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How to use Gardening to Improve Fine and Gross Motor Skills in Developmentally Disabled Children.

Updated on October 5, 2014

Children bloom like flowers when allowed to


Gardening is fun. It's good for developing better fine and gross motor control, too.

Let their gardens grow.

Gardening is a joy for so many people around the world.

Sadly, in America, fewer and fewer of our children ever get the opportunities to explore nature that those of us from previous generations were afforded.

From container gardening to school yard vegetable plots, from flower beds to pots of vines, gardening offers children opportunities to commune with nature, learn loads of concepts relating to math, science, nutrition and good work habits, and have real world, meaningful tasks allowing for fine and gross motor manipulation exercises.

The activity is the road on which the student arrives at a successful outcome. You need a map to get there.

The Together Teacher: Plan Ahead, Get Organized, and Save Time!
The Together Teacher: Plan Ahead, Get Organized, and Save Time!

This is something I love. The Cd gives printable pages at the click of your mouse. There is no running to stand in line at the copy machine.

Time is as valuable to a teacher as oxygen. The only way to get things even approximating smooth is to plan, plan, plan. Use this resource to get your plans right the first time. Tweaking a plan to personalize it is a lot easier than a total overhaul.


Safety comes first.

Whenever one intends to work with any child, much less developmentally disabled children, think about potential safety issues first.

Thinking on the front end makes for happy kids on the classroom end.

Here are a few things to consider:

Good gardening tools for children

Radius Garden, NRGSET, NRGSET Ergonomic Garden Hand Tool Set	, Original Green
Radius Garden, NRGSET, NRGSET Ergonomic Garden Hand Tool Set , Original Green

For older functional level students, these will fit better and have good handles for ease of manipulation.



Go for things with good rubber hand grips whenever possible.

A tool should fit easily in the hand that will be using it. Teach good tool safety before the child is presented with the tool.

When teaching tool safety, always do a physical demonstration first. Then, do a guided practice with the child.

Task repetition is essential for retention. Typically, it is believed the average student must hear information eight times for good retention. Special populations will require more and much more in the way of skill maintenance once acquired.

When working with developmentally disabled children and tools, it is imperative to know the child well. Never give a child a tool you think they might hurt themselves with. Stay close enough to the child to assist with or remove the tool as needed.

Be especially mindful of this with physical disabilities such as Cerebral Palsey which may present by uncontrolled muscle movements.


You may laugh, but if being honest, we all know little ones have been known to eat dirt, literally.

While there is scientific data to support the fact that there are certain minerals in dirt the body needs, it doesn't need the chemicals and additives found in some potting soils.

Little bodies don't need toxins that leech into compost from using shredded paper that was glossy or had certain dyes and/or inks. Be sure the soil utilized is safe, just in case someone slips a mouthful when you turn your head to sneeze.

It happens to the best teachers and parents, so be prepared.

Know your bad boy plants.

A Field Guide to Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants: North America North of Mexico (Peterson Field Guides)
A Field Guide to Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants: North America North of Mexico (Peterson Field Guides)

If gardening outside, watch for critters. This book will hep with the plants and the animals.


Plant selections

Some plants are highly toxic to humans.

I love having plants in the classroom, but know which ones to avoid both for decoration and for gardening with children.

Kids do things we don't understand as adults.

They will on occasion just grab a leaf off a plant and go to munching.

The chances of such behavior increase in the developmentally disabled population. With that in mind, be sure every plant you select is child friendly.

This is a BAD plant. Yes, it's very pretty.


While the plant is one of my favorites, it has huge thorns. They hurt. I know, as it lurks in my yard. This is an example of the type of plant that is tempting, but toxic, in classrooms.


Be sure to consider allergies when picking your pretty plants. African Violets are gorgeous. Many people go into sneezing fits around them, so you might want to cross them off your list of candidates. Also, look to weed out plants that have thorns or leaves that have sharp or serrated edges.

Allergy Plants: That Cause Sneezing and Wheezing
Allergy Plants: That Cause Sneezing and Wheezing

If you're like me, you like big pictures you can see up close and personal. Keep common allergy causing plants out of the classroom to keep things running smoothly.


Protective clothing

Grass stains don't always want to come out.

If doing gardening as a classroom activity, moms may not like their little darlings coming home covered in dirt. Provide aprons or smocks and some mats for kneeling on. Keep plenty of soap and Germex available.

Hand washing

No, it's not a given.

Children with developmental disabilities will often require verbal reminders to wash hands immediately after gardening projects.

In schools, water heaters are set at a maximum of 110 degrees to prevent water mixing accidents. If doing gardening outside a school setting, monitoring of the water mixing is required for those students who have yet to master the skill for obvious safety reasons.

How to use gardening to work on fine motor skills improvement.

The only way to learn something is to do it, and then do it again, and again.

To improve fine motor skills one must provide activities requiring fine motor skill usage. Then, observe, look for ways to improve, modify if needed, and repeat.

