Why the Wild Things Are

Animals and nature in the lives of children.

Green Healing

Here is how nature therapy helps troubled children.

Winding down a country road in upstate New York, a bucolic vista of low white clapboard farm buildings comes into view.  This is not what one imagines as a residential treatment center for children with educational and emotional disabilities.   In fact, on closer look, Green Chimneys Children’s Services (or just Green Chimneys, as most call it) upends most every preconception.   This 66 year old complex of schools, residences, health center, farm and garden – named for its distinctive green chimneys -- has become a national and world-wide model of a therapeutic milieu based on engagement with nature and animals.  Inspired by the vision of its founder, Dr. Samuel B. Ross, Jr., affectionately known to all as “Rollo” Green Chimneys aims to provide an “enriched treatment setting that brings people together with animals and plants in a mutually beneficial relationship” (www.greenchimneys.org).  About 200 students share this setting with over 300 farm and wild animals.  A walk to the wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center might find you face to beak with a bald eagle, a peregrine falcon or an osprey, each recovering from a broken wing or damaged leg. At the farm, horses, cows, pigs, sheep, ducks –even several camels--greet you with a chorus from “Old MacDonald.” In the kitchen, a chef prepares meals with Green Chimneys’ own organic garden produce. 

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        The idea here goes beyond providing a pastoral shelter for inner city kids, many of whom have experienced trauma.  The animals, plants, and nature together form a nature-assisted therapy to heal children through principles of nonviolence, open communication, social responsibility, shared governance and emotional intelligence.  To this end, Green Chimneys is an open campus, welcoming not only the public to stroll the grounds, but hosting community based preschool, kindergarten and summer camp.  Here, engagement with animals and nature helps to enrich the experiences of typically developing children, and opens the Green Chimneys philosophy to the wider world.  Green Chimney residents reach out to other communities as well.  For example, the students show off the animals, and explain their care and characteristics at “Farm on the Moo…ve,” a program bringing farm animals to New York City classrooms for “show and tell”. 

        What’s behind such nature-based therapy?  One influence is the concept of biophilia, which argues that humans have a natural, inborn responsiveness to nature and living things.  Human evolution was embedded in the natural world of animals and plants, and hence, although we nowadays are glued to our smartphones and computers, our genes remain attuned to nature.  A second influence comes from growing evidence that relaxed, friendly animals can exert a calming yet focused reaction in both children and adults.  Watching fish swimming in a fish tank, reading to a dog, stroking a cat – all have been shown to reduce signs of stress. Finally, for some traumatized children coming to Green Chimneys, the humans in their lives have been frightening agents of destruction.  Mistrust in others becomes a survival tactic. These children might nuzzle a horse or stroke a lamb, yet keep their distance from people.  For all these reasons, the Green Chimneys approach argues that for children recovering from trauma, feeling safe and calm through involvement with animals and nature opens the gates to effective treatment.   

        Residential treatment models like Green Chimneys don’t come cheap.  In a time of shrinking resources, such programs are under pressure to justify their considerable costs. In addition, interventions that care for children away from their homes and families—currently over 50,000 U. S. children are in residential treatment of some kind-- have fallen into disfavor.  Awareness of unethical and abusive practices in some institutions, coupled with recognition that children do best when families are involved, has challenged residential treatment.  Most children at Green Chimneys do not have a viable family situation that can support their treatment at home.  For many, other more conventional approaches have failed.  Still, the goal of Green Chimneys is to involve family members in their children’s care and to return children home as soon as possible. (The average stay is about two years.) 

        How can we evaluate the effectiveness of nature-based therapies such as those at Green Chimneys?  Rigorous studies are lacking, and evidence remains anecdotal.  However, the recently established Sam and Myra Ross Institute for Education and Research on Human-Animal Interaction (on whose advisory board I serve) promises to jumpstart needed research.  While we await definitive results, Green Chimneys continues to nurture children day by day with animals, plants and nature.

Gail F. Melson, Ph.D., is Professor of Child Development and Family Studies at Purdue University.

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