Lesson Length : 30 -40 minutes
A sensory disability is a disability of the senses (e.g. sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste). As 95% of the information about the world around us comes from our sight and hearing, a sensory disability can affect how a person gathers information from the world around them.
If you have children in your preschool or program that have sensory processing disorder or sensitivities you may be introduced to something called a sensory diet from the child’s parent or occupational therapist.
A sensory diet has nothing to do with food. It’s a carefully designed series of physical activities and accommodations tailored to give each child the sensory input she/he/they need.
Sensory diets can be used as part of sensory integration therapy. A sensory diet routine can help kids get into a “just right” state, which can help them pay attention in school, learn new skills and socialize with other kids.
What does “just the right state” mean? For a child that gets overstimulated easily a sensory diet can help them come down from an overwhelmed state to a more calmer one. On the other hand, for a child that is understimulated a child can do specific sensory-diet activities that can help them become more alert.
A sensory diet should be created by an occupational therapist and the child will do these activities in therapy sessions or in a supervised way at home. However, as coaches, teachers, and counselors involved in youth programming and supporting children with sensory processing challenges we can become more adept at observing a child’s behaviors and adjusting our teaching to best support the child by asking ourselves, “What is their behavior telling me about what he/she/they need to be in the “just the right state”.
There is nothing better than walking through a garden in full bloom and taking in the colors, smells and textures. Though all gardens stimulate the senses, a sensory garden is designed to evoke sensory experiences from it’s visitors with a variety of colors, textures, smells, and even tastes to explore.
The purpose of sensory gardens is to facilitate opportunities to stimulate the senses in ways children may not encounter in their day to day life. It is important to keep in mind who the sensory garden is designed for so that it is inclusive to individuals of all abilities. Sensory gardens can become a place where children with processing and sensory disorders can feel comfortable exploring their senses without becoming overstimulated. Sensory gardens must be planned and designed differently than a display garden in such a way that components, colors, textures, and wildlife, specifically appeal to the senses.
A sensory garden has elements that stimulate all five senses: Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste, and Touch.
Sight- To stimulate the sense of sight, use plants with varying habits such as those that creep, climb, trail, bush or stand upright of all different colors. In our garden we have animal shaped topiaries, a grape arbor, upright wooden houses to grow vegetables on, fruit trees, berries, open areas, curving paths and potted plants. Plant flowers that grow in abundance such as black eyed susans. Planting flowers that grow in abundance allows children to pick and play with the flowers without depleting the source.
Sound- To stimulate a sense of sound you can do activities with kids that help them pay attention to the sounds they hear such as the sound of the bird chirping, the wind moving through the grass, or install interactive musical installations throughout the garden such as pebble chimes. For many kids with sensory processing disorder, common sounds may be painful or overwhelming, keep this in mind when designing a Sensory Garden. Be sure to have places that are quiet and calm in addition to places where kids can be loud.
Smell- To stimulate the sense of smell, plant herbs like mint, rosemary, camomille, lavender, thyme, sage, and smelling flowers like Mock Orange, roses, and lilacs are great options for kids to play with. Lead kids through activities such as smelling the soil, cooking from things from the garden to further increase their sensory experience.
Taste- To stimulate a sense of taste, plant edible fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs that the kids can plant, tend to and harvest. Let kids have lemonade stands, mix and match fruits together, and if possible cook with the items from the garden to encourage more tasting.
Touch- There is no shortage of things that can make a sensory garden fun for kids to touch. Having everything from loose parts like sticks and gravel, to access to water, mud, tools to dig, and having soft plants like Lamb’s Ear planted all over to offer kids opportunities to play around with different textures.
Children that are sensory seekers may do a range of different things in the garden to meet that need. They may enjoy dropping gravel down the drain, jumping into the mud pit and covering themselves completely in mud, or picking flowers and watching the petals fall to the ground over and over again.
Some of these behaviors can appear to adults as disruptive to the class or the activity. An inclusive educator sees these behaviors not as disruptive but as a reminder that all behavior is communication. What could that behavior be doing for the child? What are they trying to communicate with their actions? For example, dropping gravel down a drain may at first seem annoying or unnecessary to an adult but in fact that the act of scooping and pouring gravel, and listening to the pebbles fall into the drain may be helping a child feel calm. Or kids may be drawn to pick the flower buds off plants and watch their petals or leaves fall to the ground repetitively. In this situation, you can encourage the child to continue picking flowers but direct them to do it in a more contained way. Check out our lesson plan here on classroom structure for tips on transitions and redirecting.
Sophie loves to pick flowers and pull off all the leaves and petals. We do not know what this behavior is doing for Sophie but we do know it is important for her and proves to be incredibly calming. If picking flowers in this way is not conducive to your garden space, you can encourage the child to continue picking flowers but direct them to do it in a more contained way.
Planning for sensory-seekers:
When designing a garden consider planting things intentionally for the kids to be able to pick. For example, you may have big flowers like Sunflowers you don’t want them to pick but then could plant a whole part of the garden with black eyed susans that grow quickly, in large quantities and give kids lots to play with.
You may have a child in your group that you want to introduce to the garden but they are sensory avoidant. For example, they may be averse to having their hands get dirty, uncomfortable with different temperatures or textures.
There are many ways to help kids with sensory disabilities engage with the garden in a way that is still comfortable for them. Do your best to figure out what element of the gardening is making them uncomfortable and remove that element if you can.
Remember that even if a child pulls away from an activity such as planting with their hands they may still want to watch. In this case, help them to still experience the various elements by narrating what you see, what you feel and what you notice.
Pause & Reflect Questions: