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Teachers in Arizona tap the power of plants to teach kids resilience

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Natural disasters take a toll on mental health, particularly for children. But nature can also provide a cure. From member station KNAU, Melissa Sevigny reports on how a pilot program at an elementary school is tapping into the surprising power of plants.

MELISSA SEVIGNY, BYLINE: Kids at Killip Elementary School have been through more than most. Five years ago, a wildfire burned the forested hillside above the school, leaving a blackened scar. Two years after that, a series of devastating floods tore through the neighborhood.

GAYLE GRATOP: The water came into the building while students were still inside.

SEVIGNY: That's Gayle Gratop, a master gardener at the University of Arizona.

GRATOP: They lost their school, and they were displaced, so they had to leave their neighborhood. So it was just a really stressful time for everybody around here.

SEVIGNY: A new school now stands near the site of the old one. It has airy, open-concept classrooms, one of which is stuffed with green plants.

(CROSSTALK)

SEVIGNY: More than 80% of the students here are Hispanic or Native American, and two-thirds qualify for free lunch. Gratop says they often arrive at her after-school program full of stress. She starts every lesson with a well-being check.

GRATOP: They indicate how they're feeling just simply by closing their eyes and using their thumbs. So if you're feeling good, you put a thumbs up. If you're feeling not so great or just so-so, you're sideways. And if you're not feeling good at all, you put your thumb down.

SEVIGNY: There are a few thumbs down today, but excitement rises in the room when Gratop brings out a bag of tiny, green air plants.

GRATOP: I have something really special.

SEVIGNY: She passes one to each student.

GRATOP: Are plants living things?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Yes, they are.

GRATOP: Yes.

SEVIGNY: The kids get to take these plants home and care for them. It's part of a larger lesson on resilience, how Arizona plants like cactus and agave adapt to difficult circumstances.

GRATOP: Now, are you going to be responsible...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Yep.

GRATOP: ...For these air plants...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: Yes.

GRATOP: ...When you take them home?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: We have to 'cause...

GRATOP: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: ...If we don't be responsible...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #6: They'll die.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: ...Then they won't be able to grow anymore.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #6: They'll die.

GRATOP: Right.

SEVIGNY: Horticultural therapy has been around since World War II, when it was used to care for war veterans. Registered horticultural therapist Pam Catlin says contact with plants raises everyone's spirits.

PAM CATLIN: There is an actual word called biophilia, and it is all about that innate connection between people and plants. And so it's not something we go out and create. It's already there.

SEVIGNY: For children, it's a chance to build self-confidence, learn responsibility and improve their ability to understand the feelings of themselves and others.

CATLIN: You create a really safe environment. When you create a green space, whether it's indoors or outdoors, it creates a sense of safety.

SEVIGNY: And by learning how to care for plants, the kids learn how to care for themselves. Water, nutrients, sunlight - all the essentials are the same.

GRATOP: Who wants to see your beans?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #7: Me.

GRATOP: All right. Come on. Let's bring them on over.

SEVIGNY: The kids are germinating red runner beans under a warm light and damp paper towels.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #8: Mine had rooted.

GRATOP: Ooh.

SEVIGNY: They celebrate the new pale sprouts splitting out of the skin. Then the day ends with another well-being check.

GRATOP: Before we go, let's check back in. How is everybody doing? Remember to close your eyes - thumbs up, thumbs down.

SEVIGNY: This time every kid's thumb goes straight up in the air. For NPR News, I'm Melissa Sevigny. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Melissa Sevigny
Melissa grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science from the University of Arizona and an M.FA. in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University. Her first book, Mythical River, forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press, is about water issues in the Southwest. She has worked as a science communicator for NASA’s Phoenix Mars Scout Mission, the Water Resources Research Center, and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Melissa relocated to Flagstaff in 2015 to join KNAU’s team. She enjoys hiking, fishing and reading fantasy novels.