May 21, 2017

What is the Science behind it?

Understanding the applied theory and neuroscience behind the DIRT GROUP Paradigm will include:

  • The basics of the autonomic nervous system: sympathetic, dorsal, vagal branches
  • Trauma and the autonomic nervous system (ANS):
  • Resiliency and the autonomic nervous system (ANS):
  • Social and emotional learning/intelligence and the autonomic nervous system (ANS):


“Under the right conditions, neural firing can lead to the strengthening of synaptic connections. These conditions include REPETITION, EMOTIONAL AROUSAL, NOVELTY, AND THE CAREFUL FOCUS OF ATTENTION. Strengthening synaptic linkages between neurons is how we learn from experiences.”

(Siegel, p. 40, Mindsight 2011)

“…the brain changes physically in response to experience, and new mental skills can be acquired with intentional effort, with focused awareness, and concentration. Experience activates neural firing, which in turn leads to the production of proteins that enable new connections to be made among neurons, in the process called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is possible throughout the lifespan, not just in childhood. Besides focused attention, other factors that enhance neuroplasticity include aerobic exercise, novelty, and emotional arousal.” (Siegel, p. 84)

Experiential learning theory:

Social learning theory:

Symbolic Interactionism:

Strength-based theory:

Ecological Systems theory:

Polyvagal theory:

Most people mean well, but generally stop thinking past “how cool it is that you’re gardening with kids ‘and digging in the dirt’”–checking out prior to gaining any real understanding of the science behind the theory and application of DIRT GROUP, a powerful tool for social and emotional learning.

Novel, meaningful activities help to stimulate neuronal activity and increase strength of neural circuitry (Siegel, 2011).

In the garden, we don’t get a seed tomorrow from a seed we plant in the ground today. It is through intentionally focused, redundant, experiential, novel, visceral, meaningful, aerobic, consistent activities (neuroplasticity) where participants learn, practice, and master important social and emotional skills which prepare them for life. It is this social context, and resulting social engagement around the meaningful activities of growing food together which fosters and promotes social and emotional intelligence, resilience, and strength and flexibility in the autonomic nervous system.

Consider for a moment,  a tomato can take 5-6 months from the time the seeds are planted in the greenhouse, seedlings grow and then are transplanted into gardens, then for most, tomatoes begin to ripen in August and continue into September. When kids have to persevere on these sorts of tasks, they literally will begin to see the fruits of their efforts. In this context, it is necessary for participants to learn to follow instructions, delay gratification, deal with frustration, accept “no” for an answer (Mother Nature is a good teacher of this skill), doing good quality work, being patient, cooperating with others, complying with reasonable requests, using an appropriate voice tone, choosing appropriate words to say, (demonstrating respect), demonstrating sensitivity to others, interrupting appropriately, listening to others, talking with others, and so many more.

When we repeatedly engage in an action, eventually it becomes a habit. When I first learned to play the guitar—I had to focus a lot of time and energy on the “learning” part. I had to pay close attention to how I placed my fingers on the fretboard to make the right chords, etc. After I learned these—it then took lots of repeated “practice” until I eventually “mastered” this and now I don’t even really need to look at my hand when I play. My brain became trained as I learned, practiced, and eventually mastered this skill. In the same way, DIRT GROUP participants repeatedly practice the above identified skills (and more) while growing food and doing food related tasks. So for example, Johnny struggles with following instructions so in DIRT GROUP we provide lots and lots of opportunities for Johnny to learn, practice, and master this skill in a whole variety of different tasks and contexts. In this way, he gets ample practice time to successfully master and generalize skills in a variety of situations.

The outcomes from my research demonstrated five outcomes for DIRT GROUP participants;

  1. Tangible results in the form of fruits and vegetables and increased social competencies
  2. Skills which prepared them for life
  3. Pride and ownership in their collective efforts
  4. Contribution/making a difference in other’s lives/empathy
  5. Social inclusion

In his 2011 book, Mindsight, Dr. Daniel Siegel (UCLA), discusses the concept of neuroplasticity.

“The brain changes physically in response to experience, and new mental skills can be acquired with intentional effort, focused awareness, and concentration” (Siegel, 2011 p. 84).

“When we focus repeatedly on specific skills, moment to moment neural activity can gradually become a an established trait through the power of neuroplasticity” (Siegel, 2011 p. 110).

DIRT GROUP is a resiliency-informed children’s mental health application based in social and emotional learning in the context of a gardening, farming,foods,and creative arts project. It is grounded and informed by six major theories: symbolic interactionism, experiential learning, social learning,  strength-based, ecological systems, and polyvagal theories.

Benard, B. (2004) Resilience: What we have learned

Dana, D. (2018) The Polyvagal theory in therapy

Menakem, R. (2017) My grandmother’s hands

Porges, S. (2011) The Polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation

Rosenberg, S. (2017) Accessing the healing power of the vagus nerve

Siegel, D. (2010) The pocketguide to interpersonal neurobiology

Siegel, D. (2011) Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation, New York, Bantam Books Trade Paperbacks

Turck, K. (2011) DIRT GROUP: Growing to learn, learning to grow: How participation in experiential gardening groups influences social skill development in at-risk youth, St. Cloud, MN. St. Cloud State University

van der Kolk, B. (2017) The body keeps the score