For children, a nature connection is a vital part of their development into healthy, happy well-adjusted adults. If we lose our connections or do not forge early links with the natural world it is like losing a good friend. We become stressed and depressed and look for ways to replace our loss, often without being aware of our deficit or our actions. Often the ways we act are not healthy lifestyle choices - resulting in childhood depression, eating to excess, inactive lifestyles watching TV or playing with computer games, or the reverse, non stop structured activities such as an endless round of sports, dance and music classes.
Children need our guidance. They need us to provide safe opportunities to engage with nature and then to allow them to get on and explore them. They also need us to let them get on with the business of being children, to play, experiment, explore, test limits, meet new friends and develop confidence. Children today need sensory gardens as never before. In our modern digitally tuned in world too many children have tuned out from nature. In the past 20 years New Zealand and Australia have seen noticeable increases in childhood depression, teenage suicide, low school aspirations.
But what is a sensory garden? Can we 'çure' or prevent society's ills with more greenspace? Numerous studies now prove the relationship between human health and well-being and a nature connection. When we are outdoors we are more likely to make deep social connections. Humans are social animals and as such require both nature and social connections to feel at our peak. It has been found that children in their vulnerable developing years, from 0-19, need to form nature connections, need natural experiences. They need to know the heat of the sun, the cool of the shade, the feel of the breeze and the sounds of the cicadas. A children's sensory garden is not a playground and it is not a lavender maze. It is an area of sensory delight, designed to stimulate and refresh, calm and renew.
All children benefit from time in such sensory gardens, but some even more than others. Children with special needs require more exposure to nature experiences than their non disabled peers.In a public space like a Botanical Gardens children's garden it is good to provide a space that offers 'something for everyone'. We like to design paths and seats around the periphery of a space so children with autistic spectrum disorders and those who just wish to observe the action can do so from a safe vantage point. It is important that all children can safely get into the sensory garden, up close and personal with the plants and wildlife. Inclusive design is about more than simple accessible design. Path surfaces play an important role in the garden's design, as do their routes through the planting. Trees planted up close to the path allow children to feel the bark, and examine markings at close range.
When we designed the huge sensory play gardens for the prestigious Anglo-American School of Moscow, we were tasked with providing a safe place for children to engage with nature, in what can be a particularly hostile environment. The first thing we did was design lots of robust bio-diverse planting for hide and seek areas, lots of shade trees to dilute the hot summer sun, flowering and fruiting plants to attract birds and beneficial insects, and to provide fresh food for the children to pick and eat. Rills of water down the slope and winding paths allowed the children to explore and follow the stream, to observe and experiment (whose leaf would get there fastest? how high do you need to build a dam before the water builds up and flows over it?)
25 years as an international sensory garden designer and consultant has taught me lots of things. One of the most important is that big budgets are not necessary for big impact. When we design children's gardens we are emphasizing nature. Fortunately no one has put a price on visiting birds and bees. When we design for the health and well-being of our children we design for healthy ecology. Win : win environmental and social gains makes for livable cities and resilient communities. The text book I'm writing on Landscape and Urban Design for Health and Well-Being will be published by Routledge Press in September 2014. It includes a whole chapter on design for children.