Niño Feliz, a school in Chichigalpa, Nicaragua supports the educational needs of children with a variety of special needs, including Down’s Syndrome, Autism, severe physical disabilities, hearing and visual impairments. FNE International and Arts Unchained partners with teacher, parents and students to co-construct therapeutic arts experiences grounded in a mutual respect that reinforces the dignity and genius in each individual. The overarching goals that govern our therapeutic interactions build upon and expand the range of educational tools and techniques innate to the learning environment and culture of Niño Feliz.
Gardens engage the senses in a number of ways. Although, most gardens or public green areas have a “hands-off” approach, providing visually attractive spaces with shade, and pleasing scents they do not welcome individuals to touch the plants. Sensory gardens are designed to maximize the experience of individuals by encouraging them to interact with the garden by looking, listening, smelling, touching and even tasting plants. These sensory opportunities, however, do not have to be limited to plants. Integrating colorful and textured pathways, railings and benches as well as manmade sensory stations can enhance the overall experience.
Sensory gardens can have a therapeutic benefit for individuals with special needs. Thoughtfully designed garden spaces allow individuals to modulate complex emotions and experiences gently stimulating the senses. A 2008 study found that, for children with learning disabilities, these gardens can increase the nonverbal communication, teach how to participate in a cooperative effort, and help to form positive relationships with adults.
From that perspective, our goal is to transform a currently underutilized outdoor space at Niño Feliz School, into a playful and engaging sensory garden that extends classroom content and reinforces social development.
The Sensory Garden Design
Many plants stimulate the senses of sight, smell, touch, taste and sound.
Sight –In addition to different color flowers, leaves and stems, using plants with different growth habits such as creeping ground covers, climbing vines, bushy or thin shaped plants increase the visual appeal and interest of a sensory garden.
Smell – Many aromatic flowers (lavender) and herbs (rosemary, basil, oregano, and mint) are obvious choices in a sensory garden, but there are also many shrubs, such as boxwood (Buxus) that are fragrant and should not be overlooked. These shrubs can also define spaces or garden rooms and guide visitors through the garden space by lining pathways.
Touch – Including plants with interesting and diverse textures and encouraging visitors to touch them will increase the sensory experience. Plants with soft leaves include Lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina), Dusty miller (Sencio cineraria), and sage plants (Salvia officinalis) with velvet sage also having extreme soft flowers. Seed pods or flower heads (sunflowers, cone flower) can provide a rough texture while succulents like aloe vera have thick waxy plant leaves that provide a smooth texture.
Taste – Edible fruits, herbs, spices and vegetables play double or triple duty by stimulating the tastes buds as well as adding color, texture and aroma!
Sound – Here again plants can multiple roles. Wind rustling through the tall blades of Taiwan Grass (Miscanthus sinensis), vetiver (Chrysopogon zizanioides), or palms (Arecaceae) also add height and shape to the garden. Dry seed pods, like from the Roselle plant (Hibiscus sabdariffa), can create a pleasing sound when shaken. Dry leaves or mulches can offer a crunchy sound under foot.
Pathways through a sensory garden are another opportunity to add color and texture. A variety of materials can be used such as concrete with accents of mosaics, gravel, stepping stones, textured tiles and nontraditional materials such as bottle caps, and marbles.
Our Niño Feliz Sensory Garden pathway will be wheelchair accessible and incorporate a variety of materials and artwork designs of the students.
As part of the sensory garden, six sensory stations are being designed to stimulate and enhance the range of educational and social skills. These stations include, but are not limited to, a hammock station, a water station, a drawing station, a walking and crawling tunnel and a sound station.