The best things in life are dirty

Most adults remember playing in the mud, but ask children now and you will hear a different story. For reasons too numerous to list, children are not touching dirt or playing in it. And if they do, immediately out comes the hand sanitizer!

The Schreiber courtyard was formed when an addition to the building was built back in 2006. At that time, the courtyard was little more than concrete and a drain. Under the guidance of Recreation Therapist Lisa Gilbert and with help from volunteer Don Grayson, we built a few raised beds for strawberries and flowers.

In the 10 years since, we have added more containers for grapes, rasberries and blackberries, along with some wind chimes and wind-blown decorations. Kids can paint the containers in bright colors. A gift from Edna’s Angels, our women’s giving circle, allowed us to add slate blackboards and large chimes for the kids to play.

The kids completed a unit this spring on planting and caring for seeds. The seeds and peat pots were generously donated by KimRik Garden Center, Willow Street. The kids transplanted the seedlings into the courtyard containers with their identifying popsicle sticks to foster engagement and ownership. The children have been able to check on their plants, and we’ve had some kids harvest some of their plantings. For many, this will be the first time they pick a vegetable and taste it!

For some of our Schreiber kids, this has been their first time to touch dirt. As part of her occupational therapy session, Kiera K. was positioned so that she could stand and shovel dirt into the peat pot for the seeds. Kiera is just beginning to learn to use a spoon because all of her life so far she has been fed through a stomach tube. Kiera’s parents were amazed at how much she enjoyed touching the dirt!

With all the intensive medical care she has required in her 7 years, her mother said, “I never thought to let her play in dirt!”

In fact, gardening with children not only yields flowers, fruits and vegetables; the children are part of the growth, too!

There’s plenty of evidence to support gardening as a valuable therapy strategy. At Schreiber, we use gardening as part of our normal treatment plans. From our experience, children are more willing to taste or sample vegetables and fruits they have helped raise. There are many reasons, both medical and psychological, for children to develop food aversions. Once those food aversions have become entrenched they are difficult to change. Gardening is one strategy used in desensitizing a child to try a non-preferred food such as vegetables.

We plant varieties (usually heirloom varieties), of vegetables, fruits and herbs to provide our clients a multisensory experience when they enter the garden. We include the typical (chives, parsley, onions, thyme,) to the unusual (a plant that smells like buttered popcorn).

We incorporate other activities into these courtyard sessions: writing on the chalkboard; carrying a watering can, squeezing a sponge, all of which provide sensory benefits.

Because of their children’s experiences in the courtyard garden, more Schreiber families are planting flowers and vegetables at home in their gardens or in containers. They are incorporating into their daily lives the lesson they learned here.

And they are finding out that, yes, the best things in life really are dirty.

Bernie Hershey is an occupational therapist at Schreiber Pediatric Rehab Center in Lancaster, Pa. She has been helping kids slide on scooters, balance on balls and climb on ropes for more than 30 years, all in the name of helping improve the quality of their lives.