Whilst many young people are thriving, some find home and/or school life challenging. English schools are facing unprecedented challenges in meeting needs of young people with ever-diminishing resources (Mind, 2022). The World Health Organization (WHO, 2021) states adolescents with mental health conditions are particularly vulnerable to social exclusion, discrimination, stigma (affecting readiness to seek help), educational difficulties, risk-taking behaviours and physical ill-health. Covid-19 has exacerbated this (c.f. Owens et al., 2022), highlighting the importance of educating therapeutically to support the wellbeing of all young people, especially those perceived as vulnerable and/or at risk of exclusion from school (Hayes, Christie, et al., 2021; Hayes, Leather, et al., 2021). In 2020, funding was secured from the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) North-East-North-Cumbria (NENC), under the Inequalities and Marginalised Communities theme. This was for collaborative applied research into how Therapeutic Horticulture (TH), e.g. school gardens, and Therapeutic Agriculture (TA), e.g. care farming, may benefit young people identified as being at risk of educational failure and later negative outcomes. The research sought to understand young people’s perspectives on these experiences and explore how it contributed to their health and wellbeing, personal development, and educational outcomes. Three key elements for TH-TA were identified: (a) purposeful work, (b) social interaction and (c) being outdoors. Learning activities were grounded, practical and purposeful, with opportunities to experience the elements – sun, wind, rain, hail, snow – requiring the necessary equipment and mind-set to cope. Educators discouraged over-protection and enabled calculated risk, whilst encouraging independence and teamwork. This article explores appreciative and social aspects of TH-TA and how these contributed to supporting young people who found a way through the challenges they faced. The aim is to contribute to improvements in educational, health and care services for young people across NENC, and inform policy and practice of others working in similar contexts.
The NENC region ‘… has the highest mortality rates, lowest life expectancy rates and healthy life expectancy rates in England. There are also significant health inequalities within our region, linked to marginalisation and disadvantage’ (NIHR, 2022). To address this, NIHR funds applied research collaborations that aim to support the health and social care system to reduce health inequalities within NENC, as well as nationally. For this research study, the focus was three locations in NENC: one working care-farm offering alternative provision for young people; and two gardens in specialist secondary schools for young people with a wide range of complex needs. The working care-farm is in a rural village, with a secondary site at another farmstead nearby. The farm and gardens are organised to work in partnership with local schools, colleges, alternative education providers and home educators. Young people with a history of exclusion from school typically attend the farm up to twice a week, with sessions including a range of negotiated activities such as tending livestock including sheep, pigs, cattle, geese, and chickens; fixing fencing; collecting eggs; cleaning/maintaining livestock pens. The farm has been undertaking care-farm activities for several years and has won several accolades for its work with young people. The two schools are supported by a charitable foundation set up in 1990 with a remit to improve the health and well-being of children and young people. Woodland School (pseudonym) is a small specialist school with 110 pupils aged 11-18 years, all of whom have education, health, and care plans. Their complex needs include autistic spectrum conditions, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), speech and language, attachment, and trauma. Beachside School (pseudonym) is a two-site senior school for children with moderate learning difficulties and autism spectrum conditions. The main campus is a small school surrounded by playing fields, within a mile of the sea.
Research Goal, Method, and Outcome
Research Rationale and Objectives
It is widely recognised by a diverse body of scholars, educators and practitioners that outdoor activities can be therapeutic (e.g. Kaplan, 1995). Indeed, personal development, health and wellbeing have been integral components of outdoor learning practices for a very long time. Activities offered range from a more general ‘spend time outdoors and feel better’ approach, e.g. walking, gardening, birdwatching, outdoor swimming, to more targeted initiatives with a therapy-based approach, e.g. eco-therapy, outdoor counselling, wilderness therapy, and forest bathing. Most recent trends include moves towards a ‘Natural Health Service’ (e.g. The Mersey Forest, 2022) and social prescribing of experiences in nature. In recent years, there has been ‘… an exponential growth in therapeutic outdoor initiatives and programmes being developed and utilised for mental health and well-being benefits’ (IOL, 2021). IOL has developed a Statement of Good Practice for Outdoor Therapy, along with a model for Outdoor Mental Health Interventions (Ibid.).
