Soil, sand and seeds - helping children grow

Armed with a teaching degree, horticultural therapist Stephanie Molen thought it would be a breeze sharing her love of plants with disabled preschool children. But defeat came quickly.

On the first day of class, a student colored his glasses with black magic marker meant for pumpkins.

Molen learned her lesson and now, six years later, is considered an expert in the field. And with the help of the staff at the Enid A. Haupt Glass Garden at Rusk Institute, Molen wrote a book based on her curriculum: Growth Through Nature: A Preschool Program for Children with Disabilities.

"It was trial and error," says Molen, now senior horticultural therapist at the Glass Garden. "Everything is repeated over and over again. The children learn how to recognize the group, wait their turn, follow one and multiple step directions, vocabulary, attention to task, and colors. They use their fine motor skills and work the upper body."

The Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine in Manhattan houses public school classes, funded by the New York State Department of Education, that provide individualized educational and therapeutic services for children ages three to five who have orthopedic and other disabilities or delayed development.

Molen's book was the first of its kind and is now being used by all preschool teachers around the country. The tested curriculum involves the stimulation of sensory, motor, cognitive and communication skills by the mixing of soil and sand, germinating seeds, planting, transplanting, and propagating from cuttings.

The program brings slimy worms, the cascading touch of seeds, soft rose petals, and the scent of damp soil into the children's classroom and opens their senses.

"It's engrossing all their senses at once - eyes, touch, smell - with sensory rich activities," explains Nancy Chambers, director of the Glass Garden since 1986. "Plants are soothing. We're born with nature as part of us. It's part of our genetic makeup and it's been disrupted in children because they don't communicate with nature anymore but with computers and music."

Molen's class helps develop an understanding of nature and children's connection to it by observing and handling nature's shapes, textures, sizes, weights, and colors.

"Many children who are disabled don't have the opportunity to interact with the natural environment. They're overprotected or underprivileged," explains Molen, who teaches preschool classes once a week for a half-hour at Rusk. "If they don't interact with nature, they'll become fearful at an early age and that can affect socialization."

Eliotte B. Jean-Baptiste, who teaches the children full-time, agrees. "Because of the sensory input Stephanie brings to the classroom, some children vocalize more, take turns, and explore things they wouldn't ordinarily explore."

But the classroom isn't the only place children discover nature at Rusk.

The institute offers horticultural therapy as part of its rehabilitation programs for both children and adults. Class participants grow flowers and plants - some for the institute's public gardens, and some to take home.

These innovations are part of the creative legacy of Dr. Howard Rusk, the physician who, in 1949, helped found the institute that bears his name. Dr. Rusk believed in addressing the physical, social and psychological needs of patients and experimented with new approaches and ideas. So was born the Enid A. Haupt Glass Garden in 1959 and its horticultural program.

"People and plants are connected through evolution. And for someone who is compromised in some way, or has a new disability, horticulture is a great way for them to be empowered," believes Gwenn Fried, horticultural therapist at the Glass Garden. "When we plant something it makes us feel good, and as a horticultural therapist, we can take that connection and work with people on goals and objectives. In other words, it's just not doing an exercise. There's a reason why you're doing this. Plants are non-judgmental. Plants don't care that you don't speak clearly or that you're in a wheelchair."

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For many patients whose condition has made them passive and dependent, nurturing plants creates a role reversal: Gardening allows patients to become caregivers. It provides exercise, fresh air, and relief from stress and boredom, and is a good way to relearn skills and accept responsibility for one's actions.

"The plant needs water and if you don't give it what it needs, then it won't grow - and it's the same thing with you," says Fried, also the coordinator of the Horticultural Therapy Program at the New York Botanical Garden.

The Glass Garden consists of four small gardens.

The first, The Conservatory, was built in 1959. It was considered the first garden anywhere to be designed for people in wheelchairs. Located at Rusk's main lobby, it features a pond, cockatoos and parrots, ferns, orchids, and palms. It's a year-round oasis for patients, hospital staff, and visitors.

The Alva and Bernard F. Gimbel Garden, located near the elevator, is a formal garden built in 1969 with funds donated by the Gimbels of department store fame.

The Perennial Garden, built in 1991, is located to the south of the Conservatory and features wheelchair-accessible raised beds, built-in seating, a barbecue and a secluded arbor. In warm weather, it also serves as a classroom for horticultural therapy groups. It, along with the Conservatory, was funded and given an endowment by Enid A. Haupt.

To the north of the Conservatory is the 5, 500-square-foot children's PlayGarden, built in 1998 by landscape architects, a team of physical, occupational, and horticultural therapy staff, and teachers from the pediatric unit at Rusk.

It provides a safe place for kids to explore and practice activities that stimulate curiosity, promote independence, spontaneity, and creativity.

The PlayGarden also provides fun for patients, disabled preschoolers, and all types of kids from the community who are invited to play through Glass Garden outreach programs. An annual Community Festival takes place each June, and includes farm animals, a petting zoo, nature crafts, gardens tours, and pot a plant and take it home!

The PlayGarden features different types of topography and surfaces helping children exercise all their muscles by running, crawling, sitting, turning, swinging and jumping. The pathways orient children as they climb over bridges and under arbors. The grassy hill is great for tumbling, rolling and stretching in the sun. A slide, stepping stones, playhouse climbing roof, hanging walls and a hammock all foster motor-planning, balancing, body positioning, spatial awareness and a range of gross motor and coordination skills.

"We have swings so that kids who can't stand up can still go on a swing; we have rocks around the sandbox instead of just a border and that's great for risk taking," Fried points out. "Children who are disabled should be able to take risks just like other children. Everything in the PlayGarden is there for a reason."

The Glass Garden at Rusk Institute, located at 400 East 34th Street, is open to the public Monday and Tuesday from 8am to 3pm; Wednesday through Friday from 8am to 5:30pm; and on weekends and holidays from noon to 5:30pm. Children must be supervised by an adult. For more information, or to volunteer at the garden, call (212) 263-6058.