Horticulture in Prevocational Training for the EMR Student

P. D. Relf, A. R. McDaniel and D. Chaves

Originally published in J. Voc. Spec. Needs Ed. 4(2):20-21, 25, 32./b

Horticulture is one of the more recent career areas to gain attention and recognition as a general vocational program, and it has been cited or recommended by several authors (Hefley, 1972; Hoitt, 1975; Melwood Horticultural Training Center, 1973; Peck, 1958; Phipps, 1972; Strickland, 1974) as an effective and exemplary program for the retarded. It is the purpose of this article to review the benefits of horticulture as a training tool for the retarded and to offer suggested means of expanding horticulture learning experiences to the retarded child in a prevocational setting.

Benefits of Horticulture as a Training Tool for the Retarded

A commonly stated value of horticulture as a training medium for the mentally retarded is its motivational qualities. Jordan and DeCharms (1959) noted that the achievement motive in retarded children is inferior to that of normal children. This means that special motivation methods must be employed to compensate for this deficiency if learning is to be accomplished. The staff at Sunland Center contend that the primary challenge in working with the mentally retarded is motivation. They reported horticulture to be an unusually successful motivational medium (Blackstock, mimeo). W. Wochler (1975) concluded that the most important element to a vocational program is motivation. Furthermore, he stated that:
"Working with soil and following the cycles of the plant world upon which man is so dependent, bring an involvement and awareness of everything around us. Students who are turned off academically, but who have had an opportunity to express their latent artistic abilities by being exposed to experience in working with live and/or dried floral materials, invariably bring home coveted awards from shows, exhibits, and contests. The satisfaction derived by both the student and the teacher is immeasurable . . . Students who are enrolled in agriculture programs gain profoundly from such a curriculum. It appears to provide a tangible link between the student and his environment."
Contributing to the motivational quality of horticulture is the variety of stimuli it offers the retarded child. Earl Copus, Jr., Director of the Melwood Horticultural Training Center, Inc., states:
"At Melwood, we've found that horticulture has more to interest the handicapped because it is not a routine, mechanical activity, such as stamping out parts of a product or similar function performed in sheltered workshops" (Durbin, 1973).
P. D. Hefley (1973) cited the following benefits of horticulture for the retarded:
Intellectual benefits
attainment of new skills; improved vocabulary and communication skills; an aroused sense of curiosity; increased powers of observation; vocational and prevocational training; stimulation of sensory perception.
Social benefits
interaction within a group; interaction outside a group.
Benefits of emotional growth
improved self-confidence and self-esteem; opportunities for release of aggressive derives; enthusiasm for the future through interest-promoting activities; opportunities for satisfying creative drives.
Physical benefits
development and improvement of basic motor skills; increased outdoor activities.
The philosophy of Ken Stoutamire, Director of Horticultural Therapy at Sunland Center, on the value of horticulture versus other training media for the retarded is expressed in the following: (Blackstock, mimeo)
". . . the retarded are being trained in a profession which is realistic in relation to their capabilities . . . A strong bond is formed when a person assists a seed in the tenuis journey toward maturity. Paradoxically, the person will find that, like the plant, he has grown. His senses become more attuned to his environment. His self-confidence increases as he attributes much of the plant's success to his own efforts. He sees that the work which he has invested is for a very definite reason . . . The self-confidence derived by a retarded citizen through successive positive experiences with the earth and her products contributes to developing better social relationships, greater reliability, more initiative, and ultimately, employability."

