Making Mud Pies

by Missy Benson, ASLA, and Amy Wagenfeld, Affil. ASLA

Mud pie
Mud pie / image: Missy Benson

Expanding sensory opportunities in outdoor spaces for children is always important, but even more so during a pandemic like we are experiencing now. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us the United States lived as an indoor society with little connection with nature, especially in our low-income, under-served neighborhoods. Research tells us rich outdoor sensory experiences provide both stress release and can help build positive memories that last a lifetime—both are much needed now!

Stories of Therapeutic and Sensory Rich Outdoor Spaces

Living with Dementia
When my mother lived in a retirement community, I was lucky to work with Jack Carman, FASLA, of Spiezle Architectural Group, Inc. and Design for Generations, LLC, to provide a new sensory courtyard design for their residents and staff. When I interviewed staff to understand their needs of the space, I heard much more than the standard wish list of benches, shade, water feature, raised garden beds, and such. The staff, deeply dedicated to patients with dementia, also expressed how some of their patients lived only in the past—but with happy memories of being outdoors. Yet, others they observed lived in a painful past fraught with sad memories.

In talking with the nursing staff, I learned that most of them felt sure that the memories their patients have of being outdoors remain helpful throughout their lives, especially during times of stress. This same memory bank may serve all of us well. While there is little evidence to support whether, for individuals with dementia, limited past access to nature is associated with diminished happiness in older adulthood (now, this is a great idea for research!), there is ample evidence that for older adults, being in sensory rich gardens—touching, smelling, viewing, listening to, moving about, and tasting the plants—can evoke positive memories, improve health and well-being, and is restorative. A brief snapshot of references that supports these benefits follows at the end of this post. Please do feel free to share other pertinent articles with all of us in the comments section below.

If being outdoors is a positive and protective factor in the lives of older adults, it seems logical that it matters throughout our lives, starting in early childhood. It gives us more reasons to encourage access for everyone of all abilities, ages, and cultural backgrounds to have easy, abundant, and meaningful opportunity for sensory play in outdoor spaces. We include a figure below (originally published in a 2016 Children’s Outdoor Environments PPN article called Sensory Gardens) that Amy and a former student, Kristen Singley, wrote, to help you understand what each of the sensory systems are. Each system needs to be considered when designing impactful sensory rich outdoor spaces.

Our Memories
Due to COVID-19, I (Missy) recently left my position working as a Play Advocate and Inclusive Play Manager of an outdoor play manufacturer and have spent the past six months gardening and volunteering for schoolyard and nature-based play non-profits. It has been a stressful time for my family. Yet, I know that digging in the dirt is the best therapy for me. What makes me so at ease outdoors and why does this alleviate my stress? It is all based upon the sensory rich mud pie. I believe that this sensory rich mud pie is going to serve me well when I am older.

My grandparents raised four children during the depression in Memphis, Tennessee with a garden that fed families for many years. And, this large garden fed my youngest memories, memories that are full of my special mud pies, decorated with all of the garden flowers. For example, when I am in my yard and smell a yellow iris—the fragrance immediately takes me back to my grandfather Bennie’s garden. Fortunately, this is a happy memory for me and promotes a sense of calm and gratefulness. If I develop dementia as my mom did, I truly hope I have a yellow iris to smell in my old age.

Fragrant yellow bearded iris / image: Missy Benson

For Amy, her mud pie is stroking the leaves of a tomato plant and inhaling the fragrance it emits. This rich sensory experience never fails to evoke memories of that first backyard garden I tended when I was a mere six years old. I remember struggling to drag overflowing watering cans from the spigot to the garden, often arriving with a half-full can. But, arrive I did, ready to nurture those precious tomato plants. This garden was my place of solace, peace, and comfort. I hope that when I am older, when I rub the leaves of a tomato plant, I am transported back to those early happy memories.

Amy’s “mud pie” memory / image: Missy Benson

What is your yellow iris? Your stress releaser outdoors? What is your mud pie? Is it when you smell fresh-cut grass or wild onions in the spring? What connects your nature + good memories? In addition to sharing references, please share your mud pie memories with us in the comments below! And, as we now reimagine schoolyards and outdoor spaces during and post-pandemic, let’s rise to the challenge of designing spaces that are truly enriching through the myriad sensory rich experiences of connecting with the earth, soil, pollinators, and plants for all abilities and ages, for long-lasting sweet and happy mud pie memories.

Missy’s Garden / image: Missy Benson

Suggested reading:

Chukwuemeke Uwajehah, P., Onosahwo Iyendo, T., Mukaddes, P. (2019). Therapeutic gardens as a design approach for optimising the healing environment of patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias: A narrative review. EXPLORE, 15(5), 352-362.

Dahlqvist, E., Engström, M., & Nilsson, 2019. Residents’ use and perceptions of residential care facility gardens: A behaviour mapping and conversation study. International Journal of Older People Nursing, 15:e12283.b

Francis, M. (1995). Childhood’s Garden: Memory and Meaning of Gardens. Children’s Environments, 12(2), 183-191.

Missy Benson, ASLA, of Mud Pie Play, and Amy Wagenfeld, PhD, OTR/L, SCEM, EDAC, FAOTA, Affil. ASLA, of Amy Wagenfeld | Design, serve on the leadership team for the ASLA Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network (PPN).

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