This week’s post is written by Michael Kaufmann, Green Chimneys Farm & Wildlife Center Director. Michael is also head of The Sam and Myra Ross Institute at Green Chimneys which shares our best practices in nature-based programs and therapies with the global human services and education communities.
Yikes – this is it – the biennial gathering of 250 eager animal-assisted education and therapy professionals from all over the world for 2 days of learning at Green Chimneys! The Human-Animal Interaction Conference starts tomorrow, April 24, and as host, Green Chimneys not only shares how we engage our students in supportive relationships with farm animals, wildlife, horses and dogs; we welcome leaders in the field from other organizations to impart knowledge and exchange ideas.
Sure, attendees come here to learn about animal interaction but what these good folks don’t know yet is that we will also introduce them to the “stealth weapon” in our nature-based program arsenal: our gardens. For some reason rich opportunities offered by horticulture education/therapy has had very little cross-pollination with animal-facilitated educational programs and therapies. As someone who equally appreciates what animals and plants can do for people, this has always bothered me.
Why do some animal people almost wear it as badge of pride that they are “terrible with plants,” yet they would walk through briers to save a bunny or to feed a hungry dog? Plants aren’t all that different from animals; they require knowledge, care, consistency and sensitivity.
We are often asked if there are other schools like ours that incorporate animals and gardening to help kids with special needs. Sure there are. But what really sets Green Chimneys apart is how we see “nature” as being a broad umbrella; an umbrella which provides children multiple chances to connect with another being through immersion in a truly living, natural setting that includes animals of diverse species and plants of many kinds. The volume and variety of opportunities to connect is echoed in the vibrancy of our setting, allowing children to build relationships organically.
What Green Chimneys has done since 1947 is slowly starting to be validated by researchers. International discussion among academics about the results of “nature deficits” in urban populations, the need for children to have more contact with nature, and a raised appreciation of food sources globally, all are concrete signs of a growing understanding and a new ethic.
Some of the same processes that are at work when transplanting seeds – gentleness, being thorough and learning with wonder – are also at play when caring for a flock of baby chicks. From morning to evening, the farm setting frames the day for the children and staff here. What we try to teach is a greater respect and appreciation for the living world around us and how life-sustaining it is. As the seasons pass, the children may feed sheep in the morning with the farm teacher and spend the afternoon helping to tap maple trees for sap with our gardening staff.
It’s really so obvious isn’t it? Our kids get to see how rain showers fall on the asparagus patch in early spring, they experience the oppressive humidity of August as it lays heavy on the farm and marvel at the ice crystals on the barn windows in January. Relationships are built. The orderly passing of seasons shapes the daily routine of campus life. The timeless rhythms of nature, settle and calm turbulent lives and histories. Growth and change happen. That’s the secret.
Sure, we have great therapists, nurses, licensed teachers and fabulous child care staff – it’s a team effort to support our students and there is a lot of expertise at work. But enriching our school with animals, ornamental plants, vegetable gardens and well-loved trees is central to our success.
So let those “animal therapy people” come to the conference, we will show them what Green Chimneys is about! And if any make a joke about their “black thumbs,” we’ll just send them to the green house for quality time with garden teacher Michelle Marquez!
Plants, animals and people – at the core – all need the same things to thrive.
So many words for such a simple truth!