It’s finally getting warmer and we can see the soil again. We had a boring empty raised bed filled with dry sandy packed down dirt on the Toddler playground, so we planted a Sensory Garden. Children this age learn primarily through their senses; they need to touch and taste everything! Our goal in planting a sensory garden was to offer plants that stimulated a variety of the children’s senses, and of course to find plants that were hardy enough to withstand some (hopefully) gentle exploration and enhance the children’s outdoor time.
Preparing the raised bed for our plants really stimulated the children’s senses! I loosened up the packed down dirt with a big shovel and then gave the children some small pails and shovels and had them top of the bed with some great organic garden soil. They loved scooping the soil from the bag with the pails and dumping it in the bed. It’s great to see how many children really don’t mind getting dirty. There were a few that even gave up their shovels and just used their hands to transfer the soil. If you are lucky enough to have a child that doesn’t mind getting dirty be sure to give them lots of opportunities to explore different materials like this. It doesn’t mean that your house has to be dirty though. Be prepared with wipes, a spray bottle with soap and water and a washcloth or paper towels, and a special place where you can brush off your child before he/she goes indoors. Don’t forget to have a designated outdoor space to dump soil or sand out of their shoes too.
It was easy for us to pick plants with different kinds of smells so we first added lavender, chives, and spearmint to the garden. The chives also had the benefit of stimulating the Toddlers’ sense of taste. I let each of them try a little piece before the planted it in the soil. A few liked it, but most spit it out. Tell your toddlers that it’s okay if they didn’t like it and thank them for trying. Give them a few words to try to describe what it tasted like. One of our toddlers said that the chives were spicy.
For plants with different kinds of textures we chose lamb’s ear first and taught the children how to hold out one finger to touch the soft fuzzy leaves. For our garden box we decided that teaching them to touch the plants gently would be much more effective than just telling them not to touch at all. By having the children use just one finger to touch something they are much less likely to pick or grab one of the plants. It’s an exercise in impulse control as well as fine motor and sensory play! To contrast the lamb’s ear I added hens and chicks to the garden. The leaves of these succulent plants are firm and spiky at the end. Hopefully they will even spread over time.
We didn’t have much space in our little garden, but some purple pansies and a small wind chime helped to complete our sensory garden by adding something colorful and something that sounded pretty too. The toddlers love checking on the plants, watering them with small cups and spray bottles, and checking for bugs and butterflies each day. Try planting a sensory garden in a small space in your yard or even in a container on your porch or deck.
If you have a large space that you’re looking to fill check out the Natural Learning Initiative at http://naturalearning.org/sensory-gardens or Planet Natural at http://www.planetnatural.com/sensory-gardens/ for more inspiration.
Bethany Whitemyer is the Center Director at the Bright Horizons in Pembroke, Ma. She and her family, husband David and sons Evan and Lucas, live in Rockland, MA and she LOVES to dig in the dirt.