Hints & tips for gardening with SEN students

Information sheet

This useful guide will help students to gain the most from their gardening sessions

  • School term: All year round
  • Level of experience: No experience needed
  • Subject(s):

This resource offers advice to all schools wanting to undertake gardening projects with pupils with Special Educational Needs.

Group Size
It is recommended to have a maximum of 4 pupils in a group, with at least one member of school staff. The group size will depend on the pupils' needs, for example primary groups may be less distracted when there are only 2 or 3 pupils. Where staffing allows, 1:1 working can be particularly beneficial.

Length of session
Primary – sessions up to 30 minutes work best in terms of concentration.
Secondary – session length of 50 minutes – 1 hour is often enough. Some schools offer double sessions up to 1 hour 40 minutes, but need to include a range of activities so there is choice and variation during session. Realistically a 50 minute timetabled session allows 35-40 minutes in the garden, as time needs to be included for changing and getting outside.
Allow all pupils the opportunity for time out throughout the session to rest and reflect; provide them with simple jobs like cleaning tools whilst sitting down.

Weather conditions
In winter some pupils may struggle with the cold, so consider splitting the session to half indoors and half outside. Make sure pupils have clothes suitable to the season. On hot summer days, try to plan as many activities as possible in the shade to minimise exposure to sun and heat. Let pupils have shade breaks and provide water to drink. Ensure pupils have sunscreen in accordance with school’s own policy.

Working in the garden

A ‘show, review and do’ approach works well for many pupils with SEN. This gives pupils the opportunity to try for themselves and then give support where necessary.
Before undertaking any activity, talk through the safety aspects relating to it. Working with a small group of pupils will enable the staff to keep a check on the safety of pupils at all times when in the garden.
A ‘Jobs to do’ board can encourage reluctant pupils to make their own choices and work independently. This technique works well for pupils with Behavioural, Emotional and Social Difficulties (BESD). Pupils are often keen to work independently at the beginning of a session and then pull together to help one another on larger tasks.

Tools & Equipment
Primary pupils can use children’s size tools, spades and rakes. For secondary age students smaller border spades and forks may be more maneageble than adult versions. Trial tools with individual pupils; this is a good way to find out individual preferences.

  • Hand tools are useful for a range of tasks, particularly when working on raised beds.
  • Trowels and hand forks, hand rakes and plastic L shaped dibbers can be a valuable part of the tool kit. 
  • Gloves, either cotton or plastic are essential.
  • Small trugs are useful for weeding, harvesting crops and keeping tools tidy.
  • Kneeler mats make it more comfortable to sit down and work around low beds. Pupils may favour sitting on two mats if kneeling is too uncomfortable.
  • A wheelbarrow is very useful for putting all the equipment in to minimise trip hazards, as well as carrying loads of compost and other heavier items.
  • Measuring sticks provide an easy planting guide. If required, provide a sturdy surface for pupils to lean on when sowing seeds direct in the ground e.g. a kneeling board.
  • Seed sowers can be useful for pupils who may find it difficult to sow seeds evenly.
  • Adapted planting techniques should also be considered such as rolling bulbs or large seeds down drainpipes or dropping them directly into containers.
  • Smaller watering cans with open tops can be easier to carry than full sized ones and can be filled simply by dipping directly into a trug, water butt or container filled with water.

Writing techniques can be supported by school staff in many ways, such as encouraging pupils to make marks or by writing the plant name in dashed writing for the pupil to trace over. For this use larger white plant labels, 15cm by 1.5cm, to provide a greater area for pupils to write on. Pencil is best for writing on these labels.
Out in the garden, schools may choose to make larger interpretation signs for all to see. The best labels for this are Blackboard labels, as these have a larger square top and are useful for large font to display names of different types of plants (such as herbs, vegetables and flowers). Chalk pens are best suited to these labels and can be washed off after use.
Small whiteboards are very useful to write plant names on so that pupils can copy them onto labels.

Planting techniques for seeds, plants and bulbs

Larger seeds, such as broad beans, peas and sunflowers, are easiest to handle for all pupils. It can be useful for adult helpers to hold the seeds on their palms, or put one on the lid of a jam jar or similar, so that pupils can then select a single seed or a pinch of small seed at a time.
Seed sowers can assist with the sowing of small seeds to get a more even spread. Sprinkling of small seeds will have differing degrees of success depending on the dexterity of the pupil.
Seed tapes are available from several seed companies for both vegetables and flowers. The biodegradable tape holds evenly spaced seeds and is easy to lay out in a seed drill. Although they are slightly more expensive than regular packets of seeds, the even spacing reduces the need for thinning out. So there may be an overall cost saving if pupils tend to sow loose seeds in one large clump.

Plug plants for both edible crops and flowers are widely available and can be found in many nurseries or garden centres (local or online). Pupils can find these easier to handle than seed and results will be quicker, as the plant is more advanced in its growth.
Bulbs may be easier to plant, including vegetable bulbs such as garlic or onions. Several types of flowering bulb however can an irritant or toxic. Check this before using with pupils.


Toxic and irritant plants

Schools need to take appropriate steps to ensure that plants in their gardens are appropriate for their pupils. It is very important to check whether plants are poisonous or potential irritants before introducing to a school garden.

Potentially harmful garden plants 

Some edible plants commonly grown in schools have poisonous parts, namely tomatoes and potatoes which both have poisonous leaves and stems. Potato tubers are also poisonous when green.
Growing toxic plants should be carefully considered by a school. Potatoes can be grown in schools where the gardens are enclosed and only accessible to pupils when they were with an adult.

For further guidance please read our resource A checklist of potentially harmful plants and the RHS advice page Potentially harmful garden plants.

Allergies and sensitivities

Ensure that all adults working in the garden are aware of any allergies that pupils are known to have to plants, food, soil, grass, or pollen. Also be aware of pupils with eczema, which may be exacerbated by contact with some plant or soil matter.

Plan activities so that pupils do not have to feel excluded, for example do not harvest strawberries with a group where a pupil has an allergy to this fruit – choose another task and leave the strawberries for a different group.


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