This exponential growth in initiatives has been accompanied by a surge of interest in exploring and understanding the links between outdoor learning and wellbeing, particularly with regards to children and young people. As a result, there is a growing body of international research from both a health and well-being perspective and an educational perspective (Hayes, Leather, et al., 2021).
The National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) has a mission to ‘… improve the health and wealth of the nation through research’ (NIHR, 2022). NIHR funds 15 Applied Research Collaborations (ARCs) in England, one of which covers the geographical area of North East and North Cumbria (NENC). It is a large area with the highest rates of poverty and poor health in England. The funding supported a team to come together under the Inequalities and Marginalised Communities theme, to conduct collaborative applied research into the potential therapeutic benefits of gardening and farming for young people.
The research sought to explore existing, well-established projects: a working farm in North Cumbria that offered ‘care farm’ opportunities for young people on a reduced and/or alternative curriculum, and a charitable foundation in the North East supporting gardens in two specialist secondary schools. The intention was to explore the opportunities offered across three sites, participate alongside the young people, and identify the key elements of horticultural and agricultural activities that provided therapeutic benefits for young people.
This research adds to an emerging evidence base on effectiveness of care farms and gardens in promoting positive outcomes for young people (c.f. Bragg, 2020; Fell-Chambers, 2021; O’Neill, 2020; Veen et al., 2021). The objectives were to collaboratively:
- articulate a theory of change for planning and monitoring TH-TA projects.
- establish a long-term sustainable evaluation methodology for each organisation (incorporating activity, process, and outcomes evaluation.
- identify any impact of the projects on young people’s wellbeing and educational outcomes, and how and why these impacts may occur (mediating and moderating factors).
- provide guidance for involving young people in TH-TA projects.
To achieve these objectives, the project set out to answer questions around three key areas of activity (who comes to settings, what are their needs), process (models of practice and theories of change; challenges and opportunities) and outcomes (impacts on young people’s wellbeing and educational outcomes).
This research drew on principles of action research and rapid ethnography to inform a mixed-method design, with qualitative and quantitative, primary and secondary data from a range of perspectives (young people, parents, student-volunteers, staff). The approach to qualitative data collection and analysis was informed by a praxis-based or ‘phronetic’ approach (Tracy, 2013: 4-5), whereby data was systematically gathered, analysed, and communicated in a practical way, which focused on self-reflexivity, contextual knowledge, situated meanings and practical wisdom. Quantitative data, in the form of documentation provided by project sites, were analysed with descriptive statistics to identify levels of activity (e.g. referrals, joiners, withdrawers). This was combined with a collaborative iterative process of inductive thematic analysis of interviews and visual analysis of photographs to understand perceived opportunities and challenges in the projects. Preliminary conversations with partners and participant organisations, together with a scoping review of literature, informed theory of change modelling to identify ‘what’ happens in these settings and ‘how’ they have benefitted the young people who attended.
A range of methods were used, including researchers’ auto/ethnographic accounts, analytic asides and memos (Tracy, 2013: 201) in fieldnotes and reflective diaries, and loosely structured interviews ‘in the moment’ (What does…? How does…? Why does…?) with staff and young people and researcher discussions. Young people and staff members were interviewed using a ‘reflect aloud’ interviewing method (Christie et al., 2020), which involved talking whilst engaged in occupations. Young people’s perspectives were also elicited through techniques including photographic representations (Noland, 2006) using I-pads and GoPro camera technology. Research rigour was achieved through a range of measures, including researcher reflexivity, familiarisation phase, participant verification (transcripts, poster presentation of findings shared with participants at all three settings). Relevant risk assessments, including Covid-related risks, were undertaken before the study started and ethical approval was obtained, following extensive discussions with onsite staff and other collaborators including the funding agency.
Participating Sites, Students and Staff, and Data Collection
Working care farm
The researchers interviewed five young people aged 14-16, two staff members and three parents of young people involved. The interviews followed a familiarisation phase of several weeks in late spring enabling participants to get to know the two field researchers: one qualified in youth work with extensive academic research in related fields, and the other with experience in researching therapeutic green exercise and experience as a sport development officer with disadvantaged groups.
