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Sensory Garden Designs Are Beneficial For Young Children.

Have you noticed that issues with fine and gross motor skills, allergies and anaphylaxis reactions, autism and spectrum disorders, learning and sensory processing disorders are on the rise? Your senses are right! The Center for Disease Control and Prevention demonstrates about 1 in 6 children in the U.S. had a developmental disability in 2006-2008, ranging from mild disabilities such as speech and language impairments to serious developmental disabilities, such as intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, and autism. Since then, these complications have risen.

Many professionals had been noting and researching similar observations. Richard Louv coined the term ‘Nature-Deficit Disorder’ and warns of symptoms such as physical and emotional illness, attention difficulties and diminished use of senses as children become increasingly disconnected with nature. (Louv, 2005) One can look at a barrage of information on possible contributing factors such as contaminates and chemicals in water, food and air, pharmaceuticals, inadequate nutrition, in-utero ultrasounds and vaccinations, however we also need to address the absence of nature in our lives which is a factor validated by research. A 6-year study; ‘Changes in American Children’s Time’ (Hofferth, 1997-2003) documented detrimental repercussions to the changes in values and behaviours. Several studies conducted in America noted the increases in childhood obesity and discussed how environments had changed for children during the 1990’s. (Anderson, 2006) Some possible explanations for this were increased time spent indoors, the lure of screens and technology, homework constraints, extracurricular activities and parental fear of allowing children to be unsupervised outdoors. This study concluded that to restore children’s energy balance, one needed to change children's environment. From neuroscience research we know that sensory stimulation is particularly important for neurological development between ages 0-5; how can we provide this?

Our environmental identity is our nature, found in the wisdom of natural sensory experiences inherent to us humans as part of the web of life. Interpreting the rise of Sensory Perception Disorder, ADD, Autism and other childhood imbalances as ‘Natural Attractions’ calling for us to find solutions for healthier children, society and our environment. Noting that Sensory Processing Disorders (SPD) are prevalent with young children, Occupational Therapists now may prescribe a Sensory Diet for children with SPD and provide parents with a check-list to ensure the sensory stimulation is provided to the child. I propose they include a healthy dose of nature as the benefits of being in nature include that it relaxes our nervous system, builds fine and gross motor-skills, creates a sense of belonging, provides healthy activity and exercise outlets, builds greater self-esteem from learning skills and trusting the environment. A bike ride, visit the park, climb trees, or explore a river bed were all play activities that children normally did 20 or more years ago as part of normal daily life before the incremental documented cases of childhood disorders. What else can adult humans do? My solution is to build more Sensory Gardens in our schools and Early Childhood centers.

Over two years, I developed and worked with children aged 3-5years old in a Preschool setting where we created and maintained a Sensory Garden. The project was enhanced by incorporating Applied Ecopsychology methods which guided the children to further exploration with nature providing tangible experiences and results.

Distinguished World Citizen and Ecopsychologist, Dr. Michael J. Cohen and Project NatureConnect have been researching, conducting education programs and healing with nature for over 50 years. The organization is at the forefront of Eco-psychology and Natural Attraction Ecology (NAE).

Within our Sensory Garden Project our 5 well-known senses were easily identified in the garden such as:

  • Tasting herbs, fruits and vegetables

  • Seeing the garden and visually identifying aspects.

  • Hearing wind chimes and other garden ornaments, birds, children, teachers and other visitors, the wind blowing through leaves.

  • Touching the plants, worms, snails and soil.

  • Smelling the herbs and flowers.

Michael Cohen and Project NatureConnect have identified over 50 natural Senses. Interactions with nature in a Sensory Garden also may include:

  • Sense of temperature, changes in temperature, season, winds, weather changes and sun direction demonstrate scientific and mathematical aspects as well a sense of curiosity, sense of self belonging, and how they fit into the world.

  • Development of sense of self-esteem, caring, consideration and nurturing.

  • Fine and gross motor skills are benefited by the sense of gravity, balance, mobility and physical space that the garden provides.

  • Sense of fun, un-structured adventure, curiosity, pleasure and play.

  • A sense of relaxation was noted whenever we had a child feeling upset from separating from a parent we would take them outside; they felt a sense of calm and benefited from the distractions that the garden provided. This involved meaningful tasks where the child could mirror the feeling lacking in their emotional state by caring and nurturing such as watering or feeding the fish.

  • Senses such as community, friendship, support and trust are built and a sense of belonging with the creatures visiting the garden was noted and enjoyed providing positive experiences.

  • A sense of duty, horticultural cultivating and territorial sense led to protective behaviours and community-building.

  • Sense of values and ethics and understanding of systems developed.

  • The senses form, shape, design, creativity, beauty were observed and artwork and photography resulted from the appreciation.

  • Reasoning, logic, memory and sense of time were influential on establishing concepts such as past, present and future.

  • Sense of estimation. Scientific estimating, mathematics, dialogue and sharing memories evolved from observations of growth and life cycles.

From 2 years of involvement and observations; I can confidently state that sensory stimulation is a benefit of a Sensory Garden which provides diverse experiences in nature. When working in the garden and with nature-related activities, children labelled with a disability or disorders are able to capably work and play alongside classmates without any noticeable difference in behaviour. Nature does not segregate, or discriminate. I recommend that Early Childhood Centers and schools adapt a natural and holistic approach as we address children’s imbalanced health and wellbeing with the need for sensorial experiences to create neurological pathways in their developing brains.

There is no substitute for natural wild spaces; however Sensory Gardens provide many holistic benefits for our future problem-solvers who will inherit this Earth.

Research Links:

Anderson, P. a. (2006). Childhood Obesity. Pages From - To. Retrieved from

Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network retrieved from

Bucklin-Sporer, A. &. (2010). How to Grow a School Garden. Portland Oregon: Timber Press.

Cohen, M. (1989). Connecting With Nature. Eugene, Oregon.

Cohen, M. (2003). The Web of Life Imperative. Victoria, Canada.

Cohen, M. (2007). Reconnecting With Nature. Lakeville, Minnesota: Ecopress.

Cohen, M. (2008). Educating, Conseling and Healing with Nature. Retrieved from

Hofferth, S. L. (1997-2003). Changes in America Children's TIme. Retrieved from

Louv, R. (2005). Last Child in the Woods: Saving our children from nature deficit disorder. . Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.

Parsons, A. (2011i). Young Children and Nature: Outdoor Play and Development, Experiences Fostering Environmental Consciousness, And the Implications on Playground Design. Retrieved from


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