The inspiration for The AG Project began in Monroe, Lousiana, where Dan Robertson funded gardens in some local schools. The results were more than expected and hoped for. From this, his sister, Patricia Robertson of Austin, TX, began envisioning the creation of a program for sensory gardening in schools. Together with four friends and colleagues, The AG Project was formed.
KEDM Public Radio, a service of the University of Louisiana at Monroe, aired the below story about the original Monroe, Louisiana Project. Please click on the above link to see the original story and to hear the audio version that aired on KEDM on February 24, 2012.
A vegetable garden in Bastrop is developing into an educational and social tool for students with autism. And parents and teachers have observed big strides in the kids who’ve taken part in the program.
Eight children with autism are tending the garden.
|Proud Gardeners at Cherry Ridge Elementary
Cheryl McDaniel teaches at Cherry Ridge’s Autistic Center. She says participating in the program represents a major jump for the children.
“They fell in the dirt; they started touching the dirt, feeling the dirt, putting the dirt on their bodies. Well, we had no idea that they would do that.”
These activities are no ordinary child’s play.
Lynda Huggins founded the Northeast Louisiana Autism Society. Children with autism are often hyper-sensitive to unfamiliar textures. Huggins says the program could offer a way to tackle the problem.
“This particular program sounds like they’re addressing their sensory issues. And that they’re getting involved in the dirt and planting plants. And that sounds like a wonderful sensory integration therapy to me.”
Despite early enthusiasm for the project, instructor Cheryl McDaniel was unprepared for its success.
“Our world went completely into 100 million different directions. And then the parents started saying ‘what have you done? My child who will not go outside, who sits in a chair from the moment he walks in the door to the time he goes to sleep – is wanting to go outside and help his grandfather in the garden.”
The project is a partnership with the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center’s 4-H Branch, local businesses and Cherry Ridge Elementary. 4-H agent, Jennifer Moran, says the kids are developing green thumbs.
“We have turnips, collard greens, mustard greens. We planted some carrots, some lettuce, some cabbage. In the next few weeks we’re going to plant some potatoes.”
Perhaps even more exciting are the strides that have been made in the classroom since the garden has sprouted. Cheryl McDaniel says that the students have improved academically.
“We’ve noticed a big difference with reading and math; and the counting. Handwriting is another.”
Still, there are few guidelines for fostering such gardens. A 2003 Louisiana State University master’s thesis offers 22 recommendations for building this type of space. They include providing a supervised environment, creating a variety of spaces and making sure the garden incorporates sensory stimulation. The national organization, Autism Speaks, says there does not appear to be any empirical data on the benefits of therapeutic gardens for children with autism.
But a school in Toledo, Ohio has run a similar garden for three years. Lindsey Fischer is the director of education at the Autism Academy of Learning. She says the students enjoy success in the garden, socially and the classroom.
“Our students who work in the garden – we can definitely see a difference in behavior. Those who may go through different moods during the day – going from happy to sad, it keeps them on an even keel. They really enjoy it. You can see that they’re really taking a lot of pride in their work.”
The Cherry Ridge project has a tracking mechanism of sorts – the only one of its kind in the South, according to Jennifer Moran.
“We started a small evaluation. We had each child draw what they thought a garden was, and we’re hoping in the end they’ll realize that there’s more than flowers in a garden, because most of the children had flowers in their garden.”
No matter what happens with the evaluation, parents have seen remarkable changes in their children. Ariane Jackson’s nine-year-old son, Ahmad is one of the student gardeners.
“He couldn’t really say anything. He was going through like a mute phase. And then when he came to the teach program they really helped him come out of his shell. And now he’s a completely different person.”
Ariane Jackson says Ahmad’s academic scores have improved – something she credits to the gardening project. Ahmad himself says the most rewarding things about gardening are the flowers and the carrots.