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.

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Designing for All Children

Ramp and steps located together provide equitable access to the play structure. image: Amy Wagenfeld

Ramp and steps located together provide equitable access to the play structure.
image: Amy Wagenfeld

The International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) suggests that disability is contextual. Environmental contexts can reduce or exacerbate disability. If an environment enables a young girl with a left leg amputation who uses a wheelchair to access spaces the same ways everyone else does, she is not disabled in this context. In accordance with the ICF, if she has to gain access to an environment via a steep ramp, be carried because the only access is steps, or be unable to enter at all, she is disabled. If she cannot participate or engage in the space, she is disabled in this environmental context. In the exemplar above, the ramp and steps are adjacent. The surface is crushed stone and the ramp slope is barely discernible. Both wheeled mobility users and those ambulating can equitably gain access to the Zen garden beyond the shelter. There is no backdoor entrance; all are equal and welcomed through the front door.

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Our Moms Were Right!

Exploration in nature encourages socialization, creativity, and inquisition. image: Amy Wagenfeld

Exploration in nature encourages socialization, creativity, and inquisition.
image: Amy Wagenfeld

Play

Play is a primary occupation of childhood and an important contributor to healthy development. The United Nations High Commission for Human Rights acknowledges play as being the right of every child. [1] The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children play or exercise outside for 30-60 minutes a day. [2] Despite this recommendation, a study of nearly 9,000 preschool children found that almost half of them don’t go outside even once per day. [3]

Outdoor play encourages physical movement and social and emotional interactions. It fosters thinking and creativity. The quality of outdoor play activities depend upon children being able to experience and to be in an environment that is safe, inclusive, engaging, fun, spontaneous, and arouses curiosity and creativity. When children play outside they can learn to enjoy their own company, take turns and listen to the perspective of others, create and follow and break rules, understand the consequences of their actions, take risks, learn, role play, challenge themselves, problem solve, move, and have fun. Arguably, what happens in outdoor play and exploration is equally as important as classroom learning. To deprive any child of opportunities to be outside and in nature is simply wrong.

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