Sensory Gardens in a Nutshell

(and, yes, nutshells make a fantastic sensory tool!)

We noticed a great twitter conversation between Farnham Fun Palace and Annie Bannister, and thought other Fun Palaces Makers would find Annie’s thinking on creating a Sensory Garden both useful and inspiring. Over to Annie, with huge thanks …

I was thrilled when Stella Duffy asked me if I’d write a short blog, giving a few ideas for how Farnham Fun Palace – or anywhere else – could make a Sensory Garden. Sensory Gardens are huge fun to design, cost relatively little and give your imagination the best workout ever!

We have five basic senses; sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. There are actually a couple of other senses, vestibular and proprioception, but unless you work in the area of Special Needs, you don’t really need to know about them and, in terms of designing a sensory garden, they aren’t too important.

Any sensory area needs to stimulate as many of your senses as possible. I’d be inclined, in designing a Sensory Garden for a Fun Palace, to maybe let the sense of Taste be covered by use of an Ice-Cream Van or an On-Site café, with effective Food Hygiene standards. Probably safest! But the other four senses are there to be played with and entertained!

The sense of Sight is best stimulated if visitors can’t see the garden until they are in it – so entering through a narrow gate or a gap in a hedge is perfect. And suddenly they are confronted with pathways (wide enough for wheelchairs and walkers please!) and grass walkways, winding in and out of shrubs and trees of different heights and colours. It is great if some of the grass can be scented – the traditional Camomile lawn – so that the sense of Smell gets a look in! If your Sensory Garden is planned for use in warm weather, where people can walk on the surfaces in bare feet (surely the most intense sensory experience of all!) a shady mossed area is wonderful. Hanging from trees and posts are windchimes of various kinds – metal, wooden and strung together walnut shells, along with bunches of small, tinkly bells, to fulfil our sense of Sound. Other, larger bells, to make a range of deeper sounds, can be scattered around the garden, secured to ledges and tables.

In amongst the shrubs, trees and walkways, should be flowering plants – at as many different heights as possible. A couple of really gorgeously scented roses are wonderful here and if you can manage some honeysuckle and some lavender, sight and smell will be totally enraptured!

The areas of grass and moss, and maybe also of woodchip and sand, will work with the sense of touch but, if at all possible, I’d also add a handful of touch stations – trays of sand, of gravel and of water (again at different levels – toddler, wheelchair user, standing) and maybe an area for a bubble-machine….catching bubbles is a delight for all our senses! It would be great if a couple of these touch stations could be close by to some of the scented plants to create an immediate multi-sensory experience.

One of the loveliest sounds is that of running water. Sensory Gardens that are permanent structures and built to last, are often deliberately positioned near streams or waterfalls. For temporary gardens, such as the Farnham one, I’d be tempted to use a recording of running water and a hidden speaker – the sensory effect remains the same!

I’m a huge fan of gravel in Sensory Gardens. Trays of gravel to run your fingers through and an area of very small gravel that can be raked into shapes and patterns. Anyone who has seen a Japanese Gravel Garden will know how fascinating these can look when made professionally. And huge amounts of fun can be had when kids are let loose with two or three square metres of gravel and a rake! Making the gravel patterns covers three senses in itself – the feeling (touch) of raking the gravel, the sound of it moving across the ground and the sight of the patterns and shapes at the end.

Trees are ideal for Sensory Gardens – the sound of wind in the branches and leaves is perfect and branches can be threaded with strings of twinkly LED lights and brightly coloured ribbons, but shrubs, hedges and bushes can be used equally well and, again, you can add to the multi-sensory element by having lavender bushes – sight and smell in one beautiful shrub!

The final element that I like to use in a Sensory Garden is about play – specifically about play for the more severely learning disabled visitors. My background is in Accessible Arts and Sports for people with severe learning disabilities and sensory needs and, whilst the gravel, sand and water trays will provide wonderful active sensory stimulation for them, it does no harm to add a couple of specific activities for them as well – and visiting babies and toddlers will also have a ball playing here! A couple of Multi-Motor Activity Walls, attached to posts in quiet spots in the garden are wonderful and, if funds allow, can make a fantastic addition to a gorgeous Sensory Garden.

Obviously all these elements are Mix and Match, depending entirely on how much space is available, what natural elements are already in place and how much funding is available. They really are just a few thoughts to get people’s own imaginations going – much of the fun of designing and building a Sensory Garden is making the most of what you already have and letting your own creativity run riot!

So – get creative and have fun!

Annie Bannister