Green Chimneys, a fully functioning academic school for “special learners” in Putman County has 110 day and 100 residential students. The school works specifically with children ages 5 to 18 who are either dealing with psychological issues or are on the autism spectrum. These are children who have not experienced success in traditional public schools. Children are referred to Green Chimneys from school districts throughout New York state and each child has an Individual Education Plan (IEP).
It’s Green Chimneys’ therapeutic approach to special education that makes their school extraordinary. They offer students the opportunity to interact with nature through their Farm & Wildlife Center where the students care for animals and un-releasable wildlife, as well as tend to the gardens.
This provides education inside and outside the classroom, as well as the unique therapeutic value that nature-based programming affords.
Michael Kaufmann, the director of the Farm & Wildlife Center and The Sam and Myra Ross Institute, which is Green Chimneys’ advocacy and research entity focused on education and practices in human-animal interaction, says there are more than 200 animals in the program. “We are home to a vast array of animals including horses, cows, pigs, dogs, sheep, goats, and chickens,” says Kaufmann. “The care of these animals is embedded in the daily life of the students, for both therapy and education.”
There are also some 50 birds in the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. “Because these birds are not domesticated, students do not provide hands-on care for these birds, which include owls, hawks, falcons, and vultures.” The birds arrive injured with the goal to rehabilitate and release them back into the wild. “The Wildlife Center offers an educational component,” says Kaufmann. “The students learn about boundaries with wildlife and observe the process of the birds’ healing and release.” Much like Green Chimneys’ goal for the students, which is to return to their family and home school district.
Most students arrive at Green Chimneys discouraged from their school failures. “By connecting with nature the program looks to create a mind shift, if you will,” says Kaufmann. “The nature connection can have a profound effect on the students, helping to create trust and enthusiasm.”
As a therapeutic tool a student’s social worker, speech or occupational therapist can take the student to the farm or garden and conduct their session there. This helps to build a bridge with nature and the adult as well. Or the student can participate in Animal-Assisted Activities, which Kaufmann describes as interactions almost vocational in nature. And sometimes participation is a mixture of both.
“When the students become caretakers of the animals all of a sudden they are not focused on themselves or their failures but the fact that a little lamb needs them,” he says. “This raises their self-esteem and helps them make positive emotional connections. Education follows in short order – the students are measuring the animal’s food and a variety of other tasks that serve as pre-academic skills.”
Field horticulture is also a place of learning and healing. It can also teach disappointment. “We had a tomato blight last summer and the students had to deal with the ramifications,” says Kaufmann. How the program works is individual for each student. Some children develop a greater frustration tolerance, others learn to become less self-centered and more empathetic - all of which translates into their daily life.
Kaufmann says he sees many children thrive. When one 8-year-old boy arrived at Green Chimneys’ residential program he was extremely food focused. Breakfast is scheduled at 8 a.m. and this youngster was assigned the job of feeding the ponies at 7:30 a.m. with his teacher. It was especially difficult for him to have to tend to the ponies before he had his breakfast. But after a few months he made a connection with the ponies. One day when his teacher explained they had to go to breakfast this same child – who now had learned empathy and self-control – explained they would go, but first they had to finish feeding the ponies.
Whether it’s digging in the soil for an hour, feeding ponies or measuring food for a hawk, Kaufman says interaction with nature is very healing. He says they don’t start with big expectations – but it seems clear they get measurable results.
Jean Sheff is editor of Westchester Family.