Delight for the senses
A sensory garden designed to help children with special needs
Sheltered behind a high cypress hedge in the east Melbourne suburb of Canterbury is a garden that creates a little gasp of excitement for the visitor. It’s a wonderland of spaces that has been made for the enrichment of children with sensory needs – that is, children who have autism, sensory processing disorders, and vision or hearing impairments. But it’s also the private family garden of retired health professional
Liz Reid and her husband, Robin.
Here, a variety of sensory experiences have been cleverly integrated into a garden that is not prescriptive in the way it should be experienced, but which subtly encourages children to wander into and through it. Along the way, they discover various spaces, plants, textures and fragrances, all of which can enhance their learning, engagement and spatial awareness.
An intimate reading room sits snugly beneath the shelter of a mature lillypilly beside a welcoming water feature, with softly hued, fragrant roses, and knockout perfumes from lilacs and jasmine. A meandering path through a shrubbery of fragrant plants leads to a raised platform perched up in a jacaranda tree. A hidden tunnel through the bushes gives an unexpected fun space for children to crawl through, and a lawn maze provides a soft, spongy surface.
The garden is filled with an array of plants chosen for their fragrance, colour, texture, aroma, taste and visual interest. While a soft, calming colour palette has been used for the flowers, there are still pops of
brighter colours integrated throughout the garden, enticing the children to stop, look, smell and touch. Roses, buddleja, lilac, rosemary, osmanthus, choisya, jasmine, salvias, scented geraniums, philadelphus, westringia and grevillea create a tapestry among mature ornamental pears and an Irish strawberry tree that circle the house.
With its high boundary hedges and mature trees, the garden has a feeling of enclosure and safety.
Yet the combination of sheltered and open spaces provides opportunities for children to explore and retreat as their comfort levels allow.
a calming space
Liz and Robin immediately recognised the potential of this garden space when they were looking for a new home after living overseas. Liz’s knowledge and experience as a health professional helped shape her vision of creating a garden for children with sensory deficits, impairments or poor health.
At the time of its development, there was little awareness of the benefits of sensory gardens, and poor accessibility to them, so Liz and Robin were keen to create a special garden that small groups of children from the community could visit.
“There is no suggestion that this is a therapy garden, but it has been an enjoyable opportunity to create a garden for visitors to really immerse themselves in,” says Liz. “We wanted it to be a soulful experience and not just offer physical interaction.”
On entering the garden you can see several rooms, paths and vistas ahead of you, all of which entice you to explore. The design has thoughtfully considered that children have different experiential needs. Some enjoy open spaces, while others are at ease in intimate spaces, and others are happy to explore independently.
Spaces such as the delightful story-telling room provide an enclosed, safe, protected area with hints of views out to the garden beyond. A small pond and subtle water fountain are surrounded by seaside daisies (Erigeron karvinskianus), whose small flowers can be picked and thrown into the pond. For the adventurous, the tree platform reveals a view over the garden, giving a sense of mastery over the kingdom. Combined with the hidden tunnel, these elements offer experiences of going under, over and above.
The lawn maze, with its grass and paved pattern, provides a more structured path to follow, and this fosters decision-making skills as children navigate their way to the sundial in the centre. The thick grass provides a wonderfully soft, tactile experience, which contrasts with the firm, brick pathway.
A deliberate effort has been made to use a variety of landscaping materials, including sandstone paving, granitic sand, river pebbles, turf, timber decking and bark, to enhance the sensory impact of the garden.
One area that is very popular with children is the pebble pathway, where a beautiful metal statue of a dog is positioned. With the crunchy noise of the gravel beneath, and the rough and smooth textures of the statue, it is no wonder this is a favourite.
the private garden
As you walk through a vine-covered pergola that divides the front yard in two, you enter the couple’s private garden. This is a space designed for outdoor living that connects more directly with internal living areas of the house. Across different levels there are a lawn, a gazebo covered in a beautiful wisteria that was kept from the original garden, a stepped decking area with clusters of potted flowers and herbs, and a raised vegetable garden.
On the lower level, against the house, is a large, paved area for social gatherings that has an added surprise element. Robin’s engineering experience and knowledge were the driver to cover the existing pool and pave over it, so they could store rainwater for irrigating the gardens. It was an astute and practical idea to use the existing pool structure for water storage while also maximising space for the gardens.
“Our garden is an adjunct to the house that we wouldn’t consider being without,” says Liz. “From inside we are visually connected with our garden, and the inside and outside spaces flow together.”
Whether it is used by children or adults, this is a garden that is about fostering enhancement, enrichment and engagement at a sensory level.
It is a garden where you can spend long periods of time feeling both relaxed and enthused.
See Steven visiting Liz in her garden on Friday, March 9 at 7.30pm on ABC TV or catch up on iView