Farm Therapy: A Natural Approach to Improve Sensory Integration

by Lois Hickman, OTR

Occupational therapy on a farm, with real jobs that must be done regularly to maintain the land and the animals, improves sensory integration, self-awareness, 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 children with developmental delays.

The interconnection of the natural rhythms of weather, seasons, daily responsibilities, play, music and dancing, story and song can bring especially important life experiences to individuals with physical, emotional, or intellectual challenges.

  • Children with an aversion to touch may overcome this defensiveness when the goal is preparing a soil bed for flowers or carrots, or brushing angora rabbits to collect hair for spinning and weaving. An incentive for conquering the fear of being off the ground may be climbing 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 gently enough not to startle the chickens, or by gathering eggs from underneath a hen without disturbing her. They may also learn how to brush the rabbits or groom a horse.
  • For children whose therapeutic goals include improved hand strengthening and function, grasp and release, bilateral coordination, or visual-motor skills. Using tools can be an effective treatment. Cranking an old-fashioned ice cream maker, pressing cider, or churning butter, can revive lost arts. It fun to learn hands on skills that strengthen the body while encouraging an appetite for, as well pride in, the end product.
  • For children with autism, helping to care for farm animals encourages relating to another being. Some are drawn first to chickens. As their relatedness improves, they often turn to warmer, fuzzier, more limbic mammals such as rabbits or the friendly farm cat. Other children are attracted to llamas, 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, like researching the cost of animal feed, seeds, and irrigation water, as well as reaping the profits from eggs or produce. Teams of children practice strategic planning skills by devising treasure hunts and trails and 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 been part of the everyday life of “primitive” 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 and the learning.

Employing the ideas and principles of farm therapy is possible, with or without an actual working farm. Roof gardens, backyard gardens, even window gardens, can provide an opportunity to enrich lives and give a stronger sense of connection with the earth and community.

Skylar a non-verbal three-year-old with autism, expressed the importance of this 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 John, who was transplanting strawberry plants, Skylar stopped abruptly, saw what was going on, deliberately walked over to John and crouched beside him.

Skylar picked up handfuls of the rich soil and glowed, seeming to say, “This is good. This is beautiful. Keep it up!” While the farmer and the therapist stood in awe, Skylar arose, took his therapist’s hand, and they continued their stroll down the farm lane.