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Giving Our Patients the Chance to be Caretakers

January 28, 2016

Many say nature heals. It has the ability to create a sense of calm, relaxation and peace. In the case of Lurie Children’s patients and families, it provides an escape from hospitalization for a serious illness.

Robbi Hursthouse, garden play specialist and a horticulturalist therapist, she sees the benefits of nature weekly during Garden Play, the hospital program she has led for 28 years. Created in 1984 by the Founders’ Board, Child Life Department and the Chicago Botanic Garden, Garden Play takes place three Fridays a month and occasional evenings in the Family Life Center. The program, which is offered to inpatients and their families, combines both the knowledge and art of gardening in a therapeutic role.

“It’s thrilling to see how children gravitate toward the plants,” says Hursthouse. “Parents and siblings also find Garden Play very soothing. It’s exciting and really helps the healing process in both an emotional and physical way. Plants and gardening have the ability to make us feel restored and at peace.”

imageDuring the hour and a half sessions, Hursthouse and specially-trained Garden Play volunteers lead parents, siblings and patients through gardening activities. During each session, patients and their families learn about plants native to different countries and cultures, while also learning how to care for the plant at home. For many patients, it’s their first experience with gardening. “Many times a child will come to the Family Life Center not feeling well, or maybe it’s their first time out of their room, and they are overwhelmed. It’s such a joy to see Garden Play help calm anxieties by maximizing a child’s creativity and self-expression, while also allowing them to be social and engage with others.”

One of the biggest benefits that Hursthouse and her volunteers witness is how Garden Play reverses the dependency roles for patients. She says, “When a child is hospitalized, so much control is relinquished or taken away from them. For school-age children, this can be especially difficult to understand. Garden Play gives children something to take care of that is smaller than they are, something that needs them in order to survive. It’s like having a pet without fur.”

For Hursthouse, Garden Play is highly metaphorical to the hospital experience. “Just like a child needs to be nurtured and cared for to grow and heal, so do the plants that the patients and families work with during Garden Play.” Her favorite flower to plant with the children and their families is the amaryllis. Planted as a bulb that looks similar to an onion, the amaryllis teaches the children that you can’t judge a book by its cover. “I like to think of the amaryllis as the official flower of Garden Play. It really symbolizes how beauty is found on the inside,” says Hursthouse. “These flowers can bloom in spite of any hardships, just like our patients overcoming illness.”