Data were collected through short, informal interviews with two or three pupils at a time, whilst active in their occupations, or sitting on a picnic bench within the working area. We spoke with all of the young people participating in the activities, and recorded three individual conversations as interviews. Some of the young people did not contribute verbally within the interviews; however, they participated in the process by sitting on the bench, sometimes nodding in assent. This primary data was supported by auto-photography, whereby young people themselves took multiple images or footage of aspects of the working area that held most meaning for them. This activity typically (but not exclusively) revolved around interactions with staff regarding their achievements in the garden, but also those that elicited natural enquiry, for example, plants, animals and insect life. In addition, two staff were interviewed: (a) the lead teacher (experienced in promoting nature-based opportunities for young people) and (b) an external horticulturalist, who had been with the project for more than a year and was undertaking teacher training (which provided additional insight into processes).
Although no pupils were interviewed at the school, during the researchers’ visit they observed some young people engaging in activities in the garden, and they interviewed two key project staff members. The researchers and staff spent time together in the garden, which provided context for the discussions that followed.
The findings suggest several positive outcomes for young people involved in TH-TA projects, focused primarily on positive life experiences, personal agency, health and wellbeing outcomes. In respect of experience, engagement in TH-TA provided positive opportunities to develop core life skills including teamwork, communication, problem solving, leadership, and managing responsibilities. Three key elements of TH-TA that facilitated these results were identified as purposeful work, social interaction and being outdoors.
In addition, young people and staff found a safe space to discuss personal and collective issues, express themselves and identify key factors in developing personal resilience. This is particularly important for learning disabled and/or autistic young people. As Chris Packham, a National Autistic Society ambassador highlighted: “The greatest discomfort for autistic people can be the social one. For me, I was confused by the way people behaved” (The National Autistic Society, 2022). The outdoor experience, free from the perceived confines of classrooms, is an important contributory factor in giving them space and opportunity to develop these skills and attributes, and provides scope for social inclusion and connectedness.
Safe space also mitigated against power dynamics inherent in the staff-student relationships: “…with those kids who are difficult to engage, horticulture, working alongside or in parallel with study on a job or project, it levels out things and allows you to do something together, rather than you being the teacher, them the student, it’s about you both working together, and that’s been very beneficial” (teacher from one of the schools). Potential mediators (explanations) for these impacts include: restorative properties of being outdoors, interactions with plants and insects, with the ‘soft fascination’ this provides (Kaplan, 1995); varied activities of meaning to individuals; and the extent of social interactions. Whilst moderating influences may involve having a sense of empowerment; quality of adult leadership; perceptions of a safe space to engage with; and accessible activities tailored to individual needs. This is exemplified in young people’s stories and findings from practitioner conversations and interviews.
Young People’s Stories
Working Care Farm. When the researchers first met 14-year-old Beth (pseudonym) she had only recently joined the farm. She was generally quieter than others in the group but participated in everything with a determined approach. She experiences separation anxiety when away from her mother, resulting from her mum’s serious illness when she was younger. She spoke of her fear of losing her mum and shared that she has sensory issues, including finding some types of clothing uncomfortable (“scratchy”) and, as a result, was often in trouble at school for not wearing the correct uniform. As Fell-Chambers (2021) research into the therapeutic use of farming practices shows, ‘…care farms provide a nurturing and enabling learning environment for young people to self-discover and be free from the humiliation and frustration experienced, by some, in the traditional schooling system’.
Beth tires easily and initially attended only for half days, before moving on to full days, a tailored approach that enabled her to settle in and adjust to demands of the farm. The staff team modeled different ways of supporting each individual through understanding their specific needs, encouraging independence and teamwork. The researchers observed Beth’s confidence developed significantly whilst she was on the farm: she developed skills in handling animals, overcoming her fear of birds to hold hens and goslings, walking the farm dog, grooming the pony, and expertly holding sheep for treatment and shearing.
Woodlands School. Prior to the project, Steven (pseudonym) was typically shy and lacked social skills. However, over a short number of weeks, Steven became increasingly willing to engage in conversation and more proactive in taking up specific roles and responsibilities: “Steven was very animated, prompted when I’d asked the boys if anyone would like to use the GoPro cameras. He immediately volunteered and took a few pictures while he was working with ‘Peter’ (pseudonym) the horticulturalist. Both teacher and horticulturalist encouraged dialogue through regular Q&A, for example Peter asking Steven questions like ‘so why do you think…?’ or ‘what do you think we need to do next…?’ It was great to see this young person go from a shy and awkward boy with his hood up in the first week, to now engaging in conversation, making good eye contact, discussing what he was doing with his peers, and taking a lead role with the cameras” (extract from field notebook).
