Nature-based therapy helps children feel 'normal' while hospitalized

While many of us enjoy the beauty, the wonder, and all the things Minnesota’s great outdoors has to offer — what happens when all of that is traded for the interior walls of a hospital

Nature-based therapy plays an important role in helping children enjoy nature while they're stuck inside a hospital.

"One of the things patients struggle with, they are having things done to them all the time," says Heather Benson, a nature therapist at M Health Fairview Masonic Children's Hospital, "They are on the receiving end of all sorts of pokes and prods procedures, things they don’t want to do. Let’s make this therapeutically fun activity, where they get to have some free agency and choose what they want to do."

Jenson Dennis, 6, adores spending time with Heather Benson. He is recovering from a bone marrow transplant, after being diagnosed in January with a rare neurological disease. This spring he wasn’t even allowed out of his room for 28 days and spent longer without being allowed to go outside. Benson works with many medically fragile kids with even longer hospital stays. 

"So, kids who are immunocompromised and that’s made me get really creative," says Benson. "I can’t bring in plants, I can’t bring in soil because of their compromised status. Even though we are using turtle figures, I can wash and reuse with the next patient. He’s exploring and having a nature experience inside."

Nature-based therapy is part of the pediatric integrative health and wellbeing program at Masonic.  It's funded through donations and a partnership with the University of Minnesota’s Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing and the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

"We look at the holistic needs of the kids, my connection to nature and the outdoors, supplemented by music therapy, art therapy, we have acupuncturists and folks that do integrative medicine, aroma therapy," says Benson. "All the different ways to help the kids acclimate to this new life being inside the hospital because it can be very drastically different."

For three years, Benson has become one of the few people without a medical background allowed inside patients rooms to see children like Dennis. Her background in education helps with everything from imagination to mental health. 

"Besides the physical part, you can see, losing the hair, he can’t function, he can’t get out of bed, can’t keep fluids down. Things like nature-based therapy were incredibly useful, just to give him a reason to wake up in the morning," says Alan Dennis, Jeson’s dad. 

Getting stronger every day, Jenson is currently one of the few patients well enough to take some of his explorations outside. He and his family vow to never take good health or nature for granted again. 

"Being a part of nature and exploring it, is part of him, so him being able to do it, even for a small period of time, really brings him back," said Alan. "He felt like his normal self, even for a small period of time."