The Senses and Outdoor Teaching Areas
When creating sensory outdoor teaching spaces, it is worth remembering the many sensations we experience that are not formally categorised as one of the seven senses, for example, gravity, temperature, change, space, and enclosure. The following lists are intended to offer some ideas that highlight the many different sensory experiences your spaces can offer.
- Colour: Plants offer a complete spectrum of colour with the added delight of changes throughout the different seasons. In addition, single colour-themed areas can be considered that can be used to explore moods and atmosphere. Hard materials can provide a richness of colours and textures (stone, old brick, gravel, slate) or simple materials can be used to create patterns of colour (mosaics, murals, paving). Also, consider changes in appearance and colour of materials when wet and dry (pebbles in water).
- Shape: Most objects can be used although many natural materials are quite complex shapes. For simple, distinctive shapes consider paving (hexagons, squares, triangles) and plant containers (round, square, rectangular). Also, colour shapes projected through transparent materials can be engaging.
- Movement: Can be stimulating or relaxing, depending on the source and setting. There are many ways of combining movement with sound. Consider trees, grasses, mobiles, chimes, animals, water, and moving sculptures. Locate some within reach so that learners can activate them. Place wind-activated items in places likely to receive some breeze!
- Contrast: Particularly valuable for learners with visual impairments who have some residual vision. Consider hard surfaces and markings, kerbs and edgings, flowers, foliage, and sculptures.
- Patterns: These can provide fascinating effects and can inspire artwork. Regular patterns are provided by brickwork, paving, cobbles, fencing, dandelion clocks, and pinecones, and more random patterns by bark, variegated leaves, and skeleton leaves.
Organisers of nature studies often find listening activities to be a good way of calming people and tuning them into their environment. Learners often need to be encouraged to listen to sounds, especially more subtle ones. Consider both sounds that occur naturally and those that can be activated by learners. Natural sounds include leaves rustling in the wind, birds singing, water trickling/dripping/splashing, and rain on an overhead cover. Activated sounds include splashing water, striking chimes, and sound sculptures. Learners with hearing loss will be able to sense vibrations and percussive sounds and these can be provided through sculpture and features such as deer-scarers (Chinese tapping water features). ‘Sound fences’, activated by dragging a stick along a series of lengths of tubing or piping, are melodious and fun.
The outdoors is full of different textures and learners with visual impairment rely on these to interpret the environment. Options include rough surfaces (stone and bark), smooth (pebble, polished wood, leaves, flower petals), ridged (bark, textured concrete, backs of leaves), hairy (animals, leaves such as buds, grass), and bumpy (cobbles, twigs). Also think of objects that illustrate shapes (circular flowers, cubic containers, oval fruits, triangular leaves, etc), weight (light bark, heavy clay, etc.), temperature (sun-warmed water, cold shaded water; stone next to soil), wet and dry (moist and dry soil/sand, freshly shed leaves and older dry ones), and contrasting densities (hard stone and soft moss).
Although most attention has been given to scented plants, many other materials have distinctive and interesting smells. With plants, consider different types of scents: scents that fill the air and can be smelt without touching the plant. Intimate scents where the flowers need to be investigated (violet, primrose, some Narcissus). Activated scents that are released when plant parts are crushed (most culinary herbs, scented geranium) work in the U.K.
Another option is for people to try to identify the scents from different distinctive herbs, such as peppermint and apple mint, lemon thyme, and curry plant. There can be interesting differences between people’s abilities to detect the more subtle scents, such as violets and primroses, and in schools, it can be a fun exercise to get children to run a survey of their class. Some plant scents can be a problem for people with asthma, particularly the more powerful scents and those coupled with flowering and therefore pollen release.
Other options include a whole range of familiar smells (pond water, wood shavings, dried leaves, cut grass). The effects of water on smells can be interesting (wet soil, stone, leaves).
Taste can be a useful way of demonstrating where food comes from and showing the link between growing and eating. However, particularly with children, it is important to ensure that they remain cautious about unidentified plants, and it is probably necessary to restrict the choice to those food plants that are clearly recognised, such as apples. Choosing a defined area for herbs, and simple fruit/vegetable growth, e.g., potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce, is another way to incorporate taste activities. These areas can be clearly defined and separate from planting for colour, shape, and sound. This can be a work activity with planting, cultivating, and harvesting embedded within the curriculum with clear links to Science, Food Technology, Maths, Literacy, and Personal Health Education.
The next blog in this series will look at orientation, gravity and balance, cause and effect, moods and sensory journeys, and tactile murals.