Children Flourish in Healing Gardens

By Holly Reid

When Jill put a birdhouse outside her granddaughter’s window at ChildServe in Johnston, Iowa, she noticed immediately that Jordyn really perked up. She looked for other ways to increase Jordyn’s access to nature.

ChildServe, which helps children with special health care needs, has a playground at one end of the campus; however, it was at such a distance that most residents could only stay a few minutes before they would need to leave to recharge their wheelchairs. A courtyard was right outside many of the full-time residents’ rooms. But few residents or their families used the courtyard – it was an uninviting, institutional-looking space, mostly concrete and hard lines.

Knowing how much her granddaughter enjoyed nature, Jill would take Jordyn out to the courtyard. She began to wonder what could be done to improve the space and approached ChildServe with the idea of creating a more natural setting. Studies show that three to five minutes spent looking at areas dominated by trees, flowers or water can reduce tension and pain and induce relaxation.

Through working with ChildServe leadership, therapists, and the children themselves, we were able to create a healing garden that transformed the underutilized space into a thriving, welcoming area where plants and structures are all designed to stimulate the children’s senses and promote wellness.

ChildServe is among many medical facilities nationwide that have seen the benefits of healing gardens. In the past, healing gardens, or even landscaping in general, were not a priority in medical campus construction, often being engineered out of the design as a cost savings. However, as studies have shown their value – reducing anxiety, blood pressure, muscle tension and pain, healing patients faster – more medical facilities have begun incorporating them.

In “Healing Gardens: Therapeutic Benefits and Design Recommendations,” studies showed that 2/3 of people choose a natural setting to retreat to when stressed, and 95% of people said they felt more calm and balanced after spending time outside.

A study of patients who underwent gallbladder surgery showed that those who had a view of nature tolerated pain better, slept better, reported less stress, and spent less time in a hospital. The Joint commission for Accreditation of Hospitals (JCAHO) recommends that “patients and visitors should have opportunities to connect with nature through outside spaces, plants, indoor atriums and views from windows.”

A connection to nature can provide:

  • Improvement in overall sense of well-being and hopefulness
  • Relief from symptoms
  • Stress reduction – lowers blood pressure
  • Opportunity for exercise and offer a sense of control/choices
Private funding has also helped increase healing gardens’ incorporation. At ChildServe, a committee – which included Jill and ChildServe staff – was able to fundraise over $360,000 in just nine months. Local businesses and clubs donated many of the materials used in building the garden, such as pavers and trees, as well as proceeds towards the wheelchair swing.

Special Features of the ChildServe Healing Garden:
  1. Electrical outlets are placed throughout the garden so that wheelchairs can be recharged and the children can stay out longer.
  2. Jordyn’s Playhouse – Voted on by the children, who wanted a fort/castle-like structure. It offers a large shaded area where group activities can take place, in addition to a wheelchair swing that children and their families can use together.
  3. Shade was very important, since most children are reclined in their wheelchairs. In one area, brightly colored shades are used to stimulate those children with trouble distinguishing colors.
  4. Many of the children don’t get opportunities to make decisions or have a say in their daily life. So we created many paths throughout the Healing Garden – this lets the children make the choice of where they want to go
  5. Appeals to the children’s senses:
    • Sound – water structures, ornamental grasses, birds and wildlife
    • Smell – plants such as lavender used
    • Touch –plants have different textures, logs, stone, real grass
    • Sight – bright colors, use of art, variety of plants
By including healing gardens and views of nature facilities can promote environments that offer better well-being for patients and staff. Facilities can also meet current editions of healthcare design standards and achieve LEED credits by incorporating places of respite and opportunities for interface with the natural environment.

Design Guidelines:
  1. 2014 FGI Guidelines for Design and Construction of Healthcare Facilities calls for the Environment of Care (1.2-4) and Views and Access to Nature.
  2. Green Guide for Health Care SS 9.1 Connection to the Natural World: Outdoor Places of Respite (5% of the Net Useable Programmed Area for Patients, Visitors and 2% for Staff).
  3. LEED for Healthcare SS9.2 Connection to the Natural World: Exterior Access for Patients, EQ 8.2 Daylighting and Views of Nature.
  4. Sustainable Sites Initiative- Human Health and Well-being CR 6.7 Places for Mental Restoration.

Holly Reid, ASLA
Holly Reid, ASLA
  I provide creative and sustainable solutions that help people engage with their outdoor surroundings in unique ways. I work to create an inviting outdoor backdrop that makes daily life better.

When my clients and I work together, it is my desire to know them, actively listen to them, and to respond to their needs. My clients feel comfortable with me and are never afraid to ask questions. We accomplish this type of relationship by reviewing project expectations together from the beginning and maintain this level of communication throughout the project.

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