Under the Glass: News from the Greenhouse

Leah Diehl

Thanks to Covid-19, there is not a lot of news to report in terms of the greenhouse or therapeutic horticulture program. While we are anxious to get programming started again, we don’t know yet when that will happen. In the meantime, thought I could share information on some techniques we use in our program.

One of the things I love about the therapeutic horticulture environment is the opportunity for creativity; not just among our participants, but in the way we can work with them. I’ve learned over the years that creative, resourceful thinking in combination with thoughtful intervention means that we can enable individuals to do things that they or others may not have thought possible. This success illustrates the zone of proximal development.

The zone of proximal development (ZPD) was a notion developed by Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934). He is quoted as saying the ZPD is:

  • the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers (Vygotsky, 1978, p.86).

Simply put, the ZPD is the difference between what an individual can do on her own and what she can do with assistance. Although the ZPD was introduced in terms of a child’s learning and development, it has great relevance to many populations, including many of the groups we work with in therapeutic horticulture and horticultural therapy programs.

One critical aspect of the ZPD that has great relevance to horticultural therapy is scaffolding. Scaffolding is the framework we create to bridge the gap between a learner’s actual and potential development levels as suggested in the ZPD. Vygotsky defined scaffolding instruction as the “role of teachers and others in supporting the learner’s development and providing support structures to get to that next stage or level” (Raymond, 2000, p.176). It is important to note that an essential aspect of this theory is that the scaffolds themselves are temporary. As a learner’s abilities increase, the supports are gradually withdrawn, thus promoting their own cognitive, affective, and psychomotor learning skills and knowledge. By the time all the scaffolds have been removed, the learner should be in a position to master the concepts or complete the tasks independently. Therefore, the ultimate goal in scaffolding instruction is for a learner to become an independent problem solver (Hartman, 2002). While independent problem solving may not be possible for every participant in horticultural therapy programs, we surely can help them to become independent in certain tasks using the notion of ZPD and scaffolding.

So, what do scaffolds consist of? According to Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000) they are discussions, activities, and tasks that:

  • Motivate or enlist the learner’s interest
  • Simplify the task to make it manageable and achievable
  • Provide some direction to help the learner focus on achieving the goal
  • Indicate differences between the learner’s work and the standard solution
  • Reduce frustration and risk
  • Model and clearly define the expectations of the activity to be performed

In an educational setting, scaffolds may take the form of cues, prompts, hints, partial solutions, think-aloud modeling, and direct instruction (Hartman, 2002), as well as key questions, storyboards, and outlines. Some ingredients of scaffolding are predictability, playfulness, focus on meaning, role reversal, modeling, and nomenclature (Daniels, 1994). And again, these scaffolds are gradually removed as the learner begins to master the concepts or tasks presented.

We can incorporate the use of the ZPD into horticultural therapy programming using many of these same types of scaffolds as a way to learn horticulture information and techniques, communication methods, and even compensatory strategies. Creating an effective ZPD means meeting the participant where they are, physically, intellectually, and emotionally. The horticulture environment gives us so much to work with, and that’s where the creativity comes in: matching needs, interests, and resources.

I’m looking forward to thinking about some new ways to incorporate the ZPD into our sessions and hope we can bring our participants back to the greenhouse before too long.

Bransford, J., Brown, A. & Cocking, R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, and experience & school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Daniels, H. (1994). Literature circles: Voice and choice in the student-centered classroom. Markham: Pembroke Publishers Ltd.
Hartman, H. (2002). Scaffolding & cooperative learning: Human learning and instruction. New York: City College of City University of New York.
Raymond, E. (2000). Cognitive characteristics: Learners with mild disabilities. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Elizabeth “Leah” Diehl, RLA, HTM
Lecturer, Dept. of Environmental Horticulture, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
Director of Therapeutic Horticulture, Wilmot Botanical Gardens, College of Medicine