A sensory garden is a great place for adults to relax, but it’s also the perfect way to help get kids excited about the outdoors, boost their cognitive development, and learn about their environment. We’ll guide you through how to design a sensory experience specifically for kids that will take recess to the next level.
A sensory garden is an outdoor space designed specifically to amplify all five senses: sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound. A typical garden can stimulate our senses too, but a sensory garden uses plants and hardscaping to create an immersive experience. To learn more, read our article on what a sensory garden is.
- 8 tips for sensory gardening with kids
- Benefits of a sensory garden for kids
- FAQ about sensory gardens
8 tips for sensory gardening with kids
There are infinite possibilities for creating a sensory garden. These are just a few jumping off points for elements that can stimulate creativity and learning in children.
As you design your unique space, make sure you’re amplifying each sense. If you have a limited space or budget, focus on things that activate multiple senses at once. An herb garden, for example, stimulates your sense of touch, sense of taste, and sense of smell.
1. Design keyhole gardens
What could be more fun than a secret garden? Keyhole gardens are shaped like a skeleton keyhole (a narrow entry that opens into a small circular space) and can be added as an offshoot to a path.
Keyhole gardens allow kids to feel like they have their own private, magical space. The opening is designed to be small enough that you can reach everything in its circumference from one spot, providing the perfect sensory immersion.
Plant showy perennials like alliums, bee balm, and native butterfly weed in your keyhole garden to amplify your sense of sight. Add edible flowers like nasturtiums for a whimsical treat.
Pro Tip: If you want to make an existing garden feel special, add an entryway like a vine-covered trellis.
2. Include a water wall
A water wall is a great way to cool off and splash around without needing to hop in the pool. It’s essentially a water fountain that either runs parallel to a (usually stone) wall or runs in a freestanding sheet through the air into a catch basin below.
Add a tall water wall with a colorful stone surface behind it to help cover up a fence or serve as the centerpiece of a keyhole garden. You can also use a freestanding water wall (also known as a rain curtain) as a fun entrance to another part of the garden that kids can run through.
Because it’s always running, this water feature won’t become a home for mosquitoes and requires less maintenance than a pond. It provides an opportunity for tactile play and a soothing soundtrack to any activity. The sound of rushing water is especially key to building an immersive space if you live in a city or on a busy street.
3. Plant climbing trees
Inspire your kid’s sense of adventure, inspiration, and physical activity by planting trees safe for climbing. The safety of climbing trees depends on a child’s age and your comfort level, but a survey from the University of Phoenix found that of the tree-climbing children polled, only 1.78% experienced a broken bone from the activity.
Trees that have low, strong branches that are good for climbing include:
- Mature maples
Trees that should not be climbed include:
- Tulip trees
- Fast-growing trees
Plant trees away from power lines and pavement, and check for any bee hives or wasp nests regularly to avoid an unpleasant surprise.
4. Invite winged friends with bird feeders
It’s not always safe to observe wild animals; bird watching, however, is a great way to get to know one of your local ecosystem’s inhabitants. In addition to attracting birds to your landscape by planting berry-producing trees and shrubs and adding a bird bath, hanging multiple bird feeders is a sure way to win over a few songbirds.
If you have space, adding multiple feeders with different styles and feed inside is your best bet for ensuring exciting bird sightings. Start with a tube feeder, hopper or house feeder, and a ground or tray feeder. If you’re especially interested in hummingbirds, hang a nectar feeder with sugar water.
Different types of bird feed attract different birds. Sunflower and safflower seeds, millet, nyjer, and suet cakes cover all your bases from finches to woodpeckers to chickadees.
How to bird watch with young children:
- Turn it into a scavenger hunt.
- Strengthen their spatial awareness by figuring out where certain bird sounds are coming from.
- Get playful by imitating bird sounds.
- Inspire creativity by drawing or painting birds you spot.
- Keep a log of birds that visit.
- Invest in a pair of binoculars to fully appreciate the diverse colors, feather patterns, and personalities of each bird.
5. Kid-friendly edible gardening
An edible garden is an essential part of any sensory garden, but what can you include specifically for kids? You’ll want to choose plants that can be eaten right off the vine and are delightful to the sense of touch and sight.
Edible plants to grow with kids:
- Baby bottle gourd
- Ground cherries
6. Design spaces to play
After you wander along pathways collecting treasures, you need a place to enjoy them. A clearing with ground comfortable enough to sit on is a must for your garden design. Ideally, this garden space also contains a bench for adults to rest on, too.
Options for a play area:
- A sandbox is a classic option for a soft play surface.
- A traditional lawn area can provide a comfortable bed of grass.
- Artificial turf is another option if you want something low-maintenance or if your child has a grass allergy.
7. Include an herb garden
Herbs are the ultimate sense activator. These powerhouse plants contain alluring fragrances, tastes, different textures, and can attract butterflies too. Not to mention, many herbs are easy to grow and don’t require much space.
If you don’t have a lot of room, start with an herb window box. Not only will this save space, it can also be a starter for a child who wants to learn how to garden on their own.
Pro Tip: Group herbs by water requirements and compatibility (dill, for example, will cross-pollinate with cilantro to produce an odd-tasting plant).
Vertical gardening is another smart way to include herbs in a cramped space. A hanging shoe organizer can be used as compartments for herbs. A multi-tiered cart allows for multiple layers of pots.
- Mint (go for chocolate mint for a fun twist)
8. Keep your space pesticide-free
It’s understandable that you want to keep your new space safe from bugs, but pesticides are a no-go if your child will be touching and tasting plants. Even low amounts of pesticides can be harmful to kids.
What’s the alternative? There are several organic pest control options to try:
- Neem oil
- Beneficial nematodes
The most effective bug prevention method is good yard care. That includes regular pruning, seasonal cleanup, keeping grass mowed, and getting rid of standing water.
Benefits of a sensory garden for kids
From physical activity to mental health, sensory gardens have a long list of benefits for everyone, but they can be especially helpful for children. The National Academy for Child Development reports that sensory stimulation is key to strengthening functional activity (like reading, walking, and talking).
Benefits of sensory gardens for kids include:
- Improved emotional regulation linked with mindfulness
- A sense of play and creativity
- Curiosity about nature
- Development of fine motor skills
- Exposure to sunlight
FAQ about sensory gardens
Always read your particular plant’s instructions, but most edible plants need rich soil and plenty of sun. This means stationing your edible garden in an area that receives direct sunlight (unobstructed by trees) and possibly amending your soil.
If you don’t want to deal with soil amendments, install a raised garden bed so you can control exactly what kind of soil goes in.
It’s not required to go solely native, but they do fulfill a lot of the sensory requirements, benefit your landscape’s biodiversity, and are easy to maintain. Native plants generally have colorful, showy blooms that attract pollinators like butterflies, bees, and birds.
Sensory gardens can benefit everyone with their mood-boosting, calming qualities, but they can especially be safe havens for exploration for seniors, people with disabilities, and people with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Here are a few ideas for sensory garden plants:
• Bee balm
• Witch hazel
• Ornamental grass
• Rainbow swiss chard
• Lamb’s ear
• Creeping sedum
Get started with a pro
If you want to skip the work and get straight to the fun part, hire a professional. A landscaping team can work with you to design a landscape suited for your space and to install hardscaping and plants.
If you have a grass that needs regular maintenance, Lawn Love can connect you with pros who will keep your lawn green with none of the hassle.
Main photo credit: RODNAE Productions | Pexels