An initiative by Al Noor Training Centre for Children with Special Needs and the Ritz-Carlton, Dubai, is encouraging students to discover gardening’s therapeutic benefits.
Gardens in Dubai that help personal growth for young special-needs pupils
Inside a mesh enclosure that provides shade and protection from insects and birds, amid rows of cherry tomatoes, green chillies, eggplants and tomatoes, Ahad Ali, a senior student at Dubai’s Al Noor Training Centre for Children with Special Needs, presents the garden he and nine of his classmates have cultivated. To grow a vegetable from a seed, and water it every day, demands close observation. Ali notices a tiny tomato growing off of a larger one, an unusual formation, and asks what it is.
Technically, it’s a mutation, but Ali’s teacher, Smitha Rajendran, who has overseen the garden since its inauguration in February, uses words Ali can understand to explain. Seconds before, she reviews what it means to “pluck” for him. “‘Pluck’ means you remove it.” She indicates the red tomato hanging from its vine. “What did we do when the tomatoes all became red? We plucked them.”
Any new arena for learning, such as this garden, brings a host of new vocabulary with it: words like “ripen”, which she also reviews with Ali: “Green tomatoes mean the plant still has to ripen.”
Vocabulary is one of many benefits that Al Noor’s new garden offers its special-needs students, who have been diagnosed with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and other developmental issues. “A garden benefits the student on so many levels,” says Al Noor director Isphana Al Khatib, who has been running the school for the past 18 years. “We implement the goals for our children in what we call activity-based intervention. Activities like this garden provide the children with a chance to practise a lot of these [motor and sensory-based] goals. The act of sowing seeds is stimulating to the senses. Also taking turns, and watching something grow.”
She adds that the garden offers the students a chance to go outside daily, in a place where “there are not many opportunities to be outside, where you don’t have to get into a bus and go to a park”.
Raking the soil to prepare for planting is an opportunity to practise gross motor skills (which tap into large muscles to coordinate movement). Inserting a finger to create a small hole in the dirt, then placing a tiny seed into that hole, requires fine motor skills. Compost mixed with sand smells damp, salty and sweet all at once, while dirt on the hands is a new texture to assimilate. Cause and effect is made real when a child sees that a plant without enough water starts to wither. And finally, the first taste of a cherry tomato or the searing heat of a green chilli seed teaches the benefits of delayed gratification, after watching and waiting patiently for more than a month.
At the turn of the 19th century, Maria Montessori created a new educational system based on these principles. She found, in particular, that hands-on, direct-sensory experiences worked surprisingly well with children who were described, in that era, as “incapable of learning”.
“Though we teach them how plants grow in the classroom, this is a hands-on activity where they’re actually coming and doing the whole process, so that’s giving them a wonderful experience. They’re seeing the whole process,” says Rajendran.
The idea for a garden percolated for years at Al Noor, with reminders from Rajendran, a gardening enthusiast. Last year, the school shared the idea as part of its wish list with the Ritz-Carlton in Dubai. The hotel management team agreed that the project would fit well with their outreach goals, and took on the expenses, management and much of the implementation of the garden, from building the enclosure to eventually selling the produce harvested by the students at the hotel for charity.
Al Noor’s student population of 270 children includes 3- to 24-year-olds. Students at the school are offered physical, occupational and speech therapies, along with psychological services, and a sports and music programme. Fund-raising is integral to the school’s ability to serve such a large pupil-base, where students pay 60 per cent of the tuition, and 40 per cent of the cost of their education is subsidised through fundraising. “Roughly 35 per cent of the students don’t pay the full tuition,” says Al Khatib, referring to the 60 per cent that is meant to be provided by families.
By December, the foundation for the structure that encloses the garden was laid, and an idea that had been tossed around in staff meetings for years became a reality. The inauguration was held on February 16 by Richard Collins, the general manager of the Ritz-Carlton, Dubai, and Grainne Johnston, its director of human resources.
Students who could follow instructions, and would be safe in that environment (ie being able to differentiate what was and wasn’t safe to put in their mouths, and understand how to move through the space), were selected from the senior unit – pupils between the ages of 16 and 24.
The process began in the classroom with a small pot and seeds, as a practice run, before moving into the larger garden space. They helped to prepare the soil, plant seeds, water the plants and remove weeds, with support from Ritz-Carlton staff. The senior students Stephen Munkal and Vishesh Sajjanhar, who have been involved since the beginning, also enjoy watering and harvesting the vegetables. As the vegetables mature, they’re harvested and taken to the school’s purpose-built student kitchen.
“The senior unit cooks everyday,” explains Ali. In the kitchen, students prepare salad and tomato sauce for pasta or pizza. Currently, students have been asked to water daily until the end of April, when they will receive instructions from the Ritz-Carlton team on how to best manage the garden during the hotter months. “We do it step by step,” says Rajendran.
The daily ritual has therapeutic value for the gardeners, who participate on a rotation through six senior classes. Their parents have also been informed about the project and encouraged to set up a garden at home to reinforce the learning at school.
The school’s curriculum offers the children many other opportunities to practise fine and gross motor skills, priding themselves on a student-run retail outlet, Smiles n’ Stuff, that sells products made through school programmes.
The garden ties in with learning about the environment and goals of practicing good citizenship. With an eye towards positioning the student to enjoy a productive adulthood, the school runs vocational training and work placement for woodwork, design technology, printing, fashion, cooking and, as of this year, gardening skills. As greenhouses and local farming ventures expand in the UAE, opportunities also open for employment for those who can plant, repot, harvest and weed. In many countries around the world, non-profit programmes connect special-needs adults with greenhouse work.
Another implicit benefit to the garden is it links the food that students eat to where it comes from. When asked about his favourite vegetable, Ali confesses that he didn’t like vegetables, but then changed his mind and decided it was a tomato. For Ali, the connections are multiplying. When asked during the interview what was made from tomatoes, he takes some time to reflect on his teacher’s reminders: tomato sauce, salad. “Ketchup”, he announces at the end of our conversation, without prompting, “comes from tomatoes”.
Lessons learnt in the garden
Students learn a host of new terms that are specific to gardening, such as “ripen” and “pluck”.
Cause and effect
Seeing that a plant without water will start to wither is an important lesson in how certain actions and behaviours have direct consequences.
Stimulating the senses
The act of sowing seeds stimulates the senses, while students come into contact with a range of new and unusual textures – for example, the smell of compost mixed with sand and the feel of dirt on their hands.
The benefits of being outdoors
The garden offers an opportunity to go outside every day, without having to travel to a park.
Watching and waiting for a plant to grow, and then being able to taste the fruits of their efforts, teaches students about patience and delayed gratification.
Raking the soil to prepare for planting is an opportunity to practice gross motor skills, while inserting a tiny seed into a hole requires fine motor skills.
Communing with nature
Students learn about the environment and are granted with a new appreciation of nature.
Fresh ingredients from the garden are taken to a purpose-built kitchen, where senior students prepare salad and tomato sauce for pasta or pizza.
Working as a group
Students must work together towards a common goal.
Potential employment opportunities
As greenhouses and local farming ventures expand in the UAE, opportunities also grow for employment for those who can plant, repot, harvest and weed.