Guided by Goats in Cheshire provides safe space for kids

Guided by Goats in Cheshire provides safe space for kids

Art and animals have always been a positive outlet of expression for Bella Gladue. So, when her mother, Alicia Gladue, learned about Guided by Goats, which combined both of Bella’s passions with therapy, she immediately signed them up. 

During their first day, the two enjoyed the Cheshire farm’s first-ever Teddy Bear Picnic on July 12. The day was filled with music, mud, pinecone paint brushes and rock painting. Clutching her stuffed animal closely, Bella sang, danced, and painted. 

Gladue loved watching her daughter confidently playing with the goats and interacting with everyone around her, kids and adults alike. 

“[Bella] does struggle socially and animals help bring her out of her shell and so does art. Art has let her…express her own creativity” Gladue said. 

Executive Director Daniel Morton founded Guided by Goats, a nonprofit, in 2022 with the goal to create a safe space for kids with autism to develop their behavioral and social skills outside of a clinical setting. Morton was inspired by his work as a board-certified behavioral analyst and home therapist. 

"I've met some [parents] that are just very terrified to bring their children out in public [because] these behaviors are being looked at in a negative way," Morton said. "I just wanted to create a community space where they can come, and we can do social skills and [practice] some real-life experiences." 

Guided by Goats is currently set up in Morton's one-and-a-half-acre backyard in Cheshire, with two goat paddocks, a chicken coop, and a duck sanctuary.  

The play area is next to the goat paddock and has multiple stations with nature-inspired art activities, like rock painting and painting with flowers or pinecones. Instructions are taped to each station so the kids can go from station to station without needing an adult to explain what they need to do. 

The program is intentionally unstructured so the kids can explore what interests them in a safe space. 

The stars of the shows – the goats – are brought out one by one on leashes to eat weeds and interact with the children. On the other hand, baby goats are passed from person to person for snuggles and brush time. 

Older kids often go inside the paddocks with an adult to feed and brush the goats according to Morton. The kids can also enter the chicken and duck coops with an adult. 

The farm hosts multiple playgroups weekly for children of different ages and abilities to interact and socialize. The playgroups specifically for kids with autism have many of the same activities, but there are specialists to help them develop speech, behavioral, and motor skills. 

Larger events, like the Teddy Bear Picnic, are organized to encourage interaction between kids of all abilities. 

The most popular station at the Teddy Bear picnic was the Mud Kitchen. 

Stocked with bowls, measuring cups, pots and plates, the kid chefs' hand mixed dirt and water to make a large amount of mud. They would then follow laminated recipes to bake either mud cake, dirt pie, nature donuts or earth cookies. 

Carol Carlino, of Meriden, laughed as her daughter, Elianna, covered her yellow sundress in the dirt while making earth cookies. She said she hadn't thought of bringing a towel for the ride home but wasn't upset because Elianna was having fun. 

“[Elianna] loves mud. She's a very sensory child, so she loves playing with things like mud and water," Carlino said. "This is what summer should be. Being outside, music, mud and painting."

In addition to the normal stations, a handful of bear-themed activities were specifically created for the Teddy Bear picnic, like homemade cinnamon play dough and storytime with a bear as the main character. 

The music therapist, Brenda Tousignant, changed the lyrics of iconic children's songs so they were bear themed. So, "five monkeys jumping on the bed" became "five bears jumping on the bed." 

At one point, Tousignant encouraged kids and parents alike to get on their feet for the "Teddy Bear Dance" as a way to "wiggle away the waggle." She then passed out different instruments so that the kids could rhythmically follow along as they sang about a farmer who had a bear named Bingo. 

The jam session was accompanied by "BAHs" from the goats basking in the sun behind Tousignant. She loved that the kids could enjoy her music but weren't reprimanded for playing at another station during the performance. 

The therapeutic benefits of nature, especially animals, is what drives the program, Morton said. 

Therapy animals can help children with autism socialize by acting as a buffer between them and other people, according to the United Disabilities Services. Typically, therapy animals include household pets, like dogs, guinea pigs, and cats, or more exotic animals, like dolphins, horses, and llamas. 

Morton said they landed on goats as therapy animals because of their calm temperament and how well they get along with the kids. He described how one kid connected with the goats and spent the entire day brushing and cuddling them. 

"Sometimes, when families bring their children to [a farm], they're not expecting their kids to really enjoy it. I think it's a really pleasant surprise for them," Morton said. 

Program Director of Guided by Goats and Morton's wife, Rhiannon Morton, has seen how animals benefit behavioral and mental health. She explained that their daughter, Charlie, was born during the pandemic and was extremely shy. 

Since opening Guided by Goats, Charlie has slowly built up her social confidence by participating in the different playgroups throughout the week. 

"I've always seen the benefit of animals," Rhiannon said, "having empathy and care for those creatures, so I always loved it." 

The nature-inspired activities can also be used as a therapeutic outlet to build social skills, develop fine motor skills, and improve sensory regulation, said Bethany Walker, occupational therapist and newest Guided by Goats specialist group member. 

Although she is still in the planning stages, Walker said her goal is to create sensory-friendly activities focusing on developing occupational skills like flexibility and communication. For example, Walker said stacking logs and sticks so that they don't tumble over helps develop problem-solving skills and how to lift heavier objects. 

"[Log stacking] gives them a purpose, but it also works on the strengthening aspect of picking up something heavy and putting it on a pile. [Its] also working on visual perceptual skills and visual scanning," Walker said. "There are those little things that we could work on." 

Other building activities Walker plans to incorporate include building Fairy Gardens and drawing in the dirt. She said her goal is to create activities that can be replicated in their own backyards once they go home. 

The second goal of the specialists is to answer questions and provide resources for parents. Morton said he wants the visits to be a "mental health recharge" for parents since their kids can play in a safe space while working on their behavioral skills. 

“I wanted something to be available where parents can come and get that knowledge and get those resources and just have fun with the animals,” Morton said. 

There are big plans in the works for Guided by Goats, Morton said. 

Morton wants to expand the farm physically to be wheelchair accessible and have the space to host larger events like birthdays and school field trips. He explained that having more space can also let them develop more physical activities for the kids like hiking with goats.

In addition, Morton plans to create more job skills opportunities for adults with autism by opening a farmstand to sell fresh produce. 

Lastly, developing on-site resources for parents is another major goal. For example, opening rooms for private family therapy sessions and day programs. 

Morton said that he's been already overwhelmed by all the support he’s received in the short time they’ve been open. 

“I’m excited that I’ve already helped some families find some happiness and some hope and give them a couple hours of the day where they can relax and appreciate life,” Morton said. “It’s a space for families to unwind and enjoy their community and feel like they belong.” 

Health Equity reporter Cris Villalonga-Vivoni is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. They can be reached at and (203) 317-2448. Support RFA reporters at the Record-Journal through a donation at To learn more about RFA, visit


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