Pincer movements - This is simply picking up small objects using thumb and index finger. Pincer movements are sometimes hard for some special needs and small children.

The pincer movement is repeated every time a seed is picked up for planting, sorting, storing or transporting. We all know the only way to get better at anything is to practice. Gardening offers a fun way to do just that.

Start small and grow it, just like your plants will be doing.

Start students with larger seeds so the movement will be something they can master successfully without too much effort. As skills improve, introduce smaller seeds. Once students see some of their plants start to sprout, they will be motivated to grow more. The idea of new plants will be well received, even if the seeds are smaller and require a little more effort, at first.

As plants grow, they offer more opportunities for children to work on skills. Pinching off leaves requires usage of the pincer movement as does picking up a fertilizer stick and inserting it. You get the idea. Let them gain kinesthetic knowledge while having fun.

Kinesthetic knowledge can be thought of as body movement knowledge, like that learned when learning to type. Eventually, your fingers just do it and you are not consciously thinking about it, loosely paraphrased.

How to use gardening to work on gross motor skills improvement.

Gross motor skills are things requiring bigger muscle groups as compared to fine motor skills. As with any skill, opportunities for using the skill have to be there for practice. Gardening offers many such chances. The simple act of moving a cup of dirt from a bag of potting soil to a pot is a gross motor movement. To improve gross motor in children, simply increase the difficulty of the movement gradually over time. For example, if using the cup movement, start with one cup and then gradually move up to a bigger two cup container. This will build the strength and stamina required for the movement in the child when done in a positive way over time.

Getting the effort is the hard part.

If you want them to work for you, you have to make it fun for them.

Too many times with some of our special needs darlings, teachers and parents find the child may not be willing to exert the effort required over time to improve the skill.

Gardening provides for an activity most enjoy. As long as the effort for success is increased gradually enough and the fun is high enough, children will naturally try a little harder without noticing it too much. Make sure when designing your gardening activities that you account for each child's particular skill and strength levels. Provide them with a unique gardening task that is within the child's ability to accomplish, but not too easy.

As your garden blooms, you will find the skills will as well.

Check out Ollie's garden below to see one child's journey

All word art and dividers were created at by Vix.

Image credits; Vix

© 2013 Rhonda Lytle

Welcome to the guestbook garden. Please, plant a seed.

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    • Rhonda Lytle profile image

      Rhonda Lytle 3 years ago from Deep in the heart of Dixie

      @Colin323: I love gardening with and for kids. I think there's something about working in the dirt that they automatically love. To be honest, I do too. It breaks my heart to see so many American students deprived of such activities because of folk's desire to help. Wanting to help is a great thing but too often it becomes an obstacle to learning. I can't count how many times I've seen parents and teachers jump in and do something for a kid when it becomes a tiny tad hard. That's the best learning opp for the child. Even if it's not perfect or even close, the smiles of pride in accomplishment beam when they finally do it for themselves. It even beats the blooms :). God bless and thanks bunches for your comment.

    • Rhonda Lytle profile image

      Rhonda Lytle 3 years ago from Deep in the heart of Dixie

      @changrcoacher: Thank you :) Very nice of you to say. God bless and may all of your gardens bloom.

    • profile image

      Colin323 3 years ago

      Gardening is a great way for any child, but particularly those with learning difficulties, to develop patience, responsibility, and gain a sense of pride and achievement in seeing things grow and flourish. Nice lens; an important one too; well done

    • profile image

      changrcoacher 4 years ago

      Such a beautiful lens for a very worthy activity.

    • Rhonda Lytle profile image

      Rhonda Lytle 4 years ago from Deep in the heart of Dixie

      @TanoCalvenoa: Thank you. It always took me aback every year to see how many students have never once had the opportunity to plant anything, to work with the soil. Too many kids think groceries come from the store and have no idea how connected we all are to the earth.

    • profile image

      TanoCalvenoa 4 years ago

      This is a good idea, making something fun kids can do that actually benefits them.

    • Rhonda Lytle profile image

      Rhonda Lytle 4 years ago from Deep in the heart of Dixie

      @SteveKaye: Thank you so much for your most kind comment. This was one of the first lenses I ever did here. Looking back over it now, I see it needs some tweaks ;). God bless and most happy squidding!

    • profile image

      SteveKaye 4 years ago

      Wonderful presentation of excellent ideas. Thank you for publishing this lens. It's great.

    • Rhonda Lytle profile image

      Rhonda Lytle 4 years ago from Deep in the heart of Dixie

      @squidoopets: Most definitely, and what kid doesn't enjoy playing in the dirt?

    • squidoopets profile image

      Darcie French 4 years ago from Abbotsford, BC

      Getting our hands into the Earth is good for all levels of ability :D

    • Rhonda Lytle profile image

      Rhonda Lytle 5 years ago from Deep in the heart of Dixie

      @KonstantinaK: Thank you. It's fun to garden with the kids.

    • KonstantinaK profile image

      KonstantinaK 5 years ago

      What a great lens with lots of ideas and good advise.