Sensory Gardens

Tactile nourishment for the feet image: Amy Wagenfeld
Tactile nourishment for the feet
image: Amy Wagenfeld

Mention a sensory garden and what often comes to mind is an outdoor space resplendent with aromatic plants and lush plantings abounding with splashes of color. While certainly part of the picture, it is perhaps not the complete one. In this post, we share strategies to create gardens that nurture and enrich all of the sensory systems. Our ideas to create a naturalized outdoor space for sensory exploration and enrichment are general. If you have the opportunity to create specialized sensory gardens for children with complex sensory integrative challenges, we recommend teaming up with occupational therapists with extensive training in sensory integration (it was introduced and the theory was developed by an occupational therapist, A. Jean Ayres), to make it as usable as possible. Because occupational therapists are also well versed in child development, it is a bonus for great sensory garden design.

Visually interesting tactile climbing elements encourage exploration. image: Amy Wagenfeld
Visually interesting tactile climbing elements encourage exploration.
image: Amy Wagenfeld

We are all familiar with the five basic senses—sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell:

Sight (VS) – the visual system

Hearing (AS) – the auditory system

Taste (GS) – the gustatory system

Smell (OS) – the olfactory system

Touch (Tactile – also a foundational system) (TS) – the largest sensory system; tactile receptors are located all over our bodies

An interactive musical element image: Amy Wagenfeld
An interactive musical element
image: Amy Wagenfeld
Hide whimsical elements in various planes in the garden. image: Amy Wagenfeld
Hide whimsical elements in various planes in the garden.
image: Amy Wagenfeld

There are two other ‘hidden’ or ‘foundational’ sensory systems—vestibular, and proprioceptive and kinesthetic:

Vestibular (VES) – the sensory system that responds to the position of the head in relation to gravity and accelerated or decelerated movement. The vestibular system is the ‘dizzy’ and balance system. It also integrates neck, eye, and body adjustments to movement.

Innovative spinning play elements image: Amy Wagenfeld
Innovative spinning play elements
image: Amy Wagenfeld

Proprioceptive and Kinesthetic (P/KS) – proprioception has to do with the perception or awareness of sensations from the muscles and joints and kinesthesia involves perception of the movement of individual body parts. Kinesthesia and proprioception guide us in understanding where our body is in space.

Sensory garden design can encompass all of these senses.

Spaced stepping stones encourage balance and movement skills. image: Amy Wagenfeld
Spaced stepping stones encourage balance and movement skills.
image: Amy Wagenfeld

For typically developing children, their sensory systems are integrated and work well together. To demonstrate this interconnection, in the chart below we suggest several strategies to include in children’s sensory gardens and what systems are being nurtured through their inclusion. The first system listed in the chart is the primary beneficiary of the sensory element. But, as you will see, many of the design strategies nourish nearly all of the basic and foundational sensory systems.

strategiestable

Visual and tactile beauty image: Amy Wagenfeld
Visual and tactile beauty
image: Amy Wagenfeld

To increase your understanding of the sensory systems, we recommend the following four books. The authors of these highly acclaimed books are experts in sensory integration; Drs. Dunn and Miller are both occupational therapists and Ms. Kranowitz is an educator.

Living Sensationally: Understanding your Senses, by Winnie Dunn

Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder, by Lucy Jane Miller

The Out-of-Sync Child, by Carol Kranowitz and Lucy Jane Miller

The Out-of-Sync Child Grows Up, by Carol Kranowitz and Lucy Jane Miller

A mini food farm image: Amy Wagenfeld
A mini food farm
image: Amy Wagenfeld
Encourage children to navigate through a shrubbery maze. image: Amy Wagenfeld
Encourage children to navigate through a shrubbery maze.
image: Amy Wagenfeld

by Amy Wagenfeld, Affiliate ASLA, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA, and Kristen Singley, BS, OTS

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