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Nature-based interventions as a context for youth development

The aim is to measure the impacts of interventions that involve animals, plants, or nature on youth development, health, and wellbeing.

Nature-based interventions may promote positive development by offering specific opportunities for youth to engage in reciprocal human-animal relationships that may elicit positive psychosocial behaviors that, in turn, can enhance adaptive emotion and behavior regulation through social and emotional skill building. Green Chimneys, located in Brewster, NY, is a residential treatment and special education facility for students with serious psychosocial challenges. IHAC's research group is documenting and measuring the impacts of a wide variety of interventions across the campus that incorporate animals, plants, and nature. As part of this effort, a new methodology, necessitated by studying such a complex clinical environment, is being developed to measure the effects of the programs on self-regulation skills and positive youth development. This methodology, referred to as a Relative Efficacy Map, is anticipated to reveal unique insights into the impacts and mechanisms of nature-based interventions at Green Chimneys and other complex clinical environments.

Documentation Report

Phase I of IHAC Research's efforts to study the impact of Green Chimneys’ unique nature-based programs on outcomes for the students who attend Green Chimneys School involved the completion of a detailed documentation report. The research team first conducted a comprehensive review of the relevant research literature to evaluate the impact of nature-based interventions on the social and emotional learning and positive youth development of children and adolescents with psychosocial and special education needs. Research team members then directly observed Green Chimneys’ programming and conducted interviews with staff to gain further understanding of the diverse nature-based interventions offered to students and their apparent effects. Download the full Green Chimneys documentation report below.

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Qualitative Studies

Phase II of IHAC's Green Chimneys research portfolio includes a series of qualitative studies that used semi-structured interviews with over 100 Green Chimneys staff members across the farm, school, clinical, and residential life departments at Green Chimneys.

Human-Animal-Environment Interactions in Special Education

One study focused on describing special education teachers’ lived experiences in using nature-based interventions to support youth social-emotional learning outcomes. Almost universally, teaching staff perceive nature-based interventions to effect marked improvement in:

  • Prosocial behavior
  • Caregiving and nurturing
  • Connection to animals, plants, and humans
  • Curiosity and excitement about learning

“These kids want to give, but it's hard when you don't trust humans anymore. You don't know what's around the corner in the classroom, but you know that the animal is steadfast.”

While staff acknowledged occasional or temporary challenges and barriers to student participation, overall, the nature-based activities are viewed as an essential component of the Green Chimneys education model. You can access the full article in the Journal of Youth Development below.

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Human-animal-environment interactions as a context for youth social-emotional health and wellbeing

This study focused on synthesizing practitioners’ perspectives on processes of change, key implementation considerations, and challenges when delivering interventions that involve animals, plants, and nature. Participants included staff who delivered interventions using equines, canines, farm animals, horticulture, and natural environment contexts. Practitioners shared that HAEIs:

  • Afforded youth with valuable opportunities
  • Supported improved mood
  • Facilitated relationships and self-regulation
  • Strengthened self-conception

In my program, if theyre carrying a bale of hay and its too heavy, a[nother] student will ... [say], ‘here, I [can] carry this side, you carry that side.’” Another staff explained, they thrive when they feel like theyre helping somebody else and they are not [the ones] being helped.

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Animal-assisted interventions as an adjunct to therapy for youth

The third study in this topic area examined the utility of animal-assisted therapy as an adjunct for youth with significant psychosocial challenges who may have low engagement in traditional therapy. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with clinical staff including social workers, psychologists, and counselors. Clinicians predominantly experienced that, when used as an adjunct to existing evidence-based practice, animal-assisted therapy:

  • Gave youth opportunities to contribute
  • Enhanced their sense of safety
  • Supported self-regulation
  • Increased engagement in therapy
  • Facilitated youth relationships with clinicians and others

"The kids don’t come in that way, they come in thinking that the future is going to be nothing but more trouble, like the trouble they’ve already had. They don’t really see their future as something that they would really enjoy. But I think the farm programs are a part of their changing their attitude.”

IHAC Research is now focusing on conducting two additional studies with the students at Green Chimneys to gain insights into the first-hand, lived experiences of the benefits and challenges of nature-based programs for non-typically developing youth. This will elucidate impacts of these programs on youth development and provide opportunities for further analysis to assess how student and staff perspectives may diverge or converge.