Applying Horticulture in Special Education

The general goal of a prevocational horticulture program is to bridge the gap between the regular special education class and the horticulture vocational training or rehabilitation program. As presented in teacher's guides of the Allegheny County (PA) school system (Anonymous, 1972) and the Virginia Division of Vocational Education (Anonymous, 1973), program objectives would include development of an awareness of horticulture in the home and daily living, development of prerequisite skills for employment in the community, and development of basic skills necessary for further horticulture study. The teacher would not teach horticulture as in a regular vocational class but utilize a broad subject approach that encompasses math, language, and other aspects of daily life as they relate to horticulture.
A prevocational horticultural program does not need to be elaborate. Although access to a greenhouse would be ideal, it is by no means necessary. A sunny window or set of plant growth lights would be sufficient to provide classroom plants. Even if adequate light for plant growth is not available in the classroom, an effective program can be designed with imagination. Subject areas that lend themselves well to classroom experiments and discussion include:
The ideal soil for plant growth
bring in different types of soil and test for drainage and ability to hold water. Mix potting soil from perlite, peat moss, and sterilized garden soil.
Plant parts
bring in several different plants for discussing their differences and similarities and the importance of each part.
If light is available, keep them several weeks to observe and measure changes.
The plant's environment
discuss and conduct experiments to show the importance to plants of sunlight, water, air, temperature, and pests. Prepare a bulletin board to illustrate their effects.
Starting plants from seed
sprout mung beans in the classroom. Discuss parts of the sprout and young seedling as it develops. If light is available, continue growing a few seeds in the jar and observe changes. Also, grow a few in soil and compare growth. Eat the bean sprouts raw in a salad or cooked in a wok. Discuss nutrition and other cultures.
Starting plants from cuttings
make cuttings of easily rooted plants (Coleus, Swedish Ivy, Wandering Jew, etc.). If light is available, maintain them in the classroom and hold a plant sale when the cuttings are well rooted. If no light is available, allow students to take the cuttings home to raise.
Starting plants from the grocery shelf
bring in produce that sprouts easily (carrots, avocado, orange, dried beans). Start new plants. Allow students to eat the produce. Discuss relationship between what we eat and growing plants.
Beautifying the home and school
tour the grounds of the school or someone's home. Make a leaf collection of trees and shrubs. Discuss how they make things more beautiful through color, shape, texture, odor, etc. Make a bulletin board of tools to take care of the grounds. Make a "herbarium" scrapbook of dried, pressed, and mounted plants.
Careers in Horticulture
visit a greenhouse, nursery, vegetable market or other horticultural business. Have a horticulturist visit the class. Show movies of different jobs in horticulture. Collect pictures of people working with plants and make displays. Role play job interviews.
In both vocational and prevocational settings, a variety of basic academic skills can be developed in conjunction with the horticultural program. Examples of specific tasks in skill development are given in the following discussion. These are intended only to be suggestive, not comprehensive.
Language Arts Concepts
The language skills developed in performing horticultural tasks include both oral and written expression as well as vocabulary development. The ability to express oneself orally and to respond to oral directions is integral to successful completion of many horticultural jobs, particularly those related to the sale of horticultural products. Role playing is useful, particularly inclusion of job interviews, interaction with customers, and giving and receiving task instructions. If video tapes can be made and viewed for self-appraisal, the value of the role playing is increased.
The presentation of oral reports based on actual horticultural work experience or on readings from written material develops self-confidence as well as providing an opportunity to reinforce new terms. The actual completion of simple projects based on oral instructions has a higher motivational value than simply giving reports or role playing. Therefore, when possible, real-life settings in which the student can demonstrate oral comprehension are very useful.
Specific horticultural activities may lead to small group discussions and additional learning experiences. For example, the sprouting of mung bean seeds can readily be accomplished in the classroom. Discussions from this project can start with the simple methodology and evolve to recipes, food and nutrition, and eating habits of Oriental and other cultures. Therefore, it has implications for teaching experiences in science and social science as well as language arts. Opportunities for written expression can be as basic as simple labeling or as complex as researching the library for written reports. All written material must be geared to the group using it.
Labelling may include tools and material, plants being grown in the classroom, and bulletin board or scrapbook pictures. Games can be very useful such as Find-the-Word using horticultural terms or modifications of this. Students can be asked to keep a written log book of horticultural activities. A student-written, class newspaper provides an excellent opportunity for the individual students to write about the horticulture activities and the plants personally grown. Ads for the sale of plants could also be prepared.
Material should be available for silent reading and occasions presented for demonstrating the knowledge acquired. An example of this might be the ability to follow directions on a seed package.
Math Concepts
Math concepts are particularly evident and readily acquired in horticultural tasks. Abstract concepts of basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division can be made very real in plant propagation classes by counting the number of seedlings in a flat or dividing a stem into three equal cuttings to be rooted. Liquid and weight measurements are important in fertilizing and watering plants and in mixing soil. Fractions can be used in many activities (plant 1/2 of the seeds) and the importance of ratios understood (mix 1 part sand, 1 part peat moss, and 1 part soil). Other math areas that allow direct application in working with plants include:
Reading a thermometer - measure soil and air temperature in the greenhouse.
Reading a clock - set the timer for the plant lights.
Using a calendar - determine when it will be warm enough to plant seedlings outdoors.
Money - determine cash value of 20 plants at 65 cents; determine change due the customer on a plant sale.


Vocational education horizons for the retarded are broadening as recommended occupational offerings have diversified. Horticulture is a more recent vocational area that has gained recognition for training the E.M.R. student, and opportunities for this training have become more prevalent in both special and regular vocational programs.
Prevocational instruction is valuable for preparing the E.M.R. student for a smooth transition into full vocational training. Classroom instruction in horticulture can be readily adapted to prevocational needs, and it incorporates opportunities for development of other academic skills such as language arts and math.


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__________. Preparing E.M.R. Students for Vocational Horticulture. Published by the Division of Vocational Education, Department of Education, Richmond, Virginia, 1976.
Blackstock, P. Hortitherapy at Sunland Center. Marianna, Florida, (Mimeo).
Durbin, L. New horizons for the mentally handicapped. Children Today 2 (1973), 64-65.
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__________. Horticulture: a therapeutic tool. Journal of Rehabilitation 39 (1973), 27-29.
Hiott, J. A Hortitherapy Program for the Mentally Handicapped. Research series No. 157. Horticulture Department, The South Carolina Agricultural Experiment Station, Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina, 1975. Jordan, T. and R. DeCharms. The achievement motive in normal and retarded children. American Journal of Mental Deficiency 64 (1959), 457-466.
Melwood Horticultural Training Center. Horticulture: An Exceptional Training Medium for Mentally Retarded Females. Final Report. Demonstration Grant No. RD-12-p-55109/3-03, Upper Marlboro, Maryland, 1973.
Peck, J. R. The Marbridge plan: A Texas experiment in rehabilitation for mentally retarded youth. Exceptional Children 24 (1958), 346-350.
Phipps, L. J. Handbook on Agricultural Education in Public Schools. Danville, Illinois: The Interstate Printers and Publishers, Inc., 1972.
Strickland, C. G. Job training placement for retarded youth. In Daniels, L. K. 1974. Vocational Rehabilitation of the Mentally Retarded. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1974.
Wochler, W. Teaching the disadvantaged and handicapped. Agricultural Education 47 (1975), 245-246. (Originally published in Journal for Vocational Special Needs Education, pp. 20-21, 25. Winter 1982.)