Planning a Simple Sensory Garden by Caitlin

Guest post by Caitlin Wray of Welcome to Normal.

While many of us may still be shovelling snow, you may also have noticed your local department store has already stocked the patio furniture in their seasonal area, and greenhouses are already sending out their seed catalogues in the mail. These are sure signs that spring is just around the snow bank, so what better time to take an hour by yourself, a cup of tea (or a glass of wine, depending on how your day is going), and plan a simple sensory garden for your children.

You don't need to be a gardener, or even have a garden, to make this a fun spring project. You can easily do a raised bed garden by making a simple wooden frame, or even just use containers for your patio or balcony. Keep it simple and stress-free.

There are lots of resources out there for sensory gardens, but mine is a little different because it includes all 8 of the senses, rather than just the traditional 5.

My favourite choice for the sight sense in a garden, is the classic and majestic Giant Sunflower. Not only does it fill your visual sense with its bold colour and tall stature, it also has its own sense of 'sight' when it watches the sun cross the sky. A sunflower moves with the sun throughout the day in its early growth stages, and this provides many great opportunities to extend the value of this flower in the garden. Help your child research why the sunflower does this, take a photo every hour (not necessarily all in one day, but over the course of a few days) and assemble your photos in Microsoft's free stop action movie maker to make a movie that shows the sunflower following the sun. These plants also have the benefit of growing at a very rapid pace, which is great for kids who hate to wait!

Help introduce your children to exotic smells like curry, with the Curry plant Helichrysum italicum. You can also give them the decadent scent of chocolate with Chocolate Cosmos. Lavender is another popular scent, but be careful if your kids have allergies. Oregano is an easy and excellent choice - little fingers can rub it to release the essential fragrant oils, and then take it straight from a garden herb pot to a homemade pizza.

There is something timeless and peaceful in the sound of leaves rustling in the wind. Tall grasses are easy to grow and when planted in bunches, can add an almost musical element to a sensory garden. Choose a variety from your local store to ensure it is hardy for your growing zone.

One of many ways to make a raised bed

Growing your own edibles is one of the best ways to encourage reluctant eaters to try new foods. When Simon was 2, we made a raised bed garden (similar to the one in the picture) specifically for the purpose of having him grow and eat his own veggies. To this day, he is a huge veggie fan. Aside from the usual vegetables, I have two favourites for the garden: first, the zingy, cool sensation of the spearmint plant. So versatile it can be eaten right off the plant, or added to ice cream, or a refreshing glass of mint iced tea. Second, the nasturtium. My boys get a special childlike joy from being able to go to the garden and pinch these bright flowers off the stem and pop them into their mouths. They have a flavour similar to fresh peas, and provide a good opportunity to teach young children that some plants are edible while others are poisonous, and the need to always ALWAYS ask mom or dad before eating anything they've picked. Both spearmint and nasturtiums can be grown easily in containers, and even provide visual appeal in place of more conventional flower pots.

The Sensitive Plant

Easy choice for the garden here: the delicate and powder-soft Lamb's Ears are a delight for little hands. They really DO feel like lamb's ears! For an amazing indoor houseplant, ask your local greenhouse for The Sensitive Plant - it's a magical little plant that shrinks suddenly away from touch - a beautiful example in nature of what our kids often feel every day. Its Latin name is Mimosa Pudica - "pudica" meaning "shy". A rather poetic analogy for many of our sensitive children, and a way for them to see that the human species is not the only one in which some members are more senstive than others.

The old standby - sweet corn - provides an opportunity for multiple sensory elements in the garden - most obviously taste, less obviously sound (lovely rustling of the dried corn husks) and unexpectedly - vestibular. For the vestibular sense (most simply put, a sense of balance) corn presents itself in the form of a long, slender and rigid stalk. When cut, the corn stalk transforms into any number of vestibular tools: a baton to twirl with, a sword or lightsaber to spin in battle with, or even a balance pole to carry across a slightly elevated plank, like a tight rope walker. Corn, especially the new and colourful varieties, makes a beautiful landscape element in a front yard and no longer needs to be relegated to a back yard garden.

Prorpioception gives our kids a sense of where their bodies are in space. It's a crucial sensory element for feeling grounded and secure - and many of our kids have an underdeveloped proprioceptive sense. This is where 'heavy work' comes in, and what's heavier in the garden than a big ol' pumpkin? Pumpkins are easy to grow and extend the life of your garden into the autumn. Carrying pumpkins to the table to be carved for  jack o' lanterns, or even to the kitchen for roasting crunchy seeds or baking pumpkin pie, is great heavy work (and encourages trying new foods too!). You can multiply the heavy work by growing some squash or gourds and using them in a tossing game. Have kids throw the squash into a bucket, with a prize for all participants. Make delicious squash muffins with whatever isn't smashed to bits!

The interoceptive sense is a relatively newly described sense, which includes an awareness of nternal sensations such as pain, temperature, hunger, thirst, and the need to void (go to the bathroom). My son struggles with interoception on several fronts: he doesn't recognize pain or alternatively is over-responsive to it, and he doesn't recognize hunger or thirst until ravenous or parched. Many kids with SPD also struggle with recognizing when their body needs to make a trip to the bathroom. That can result in frequent and painful constipation and/or encopresis. Can you guess where I'm going with this in the garden? That's right people, we're making a bee line to the beans. Pole beans are easy and fast growers, and require very little room since they grow vertically. A crunchy treat to eat right off the vine, this vegetable is the King of Fibre ;)

So grab a pencil and a piece of paper, draw a simple diagram of the space you have to work with, and plan a garden (or garden pots) full of sensory experiences for your child. It's purposeful, therapeutic time spent together with nature. What better way to welcome spring?


Amie said...

This is such a great idea! I've never heard of it before, but I will definitely keep all of this in mind when I am picking out stuff to plant this year.

Karen said...

I love doing a garden and I have a little SPD boy too! So this post was so welcome and unusual at the same time! Great ideas. We had a garden year before last but those rascally rabbits took all our pumpkins and cantaloupe! Guess, this has motivated me to try again this year!! Thanks so much for the valuable insights

Caitlin Wray said...

Thanks Amie and Karen, I hope you both get to spend some relaxing time with your little ones, planting some sensory fun :)

ShesAlwaysWrite said...

This is great! I'm planning a fence line planting bed and will absolutely be taking this advice.

Manuel Labor said...

Sounds like a great endeavor to build not just a garden, but a garden built for sensory overall. I am ecstatic by the sound of working on it.
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