Understanding The Therapeutic/Development Benefits Of A Working Biodynamic Farm
(1.1) The activities on a biodynamic farm has to yield to the rhythms of nature. These rhythms have therapeutic qualities within themselves. By being outside, we see the sun moving across the horizon, we hear the birds singing, and smell the fresh air. Through our senses we can orientate ourselves in our environment, and find peace from the pace of the outside world, or the weight of past experiences.
By working on a biodynamic holding, we apply meaning to our activities. The food we are growing, will be sold in the farm shop, and it will be eaten. To grow a vegetable, there are many activities that must take place, each task requires us to develop a relationship to it, we have to act out our role.
Starting we the soil, we have to tend to it. To dig the soil, we have to learn how to use a garden fork correctly. We have to have our hands in the right position, face the right direction, and push down to the right depth. Then we have to co-ordinate our body to lift, and break the soil. Then we use fine motor skills to turn the fork 180°, and use the ends of the prongs to gentle break up clumps of soil.
With the animals, the students are caring for something beyond themselves, which may be an important developmental experience. Especially if the individual didn’t receive enough love, or genuine love from their parents as a child. Animals on a farm are depended on the farmers for their food, and well-being. The students have the important role of feeding the animals on the farm, which is a rhythmic, daily activity.
Each day the animals need to be checked upon, and feed. The sheep, and cows in the field have to counted, to make sure they haven’t escaped.
During harvests times in the garden, students are very engaged. I think it is because the act of taking an apple from a tree, or pulling out carrots from the ground is very visceral. There a few abstractions, when harvesting a cabbage from the market garden, then delivering it 200 meters to the staff in the café. The same can be said about collecting eggs. To many of our students planting a seed is a very abstract concept, it is difficult to understand what it will become. This is especially true for students that haven’t had much experience with a outdoor curriculum before. The task of harvesting is meaningful to the students.
In a biodynamic garden, we understand the importance of birds, insects, and wild creatures to the health of the farm organism. Students are involved in creating habitats for these creatures. We constructed bird boxes in the valley, and students have walked through the valley looking for a suitable tree in an ideal location for a bird. Recently, we have also been cleaning bee hive frames getting ready for the spring. Students have have been sitting by the fire on cold February mornings, scratching the wax and propolis out from the frame grooves, so we can add a new wax foundation. The students are interested in creating habitats for wild creatures, and there is an opportunity for a student to check in on the bird houses or take a look inside the bee hive. So caring for specific habitat gives the student and ongoing responsibility, if it is something they are drawn to.
Students often have the opportunity to plant trees which is a way of impacting the environment. Students are involved in the market garden and management of the land all the way through the year. We try and conduct all of our activities in the garden as consciously as possible, and the students are with us participating in a wide range of tasks. When the last crops have come out of the beds, we add a cover crop, this is an opportunity to explain why we do this, and how it is beneficial for soil to remain covered. We could also compare our methods to more conventional agriculture methods, and work out the benefits and potential drawbacks.
Tools are an essential element of horticulture, we have to choose what ones we need to conduct our work well, and we also have to maintain them. Tools after many benefits to a student. Firstly, tools belong in the shed, and that is where they return once they have been cleaned following a task. This rhythm is very beneficial to students, and indicates clear start and end.
(1.2) If it is raining in the garden then the session will be moved into the polytunnel, where we propagate plants, and grow on several indoor beds. The polytunnel is an essential space during rain. Many students struggle to be outside in the rain, and the polytunnel gives us a space where we can continue to work despite the rain.
On sunny days, I have noticed that students and staff are much more engaged. During these days frequent breaks are also necessary, as some students will find it especially difficult to regulate the heat, and will need plenty of water. Finding suitable jobs that match the weather, will help students to engage, if its hot weather then lighter tasks such as weeding, sowing, and watering, as opposed to digging, turning composts, or heavy lifting.
(1.3) Please refer to Unit 13 (1.1,1.2,1.3,1.4 & 1.5) – Go To Holistic Support & Care – Where I discuss the importance of daily and seasonal rhythms on a biodynamic holding.
Providing Therapeutic & Developmental Activities To Students On A Biodynamic Farm
(2.1) Prior to working with a student, we must read their report. This gives us a great deal of information about the student. We will read a summary of there needs and abilities, that will help us prepare a first session that will accommodate. It also informs us of the best methods of communication for each student.
From the report we learn:
- About the student
- Their aspirations
- Dietary requirement & Allergies
- Medical Background
- Barrier to learning
- Strategies to help learning
- Communication needs
- Risk mitigation
- Risk assessment
The report gives us an understanding of the student before we actually meet them. When a new student arrives in the session for the first time its important to be very warm towards them and welcome them to the workshop. Their is a lot of information that can be gained from their body language. Its important to communicate with them in a way that is preferred for them, which could be through widgets, whiteboard, total communication, sign language/Makaton (if known) or verbally.
