Farm-based occupational therapy is not a commonly available therapy, but we wanted to include it here given that it is such an exceptionally comprehensive and natural approach to care. . . not to mention-kids love it! It can be difficult to find this therapeutic approach. For interested families, we would recommend you contact facilities that offer hippotherapy or equine assisted therapy. They may have other animals, as well as a farm or garden at their facility. In addition, if these activities strike a chord with you, you can take this chapter to your OT and ask her to help you create a home program that integrates these types of activities, with your child’s specific needs in mind.
A cornerstone of occupational therapy is the importance of functional, meaningful activity throughout the human lifespan. Understanding and applying the principles of sensory integration into function can be dynamic and effective.
I started my son Danny on sensory integration therapy when he was four and a half years old. He couldn’t walk more than 10 feet without crashing into something – furniture, the wall, or whoever was unlucky enough to be standing nearby. Once he started school, he would melt down frequently in class, hiding under a table and flapping his hands to calm himself. Child Find, the organization I took him to in hopes that they could “figure him out,” suspected sensory processing disorder and had me begin occupational therapy. But after a year and a half, it became harder and harder to get Danny to go and I was unsure whether he was making progress anyway. So when I heard about Lois and her innovative, farm-based occupational therapy program, I was intrigued.
After a thorough evaluation, she explained aspects of my son that no one had ever been able to figure out. His vestibular, proprioceptive and visual systems were the worst she had ever seen – which is never what you want to hear as a parent, but at least it explained a lot. She then took him around her little farm and introduced him to all the animals. This was actually part of her evaluation, as she watched Danny’s reactions carefully – how he interacted with his environment, whether he was afraid, intrigued or excited, which animals he wanted to touch, how he touched them, and so on. Danny, who is still a huge animal lover, was hooked.
For the next four years, I drove the hour to Lois’ farm once a week, every week. Danny helped take care of his favorite animals, the chickens (they are a particularly good animal to work with for balance and visual/motor issues – if you want to improve focus and high-speed coordination, try catching a chicken!). He also groomed and cared for other animals, learning to be careful and to adjust to each animal appropriately. He and Lois did numerous farm chores: churning butter, making ice cream, helping in the garden, fixing fences and on and on. Lois always seemed to be able to tell exactly where he was on a given day, and chose activities with both his preferences and specific therapeutic goals in mind. She also brought music and storytelling in, in order to activate the frontal lobe and integrate higher functions along with the deeper-level nervous system strengthening and organization.
After four years of this – as well as Therapeutic Riding once a week and a comprehensive home program – Danny could be in the classroom without melting, stopped slamming into other kids constantly and was even able to play sports, something that turned out to be very important to him. His therapeutic team decided that he could “graduate” from his sensory program. This was welcome news to me, as it meant that I would get a lot of money and time back! Danny, however, was having none of it. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t “help Lois at the farm” any more or why he had to leave “his” animals. “Can I at least spend the night sometimes?” he asked plaintively, through his tears. How many kids, I wondered, are this upset when you tell them they have to end their therapy?
As far as I’m concerned, Lois’ program transformed my son in a fun, meaningful way that taught him valuable skills as well as addressing his issues. I will be forever grateful that I found her. ~ E.T.
Occupational therapy on a farm, with responsibilities that must be done regularly to maintain the land and the animals, can improve sensory processing skills, self-awareness, self-esteem and relationships with others. Farms, like children, involve growth, nurturing, hard work and down-to-earth fun. The connectedness inherent in this way of life can promote healthy change at all levels. For example, one child showed his understanding of the entwined fun and function of therapy on a farm. He stopped what he was doing, looked thoughtfully up at me and said, “At our house we have to make up the chores. Here, they’re real.”
A Closer Look
The interconnection of the natural rhythms of weather, seasons, daily responsibilities, play, music and dance, story and song can bring especially important life experiences to individuals with physical, emotional, or intellectual challenges. When activities have a purpose, children often forget they are “therapeutic” and are more motivated to overcome resistances so that they can enjoy the outcome.
- Children with an aversion to touch may overcome this defensiveness when the goal is to prepare a soil bed for flowers or carrots or pumpkins, or brushing angora rabbits to collect hair for spinning and weaving. I’ve seen many children who are afraid of heights, or simply of leaving the ground, overcome their fears when they need to climb the ladder to the barn loft to get cartons before gathering eggs.
- Children with physical challenges or self-regulation issues can improve the grading of their movements by scattering chicken scratch or scraps gently enough not to startle the chickens, or by gathering eggs from underneath a setting hen without disturbing her. Grooming horses or brushing rabbits also fosters attention to the quality, control and carefulness of their movements.
