All children can benefit from the highly interactive and heightened sensory experience of exploring and playing in sensory gardens. The cognitive and physical development of children means they need to learn about and improve the use of their senses, including their vestibular and proprioceptive systems; practice their fine and gross motor skills; and engage in free play. Contact with nature is not just important for adults but is also crucial for children (Wells and Evans, 2003; Davison and Lawson, 2006; Wolch, 2011; Sallis and Glanz, 2006; Tucker, 2008; Huan Sheu-Jen, 2010).
Below is a list of just some of the reasons interacting with nature is excellent for all children.
Whilst gardens, including sensory gardens are important places for children to regularly interact with nature, children with autism spectrum disorder and sensory processing disorders also have highly specialised need that can be uniquely met through the opportunities offered by sensory gardens.
How can children with ASD and sensory processing disorders especially benefit from sensory gardens?
According to the Australian Psychological Society, autism spectrum disorder is a term used to describe a group of disorders that includes autism, Asperger’s syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder (also known as atypical autism). Autism is the most commonly occurring from of ASD.
ASD is a lifelong neurological, developmental condition that usually appears in the first three years of life. The term spectrum is used because it describes the wide variety and differing levels of severity of symptoms found in children with ASD. For example, some ASD-diagnosed children have good language skills and high cognitive skills, while others are non-verbal and have significant social, cognitive and motor skills challenges. Individuals with ASD have difficulty understanding and processing information about their environment. The main areas that the condition manifests itself are:
- Sensory integration
- Social interaction and communication
- Altered activities and interests
- Repetitive patterns of behaviour.
Sensory integration dysfunction can also be caused by other factors than ASD, such as brain injury or premature birth. Experiencing nature can help prevent or reduce sensory dysfunction in all children and the reduced incidence of regular outside play and has led to more children presenting with sensory issues these days, as well as other behavioural issues that can be improved with interaction with nature and outside play.
Sensory gardens are particularly strong tools for assisting some children with ASD or sensory processing disorders to address issues with sensory integration. In some of these children, hypersensitivity to sensory information can be particularly challenging and they need to be gradually introduced to sensory stimuli and helped to learn to integrate this information through therapy. Other children with ASD or sensory processing disorders suffer from hyposensitivity to sensory stimuli and need to have heightened degrees of stimulation to interact with their environment.
Given the specialised nature of the needs of these children, there are a number of design principles that are especially important to keep in mind when designing and implementing a sensory garden for them. Here are just a couple:
- Provide a space to retreat from sensory overload
- Provide opportunities for increased socialisation
- Design a series of sequenced sensory spaces
- Get to know the children.
These are just a few of the principles you need to consider when designing for this special cohort of children. For more information on gardens for children with autism spectrum disorder, please see our resource ‘Design Principles for Therapeutic Gardens for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder’
Click here. This further resource outlines other design principles and ways of catering to the educational and therapeutic needs of children with this condition.