Steven responded well to frequent use of positive reinforcement by staff, for example, demonstrating techniques potting up tender plants in the greenhouse. On a subsequent visit, Steven volunteered to be interviewed, delighting teaching staff. He spoke enthusiastically about helping his grandfather with his garden, demonstrating a sense of wonder and delight in discussing the behaviour of insects and birds in the school garden. The horticultural specialist emphasised that each child had unique needs, thus it was important to understand each person. He later commented that in his view pupil engagement in the garden itself acts as a therapeutic process, promoting noticeable personal development and agency enhancements. This was facilitated through the process of engagement mirroring the plants in going from seedling to full grown. Thus, developing social skills for him was an essential therapeutic element in helping those who struggle with social situations to be more confident. It appeared that in Steven’s case, this was a relatable transformation.
Beachside School. The school garden is central to the school grounds – it appeared to researchers to be the school’s ‘beating heart’. This observation proved apt given the conversations with staff, who highlighted how the garden was valued by almost every member of the school. It promoted cross-curricular learning, and broader school outcomes in respect of social interaction, self-discipline, attendance and engagement. One pupil case study cited by teachers was a profound example of the impact of the garden: a pupil who had been regularly absent, disruptive and aggressive to staff and pupils, had several months’ engagement with horticultural activities, improving his attendance, demonstrating calmer behaviour and more investment in his studies. Outside of school, he had been a key contributor in a community garden development, highlighting the transformation from being anti-social to becoming a pro-social ‘active citizen’ (playing a productive role in the community). There was a marked contrast between the organic development of the central garden, which had evolved over time, and another plot that had been grant aided. The second garden area was sited behind a school building, on the periphery of the grounds, was less used and less maintained. The school garden (the beating heart) was clearly valued more than the grant aided garden. It appears that this result was due to more democratic and organic processes in the development of the main garden, compared to quicker processes in creating a garden within a time-bound, defined project.
Practitioner-Researcher Conversations and Interviews
Staff at all three sites talked about the need for a nurturing approach, based on understanding that behaviour is communication, and of the importance of being clear on what can and cannot be tolerated and why. At all three sites, researchers found the atmosphere was welcoming: they felt like happy places to be, although clearly not without significant challenges. There is parental, community and school involvement, with benefits rippling out into families, communities and beyond, through media engagement and by word of mouth. For some young people involved in these projects, this may be their first, perhaps only sense of ownership, responsibility, achievement. This opportunity helps to raise aspirations and broaden horizons, encourages independence and opens up new possible futures. A quote from a conversation with two teachers exemplifies this phenomenon:
Teacher 1: One student, before we started digging the pond, used to come to school, swear a number of times and then go roaming around the local community, causing all sorts of problems, and his attendance was shocking, we were always picking the phone up to mum saying ‘he’s gone again, he’s climbed the fence…’ – within a short space of time, he started staying longer, even the whole day, started attending his lessons and staying in there, stopped climbing the fence…
Teacher 2: started to ask if he could stay on after school… when we had big projects with loads of soil coming, he’d be like… ‘oh I’ll stay’
Teacher 1: …he went full circle, he was able to bring his parents in, parents who used to only come to school for behaviour issues, he was able to bring his parents in and say, ‘this is what I’ve done’. It was brilliant for them to see something positive their son had done…
Teacher 2: It changed them too because they were like always ready to challenge the school but it kind of flipped it on its head …
This outcome is about nurturing people and nurturing places, with a focus on providing safe, healing spaces: places where you can care and be cared for. TH-TA activities were embedded into other areas of life as well, for example, cooking lessons, cafe, science, life skills, learning about nature and the seasons. Staff demonstrated, and talked about, the need for a cohesive approach – this is key – consistency, enthusiasm, passion, knowledge and skill, together with resilience and determination. A recurrent comment from practitioners and parents was that some young people’s lives involve little more than moving between bedroom (computer games) and classroom, with few other interactions. The outdoor spaces (farm/gardens) provide a much-needed break in this routine: an injection of life and uncertainty, of weather, of unexpected encounters with wildlife and people.
