The garden is a great place for children to explore and learn through their senses. This article and video will give you some ideas to help your child experience nature through all of their senses.
WATCH this how-to video!
By Sarah Heidtke, Master Gardener
Create a garden themed sensory bin! Sensory bins can be calming and help children learn through their senses. There’s no right way to explore so let the child(ren) take the lead!
READ books together
By Mary Gadek
My Five Senses, by Aliki (for young children). An introduction to the idea of the five senses with some garden/nature imagery used). Available at the Dakota County Library or Buy online.
Cold, Crunchy, Colorful: Using Our Senses, by Jane Brocket (for young children and up). Using our senses to explore the world; many garden/nature images in the beautiful photography displayed. Available at the Dakota County Library or Buy online.
DO – Activities for all age groups
By Sarah Heidtke
We can plant a garden at home:
BIG OR small
We can visit gardens and nature in our community. Explore all of your senses while you plant, observe and adventure!
Go for a walk in your garden or neighborhood. How many different colors can you find?
If you are planting a garden, you can choose plants with a variety of colors and shapes.
Do you hear rustling grass? Are there seed pods that rattle when you shake them? Listen to the creatures sharing your garden space – you may hear birds singing, frogs croaking, crickets chirping, and so many other things. You can also include wind chimes and water features in your garden to add to the sensory experience.
You can incorporate so many different textures of plants in your garden. Gently touch each plant (once an adult makes sure it isn’t poky like a cactus!). Is it soft? Bumpy? Scratchy? Sometimes sitting on a warm patch of grass can be one of the most wonderful experiences!
Make a snack from your vegetable garden – include your child in as many steps you can! Pick some berries or apples – from your own garden or a pick-your-own business. Many strawberry and blueberry plants grow well in containers – even on a deck or balcony space. My son even loves eating plain basil leaves from the plant on the deck!
Photo by Robert Hatlevig
How many of us are connected to a memory of a place or loved one from the scent of a garden – tree blossoms, flowers, fresh dirt in the spring or leaves in the fall. Maybe there is a special flower with a story in your family you can plant and share. Try an herb garden – preferably close to the door or sidewalk so you can brush the leaves when you walk by and inhale the good smells. Or make a connection with how scents can work in the garden – notice the pollinators flocking to a sweet flower or how some plants give off a more pungent smell. As toddlers, my children referred to marigolds as “stinky flowers” since we planted them first in an (often futile) attempt to keep the bunnies out of the garden. Now that they are older, we still plant the “stinky flowers” first as part of a tradition.
Gardens have so many experiences for the “movement senses” as well:
Our muscles and joints get sensory input too – sometimes this is called “heavy work.” There are several opportunities to have the calming sensory benefits of fun in the garden: push a size-appropriate wheelbarrow or pull a wagon (maybe with your new plants or harvest inside!), dig in the dirt, pull a hose across the lawn, or sweep and rake. If you are lucky there might be a great puddle or pile of leaves to jump into too!
This sense is found in our inner ears and helps us balance and feel gravity! It’s also the reason some of us like experiencing all of the other senses in the garden while swinging under a tree, rocking in a hammock, or enjoying the day in a glider on the patio.
This and more information on our senses can be found in: The Sensory Team Handbook, by Nancy Mucklow; published by Michael Grass House, 2009.
WHOA! TOO MUCH!!!
What if senses get overloaded? Some kids and adults can get too much of a good thing in the garden. Here are some ideas:
Find sensory-friendly days to explore public places.
For example, Como Zoo and Conservatory in St. Paul, Minnesota has special times that are a little calmer to enjoy their spaces; and Dakota County has “Sensory Friendly Sundays” where your child can learn about the seasons and what’s happening outdoors through books and short activities at Lebanon Hills Regional Park. Children ages 5-10 of all abilities are welcome, including those who have difficulty in large groups, are on the autism spectrum, or are sensitive to sensory overload. (Sign up for a session on July 11th.)
Sometimes there’s too much “touch” for your little gardener.
I have one child who used to plant his garden in an Earth Box because he worried about worms in his garden and it was more fun to garden a little bit off of the ground:
Some kids like to get messy in the dirt; others not so much.
Kid-sized garden tools, raised planters, a patio paver in front of the garden, and letting children pick out their own just-right gloves to keep their hands clean all can make garden time more enjoyable.
All children are unique and are going to find a wealth of sensory experiences in garden spaces!
Photo credits: All photos taken by Sarah Heidtke except where noted.