Taking therapy into green spaces

When Productive Garden Project Officer Claire Boyle mentioned the speech pathology team were running sessions in the garden, the connection was far from obvious, and intriguing to say the least. In a unique and innovative approach, the Productive Garden has become more than a physical rehabilitation space, reimagined as an opportunity for communication, which is at the heart of speech pathology.

The speech pathology team at Royal Rehab has embraced the Productive Garden as a wonderful context in which to work with clients and residents.

Vanessa Hayward is one of the speech pathologists at Royal Rehab. Previously a teacher, Vanessa pursued a Masters of Speech and Language Pathology after exposure to the work of early intervention Speech Pathologists which sparked her interest in the discipline.

“I think there’s a lot of similarity between teaching and Speech Pathology as both professions facilitate learning. With children, learning focuses on acquiring new skills, while after brain injury adults are often re-learning skills. Whether it’s teaching or speech pathology, it also really helps if you enjoy working with people.”

Vanessa is also a resident green thumb, developing an interest in gardening from an early age, and currently a member of the FoodFaith community garden in Lane Cove. Discovering the opportunity to combine her interest in gardening and passion for people has been an added bonus and has opened up a world of possibilities for speech pathology at Royal Rehab.

Although commonly perceived as a function primarily dedicated to addressing speech impediments, the scope of speech pathology is far broader and encompasses the assessment, identification, diagnosis and treatment of a variety of communication and swallowing difficulties.

Working as part of a multi-disciplinary team, speech pathologists support clients in their journey towards independence by maximising their communication skills and abilities. This may include naming, orientation, memory, understanding and following procedures and instructions, reading and writing. It may also involve coaching social skills such as turn-taking and eye contact in conversation, conducting hearing screenings, and assessing the suitability of alternative means of communication through technology for clients who are non-verbal.

At its core, speech pathology fosters meaningful communication, and the Productive Garden provides a safe, social and relaxed space to aid this.

“Being outside is a really nice change from being in the clinical setting and can assist in establishing ‘more equal’ therapeutic roles. It also provides a real-life context that promotes generalisation of communication skills”

“Even in the walk down to the garden and the walk back from the garden, there’s opportunity for conversation,” said Vanessa.


Sessions vary between one-on-one and small group sessions, often combining with recreation therapy or other disciplines. While the focus of each session is dependent on the ability of each client, the tasks and topics touch all aspects of the Productive Garden.

For those who are minimally conscious, the Garden has been used to facilitate the recovery process through sensory stimulation. From visually tracking colourful blooms to smelling freshly crushed rosemary, the Garden has been used in speech pathology sessions as a means of heightening a client’s arousal and awareness following a brain injury.

As a former chef, the garden provided a natural point of interest for David, who came to Royal Rehab following a non-traumatic brain injury. Although David’s brain injury has left him with fluctuating levels of alertness, his introduction to speech pathology sessions in the Productive Garden has provided an additional therapeutic space to encourage engagement with his rehabilitation.

“In conjunction with recreational therapy, we were able to support his participation in gardening and the timing of the Productive Garden’s ‘Soup Day’ couldn’t have been any better,” said Vanessa.

“It was really good to be able to ask him about what sort of soup he’d like to make, what sort of ingredients he’d like to use, and actually take him down to the garden, have a look at what herbs he could put in the soup and have him name those herbs.”


David’s exposure to the Productive Garden even facilitated his thinking around plants he hopes to grow for meals he is interested in cooking.

“Just being in that environment sparked the conversation. It helped him tap into his knowledge base, his cooking and his life experiences – whereas in the clinical environment I doubt that we would have had such a meaningful interaction.”

Royal Rehab’s Productive Garden has done just that, broadening the scope for achieving goals through meaningful and motivational rehabilitation.

“There are many different communication activities that can be undertaken in and around the Productive Garden and I’m really excited to see where things go from here,” said Claire.