Man standing in a vegetable garden and playground.

Nate Bennett in the garden he and his colleagues developed for young patients at Ellimatta House.

Outdoor play is good mental health medicine

Nov 27, 2023

The work of many hands, hearts and minds is changing lives at Ellimatta House, thanks to the installation of the Grow and Play project.

The grounds around the facility, which provides Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, now include a play area and vegetable garden.

In a world where screens provide amusement, education, and time-wasting, returning to the simple art of play can be challenging, and the flow-on benefits of gross motor skills and energy burning are lost. For children and teens with complex needs, play, climbing on the playground, tinkering in the vegetable patch, or sitting outside can be a more comfortable way to speak with a mental health clinician than in a consultation room.

Being outside and active is a great form of therapy, particularly for children who may struggle to express their feelings in words alone, said project coordinator Child and Adolescent Mental Health Clinician Nate Bennett.

Alongside his colleagues from Port Macquarie and the Safeguards clinicians at Coffs Harbour, Nate applied for funding to expand on a previous upgrade project, which established a bush tucker garden and yarning circles to encourage teens to open up about their struggles and talk with staff about their wellbeing.

The previous upgrade was funded by a Closing the Gap Grant. Grow and Play was funded by a $24,250 NSW Health Sustainable Futures Innovation Fund grant.

The projects attracted keen interest from colleagues, volunteers and local businesses willing to roll up their sleeves and help construct the garden and play area. The garden and play equipment are custom-made from recycled and upcycled local timbers and supplies.

The vegetable garden includes a clever composting system to reduce food waste from the facility. Talking about the ‘worm towers’ and munching the veggies grown in the garden are handy conversation starters with children, young people, their families, and carers as they enjoy the space.

In the weeks since the project’s completion, Nate said the space is already making a difference to their young clients and families.

“We’ve seen positive changes in some of our clients with complex and challenging behaviours,” Nate said.

“Through play, they’re opening up, gaining confidence, expressing their feelings and learning self-regulation behaviours to carry into everyday life in the community and at home.”

Click on the photo below to scroll through the garden.

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