blonde toddler playing with garden tools

Creating a Sensory Garden

By: Cristina Moreno, Bilingual Outreach Specialist, Penfield Children’s Center

Maintaining a garden can be a lot of work, but it can also be a great way to relax and get some fresh air. Many children enjoy spending time in a garden, whether gardening or simply enjoying the view, because there is so much for them to do and experience. Gardens are also a good tool to help children learn about science and nature. While gardens can be enjoyed by people of all ages, a sensory garden is a special type of garden that is particularly playful and whimsical, which makes it a great place for children. A sensory garden is meant to be interactive and to stimulate all five of the senses through touch, taste, smell, sight and sound, which we use to take in all kinds of information about our environment and learn about our world. Not only are sensory gardens fun for children, but they can be especially beneficial for children and adults who have sensory processing issues or disorders.

Everyone has differing sensory preferences. For example, some people enjoy being in lively environments while others prefer peace and quiet. Some individuals may love to get their hands dirty and enjoy the feeling of a variety of textures but others may feel squeamish if they have to touch something soft and mushy, such as mud or dough. These differences are all perfectly fine and normal, however some individuals may find that their senses either give them too much information or not enough information, and this may interfere with their ability to participate in daily activities. It is possible that these individuals may have a condition called Sensory Processing Disorder. An individual with a sensory processing disorder may be overly stimulated by the information he receives from his senses and feel uncomfortable in certain situations, such as an individual who is sensitive to sound and perceives the slight buzz given off by fluorescent lights as being very loud and distracting. Some individuals with sensory processing disorder may be under-sensitive to the information they receive from their senses, so they may instead seek extra sensory input. Sensory gardens can help individuals who have sensory processing issues because they can offer a calming environment in which individuals can explore different sensory input at their own pace and within their own comfort level.

Sensory gardens can be as large or as small as you would like, but typically they include plants and materials that engage all five of the senses. Half of the fun is creating a garden that suits your child’s needs, so feel free to explore your child’s sensory likes and dislikes when choosing what to include in your garden. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  • Sight – Incorporating colorful flowers into your garden is a simple way to stimulate the sense of sight, and you can choose colors that contrast or complement each other, or you can simply pick shades of your child’s favorite colors. You can also include plants that are varying heights and widths, such as delicate climbing vines and shorter dense shrubs, as well as a variety of leaf sizes and shapes. Another interesting way to stimulate sight would be by allowing movement within the garden; this can be done by adding plants that move with the wind, planting flowers that attract butterflies or birds, or placing colorful pinwheels throughout the garden. Objects that reflect light, such as mirrors or water fountains, can also provide visual interest.
  • Sound – There are several ways to incorporate sounds into a garden, both with plants and man-made materials. Some plants and grasses make subtle sounds when wind blows through them, and the natural sounds of wind rustling through plants and birds chirping may be sufficient if your child becomes easily stimulated. However, if you wish to add more sounds, other great sound producing materials you can include in your garden are small water fountains or a wind chime. Wind chimes produce different types of sounds depending on what they are made of, and they can be made from all types of metals, wood, plastic, and even glass. I was looking for a wind chime not too long ago, and my favorite sound was produced by one made of old keys! It made a soft, beautiful ring that would be perfect for a children’s garden, and it would be very easy to make one using old keys you might have laying around.
  • Smell – Some flowers and plants, especially herbs, can provide wonderful smells in the garden. The scents from fresh herbs are often quite subtle and not overpowering, and you can encourage children to crush the leaves between their fingers to release even more of their smell. There are also many lovely smelling flowers to choose from, but they can sometimes be quite strong. It may be best to limit the number of strong smelling flowers or plants you include, or use plants that bloom during different seasons, in order to avoid a garden that is too overwhelming with scent. Nice smelling plants include herbs such as rosemary, thyme, dill, oregano, basil and mint, and flowers such as jasmines, gardenias, peonies and roses. There are even plants that are said to smell like chocolate, such as chocolate daisies and the chocolate mint plant!
  • Taste – Including edible plants in a garden is especially fun because children get to see their food grow and may even be willing to try new foods they would not otherwise. Any fruit or vegetable that will grow in your climate would be a good addition in your garden; some easy to grow options include green beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, strawberries, and cherries. Many of the herbs listed above are also some great choices to introduce children to new flavors. Make sure you explain to your child which plants are safe to taste and label them if necessary. Be sure to avoid using any bug sprays or pesticides if you wish to allow children to taste different plants in the garden.
  • Touch – Plants and flowers come in many different textures, and you can choose as many as you would like to provide fun stimulation for the sense of touch. This can include trees with smooth bark, trees with rough bark, moss, shrubs, and plants with all different textured leaves. Plant leaves can feel waxy and thick, crinkly and thin, or soft and velvety. Other fun textural plants include flowers such as sunflowers and snapdragons, ornamental grasses, and Lamb’s Ear. You can also include non-plant items to add texture to your garden, such as mulch over plant beds, outdoor cushions to sit on, and rocks in all shapes and sizes.

There is no wrong way to create a sensory garden, but in order to ensure the space is safe and enjoyable, it may be best to avoid certain plants, such as plants that are spiny or have thorns and plants that may cause allergic reactions. Young children should always be supervised in the garden and reminded which plants or foods are safe to taste.  While it is important to provide a variety of plants and materials that will capture your child’s interest, remember that having too much going on at once may cause the space to feel overstimulating and unenjoyable. The sensory garden can be a place of learning, relaxation, and exploration where both children and adults can find plenty to enjoy among all of the unique sights, smells, and sounds of nature.

What would you include in a sensory garden for your child?

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