Suggesting a short task such as feeding the chickens or watering the plants is best. Feeding the chickens appeals to most students, and is a good way of understanding the students abilities and barriers. The student may start by collecting the chicken food, going into the chicken area, and putting the food in their feeder. Once this is done, the student could be shown how to freshen their water, and then look for eggs.
(2.2) Students will have different physical, emotional, and cognitive abilities, its therefore important to provide task that match the students abilities or that provides an achievable challenge. There is a wide range of tasks in the valley, there is something for everyone. For some students sitting down and pulling the mint leaves of the stem (in preparation for tea) will be a big achievement, while for other mowing the lawn will be a big achievement.
Working in groups often creates the best environment for the students, it allows them to socialise and work with their peers, and ideally more interactions between support workers and staff role modelling social interactions and work ethic. In group, everyone is able to contribute something. Planting seeds is a task that can be done in a team. One student mixes the potting soil with sieved compost, another student fills the pot with the soil, and then another student presses in a seed, and covers.
Some students will require more support then other to complete a task. Some students will require frequent breaks. Some students will require constant encouragement to stay on task.
(2.3) Some example of developmental activities in the garden
|Turning the compost||Gets the body moving, can be done in a group, requires communication, co-ordination of movements|
|Sowing seeds||Fine motor skills, calming, patience, watering, watching the seedlings grow, transplanting out, tending to, harvesting.|
|Feeding the chickens||Caring for something beyond oneself, rewarding, repeatable. The student can take more responsibility each time, and the task can grow to involve cleaning the house, checking for eggs, taking eggs to the café, making the chicken environment more stimulating for the chickens, moving their boundary’s.|
|Building a bird house||Practical skills in using tools. Sawing, hammering, and drilling. Self-generated conscious action to choose a tree for it to be hung on. Revisiting the bird house to check for baby birds|
|Strimming the grass||Requires training – independent skills, responsibility, purposeful|
|Harvesting & Distribution||Sense of purpose – rewarding after many months of caring for a seedling, and then a plant. Also, by delivering produce to the café you know what you are doing is meaningful, and connects with a wider community.|
|Caring for habitats||Caring for something beyond oneself – its an ongoing responsibility but you will feel go if for example a bird moves into a house, or the honey bees are flourishing|
|Environmental Consciousness||We can learn how our individual decisions can impact our environment – and also how our decisions can impact those around us|
(2.4) Communication is key when working with students. Planning sessions in advance allows you to prepare the communication strategies for the session. Each student has a different level of communication needs. Writing a task list on the board is a good way to start the session. Many students will benefit from Widgets or pictures. Widgets can be made online, I have made some for the valley landscape session. There is a widget for each of the typical jobs we do in the valley, but they can also be made within minutes if necessary to help communicate to a student.
We also have a Widgets grid of emotion face, this makes it easier for a non-verbal student to communicate. Saying information simply with lots of repetition really helps the students. A total communication of verbal, with widgets, and body language may help some students understand better.
One of my non-verbal students likes to write the tasks on the whiteboard, then tick them of as we go. When giving options to non-verbal students it important to give a visual or list the option in different orders, as some students will repeat the last task you said without considering the options.
Overall, listening is the most important way of communicating with the students, that involves finding the best medium that the student want to communicate with. I have been surprised by how articulate some students are when given the option to type on a keyboard.
Listening to the body language or noises of a student, will also give you indication of their mood, such as anxious. This then allows you to make an adjustment to make the student more comfortable in the environment, or ask them if they would like another task, or see if they require a break.
(2.5) Following on from the previous passage, when giving feedback to student you should tailor the communication to help them understand. During sessions its important to encourage students, and let them know when they are working well and achieving their targets.
With some of the student, I discuss their targets with them at the beginning of the session, then will let them know if they achieve them at the end.
(2.6) It can take months and years to see the effects of a practical skills therapeutic education on the students. On student in my sessions was given a chicken checklist at the beginning of the term, the idea was that they would take more and more responsibility each week to care for the chickens. For the first few week I had to initiate all of the tasks, but then they started to be more proactive. The student was non-verbal but would say ‘check chickens’ then go and give them food. This shows a clear progression.
The students keep a reflective journal filled with picture, and notes of what they have done. As a tutor I write a short reflection noting whether they met their targets. Looking back through their blue reflective books can help inform how they are developing, and which activities were the most fruitful.
(2.7) We want the students to achieve their goals. Depending on their progress with activities, then we will adapt the sessions to help them continue their development. Ideally, we will build up the activity so they will be able to do more and more independently. For some students, the aim will be towards the students taking more and more conscious action with a task, by creating opportunities for purposeful decision making.
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