- For children whose therapeutic goals include improved hand strengthening and function, grasp and release, bilateral coordination, or visual-motor skills, I often have them use hand tools to dig weeds, clip flowers, or hammer nails. Reviving the art of making homemade ice cream, applesauce or cider, of bread-baking, or of churning butter, do more than just strengthen. They’re fun, they’re challenging, they require concentration and coordination, and they encourage pride in learning something new.
- Visual figure-ground problems can be addressed by asking the children to collect dandelion leaves, clover, alfalfa, or mallow for the rabbits. In the process, they discover the difference in shape and touch of each plant, and also learn about the preferences of their favorite rabbit.
- For children with autism, helping to care for farm animals encourages relationship to another being. Some are drawn first to chickens. As their ability to relate to the animal improves, they often turn to warmer, furry mammals such as rabbits or the friendly farm cat or dog. Other children are attracted to llamas, goats, horses or cows, especially if the animals move slowly, in a non-threatening manner.
- Children with learning disabilities will readily engage in math and reading when measuring, cutting, and constructing a wooden nesting box for a mother rabbit and her babies. Others, interested in how the farm supports itself, enjoy researching the cost of animal feed, seeds, and irrigations water. Teams of children practice strategic planning skills and cooperation by devising treasure hunts and trails by directing others to find “something soft” or “a long, pointed leaf” or to pass the plant that “smells like chewing gum.”
- Music can be an integral part of farm therapy, just as music has always been part of the everyday life of more earth-connected cultures. There are plenty of animals, birds and nature sounds to imitate. Songs of introduction and recognition when groups meet at the beginning of a session, songs for transitions between activities, songs describing the steps within a chore, and songs of farewell at the close of a session don’t require an operatic voice. Spontaneous songs, perhaps sung to a familiar melody but with words that describe what is happening in the moment, become part of the fun, the memory of how tasks are sequenced, and of learning.
Employing the ideas and principles of farm therapy is possible on a roof garden, backyard gardens, and window gardens. The urban garden movement is growing, and in many cities, even having a back-yard flock of chickens is permitted.
Skylar, a non-verbal three-year-old with autism, expressed the importance and joy of this outdoor, farm connection quite well. One day, he walked hand-in-hand with his therapist as she sang in cadence with their steps about what they saw along the path. They happened upon “farmer John” who was transplanting strawberry plants. Skylar stopped abruptly, saw what John was doing, deliberately walked over to him and crouched down beside him. Skylar picked up handfuls of the rich soil and glowed, crooning in his non-verbal way that “This is beautiful. Keep it up!” While the farmer and the therapist stood in awe, Sklyar stood up, took his therapist’s hand, and they continued their stroll down the farm lane.
Therapy on a farm doesn’t feel like a clinic. It feels like a community. Children take pride in what they learn and in the abilities they develop. The goals the occupational therapist has for clients can be met through the functional activities a farm provides. It’s functional, therapeutic, and most importantly from the child’s point of view, it’s fun.
Resources for More Information
Earthways: Simple Environmental Activities for Young Children by Carol Petrash.
Petrash’s book provides creative, fun, family-friendly outdoor activities that benefit the whole family.
Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv
This book has become a classic. Louv explains what children have lost in becoming so disconnected from nature and then shows us how to reconnect. His ideas are important for parents, schools and communities.
Here are some additional ideas for resources to explore in your community.
Roots & Shoots: An organization guided by Dr. Jane Goodall’s conviction that “young people, when informed and empowered, when they realize that what they do truly makes a difference, can indeed change the world” (from the Roots & Shoots website). Youth are encouraged and guided in creating their own programs. Your child may customize a program that will cultivate the skills he needs in a fun, collaborative way!
4-H: This youth development organization has been around a long time, and for good reason. It has programs in a wide variety of areas – from skills like animal care to sewing and cooking to science and technology projects to leadership development.
Permaculture and gardening: Community gardening and permaculture projects are becoming more and more common. Taking care of a garden can develop sensory, problem solving and physical skills, as well as fostering pride, responsibility and a sense of community.
Humane Society: If working with animals seems to strike a chord, encourage caretaking and relationship skills by fostering an animal at your local Humane Society. Teenagers and adults can volunteer to take dogs for walks or to give attention to cats or bunnies.
KaBoom: “A national non-profit that envisions a great place to play within walking distance of every child in America.”
Children and Nature Network states that “Together we can create a world where every child can play and learn in nature”.
Google “animal assisted therapy,” “pet therapy,” “animals in therapy,” “farm therapy,”
“farm animals in therapy” or “farm therapy programs,” and you will unearth a great deal of interesting information.
About the Author
Lois Hickman, MS, OTR, FAOTA
Lois lives on a small, organic permaculture farm in the foothills of the Colorado Rocky Mountains with her daughter Jennifer and granddaughters Mae and Zahara. Lois developed her extensive program over the last forty years and has helped hundreds of children find greater ease and confidence in the world.