The working care farm is a particularly high-risk environment for people and animals. They identified a ‘can-do attitude’ is something to build up to, and resilience is vital. TH-TA activities provide opportunities for young people to fail and pick themselves up – it could be plants failing to grow, poly tunnels being torn, or fences broken; or else, it could be relationships that need to be mended. Restorative work is fundamental, enabling young people to grow emotionally and socially. These are places where young people like Beth and Steven can face up to their fears, both real and perceived, and develop resilience, a step at a time at their own pace, enabling them to be responsible and contribute. It provides an environment where they can ‘…learn practically, socially and introspectively’ (Fell-Chambers, 2021). All three aspects are vital for TH-TA to be effective.
Suggestions for Practitioners and Future Projects
The research findings informed 10 points as guidance for projects using TH and/or TA. These include:
- STAFFING: having trusted, supportive, and suitably experienced staff as role models.
- CARING: relationships that provide support (and firmness when required) to establish pro-social behaviours, promote re/integration into education/training relevant to the individual.
- FAILURE: TH-TA provide opportunities for young people to experience and learn from success and failure, helping to develop resilience and coping strategies.
- EMPOWERMENT: offering a choice of activities, enabling young people to make decisions.
- NATURE: ensuring young people are given opportunities to connect with the natural world.
- TRAUMA-INFORMED: recognise trauma and/or loss in young people’s lives means behaviour may be erratic; therefore, providing a safe space for discussions is an important element of the therapeutic process.
- SENSITIVITY: awareness of young people’s needs by considering what has brought them to the project (background contexts of school and/or home).
- PARTICIPATORY: involving young people in research gives them ownership of the process and treats them as an equal partner.
- COLLABORATIVE: involving external organisations (local horticultural specialists) to assist the learning process.
- HOPE: developing young people’s skills and attributes to engender hope for the future. Assist this process with access to appropriate knowledge acquisition and qualifications in farming/horticulture and other relevant awards.
This article reports how TH-TA contributes to supporting young people in finding a way through challenges they face. Staff were thankful to have processes and outdoor places to engage with young people that were significantly different to what happens indoors. Parents were thankful there was something positive for their children. Young people clearly valued the opportunities provided – for learning and for being social. At a time of significant upheaval and uncertainty, TH-TA offered healing opportunities for being outdoors, through a mix of calming, caring, physically-taxing and stimulating activities. Being outside, engaging in TH-TA can be a source of comfort, offering peace and relief from everyday stresses and strains. As highlighted more than 50 years ago, ‘Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts … there is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature…’ (Carson, 1956: 88).
In conversations with young people, researchers were struck by a sense of loss – of identity, purpose, hope for the future – as well as dealing with loss of loved ones. Pausing to take in the view, notice the sky, clouds, sun, rain and wind, focusing on the needs of animals and plants, helped young people find perspective, see that life carries on. It helped those who were supporting them too. Living with/beyond Covid has highlighted how important it is for our health and wellbeing to have access to local outdoor spaces, resulting in a surge of interest in links between outdoor learning and wellbeing (Fell-Chambers, 2021; Hayes, Christie, et al., 2021; Hayes, Leather, et al., 2021).
This research needs to inform policies and practices. The recent health and social policy emphasis on social prescribing in addition to school referrals, has led to increasing numbers of participants in such projects and services. Consequently, it is important to understand how and why they may be beneficial to young people – from young people’s perspectives. We finish with words from one young participant in response to questions about what they had been learning: “We’ve been learning that plants can grow into different types of plants and flowers”. This research study has shown that so can people, when provided with sufficient space and care.
 This was a fluid, dynamic process as some young people joined activities for less than 10 minutes, others stayed for 30 minutes; this depended on their interest in the activities and their emotional state on the day. Engagement was managed by school staff, who had an awareness of individual needs.
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To cite this work, please use the following reference:
Hayes, T. A., Christie, M., Leckie, K., & Grimwood, S. (2022, August 30). Feeling thankful: Therapeutic and educational benefits of agriculture and horticulture. Social Publishers Foundation. https://www.socialpublishersfoundation.org/knowledge_base/feeling-thankful-therapeutic-and-educational-benefits-of-agriculture-and-horticulture/