetables and herbs, reinforcing hospital initiatives promoting healthy eating. Patients are encouraged to develop their green thumbs throughout the growing process, helping reap both the physical and educational benefits associated with gardening.

“Garden-based education has been proven to help improve academic performance in children,” said Heather McKenzie, director of nutrition services for the Shreveport Shriners Hospital and coordinator for the garden project. “Teaching children to garden gives them life skills of independence and sustainability while encouraging them to eat more vegetables.”