Sensory Outdoor spaces
The ‘multisensory environment’ whether indoors or outdoors, is a place where we can increase or decrease a sensory stimulus, in other words, control experiences for learners who have difficulties modulating the sensory input.
Through careful and imaginative design, it is possible to create sensory spaces outside that offer a wide range of controllable experiences. The open air induces sensory responses intrinsically, but it is the concentration of different experiences that gives sensory designs their specific identity.
- Passive places, designed to be relaxing and comfortable.
- Stimulating spaces with varied sensory experiences.
- Teaching spaces with exciting curriculum content.
- Social spaces for meeting and interacting.
The Sensory Trust explains, ‘When planning for sensory interest it is important to decide exactly what you want.’ It is as important to plan an activity in these spaces as it is to plan an in-class communication lesson. Without learning intentions, use of the space can become aimless, and opportunities are lost. For an outdoor space to truly be ‘an external classroom’ both the design and the usage must complement each other so that educators and students are active rather than passive participants in the space.
Sensory spaces generally benefit from a mix of fixed and portable equipment, especially where space is limited, and this also allows for the diverse and changing needs of the learners; you can increase the flexibility of a space by adding portable equipment as needed. Using the area in this way avoids redundant clutter, increases novelty engagement, and encourages personalisation of activities.
Here are three suggested areas within an outdoor space:
Area 1: Active Outdoor Sensory: This is a space where learners can move, run, bounce, and climb safely. It could also provide an out-of-hours space for family use.
Area 2: Sensory Garden: A self-contained area that concentrates a wide range of sensory experiences. Such an area, if designed well, provides a valuable resource for a wide range of uses, from education to recreation. This is a space that could be used as a calm teaching space allowing interaction with the natural world. Planting schemes should cover sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Linking to the need for water for plant growth, it would also be the ideal place to provide a water feature.
Within this garden area, there could be four zones:
- Zone A would have a covered seating area, thus providing a group space for activities such as musical work, storytelling, and meditation. The seats would offer flexible arrangements and should be constructed with inbuilt storage for smaller items to be used in sessions thus avoiding transporting kit or arriving to start a session without a necessary item. This area could also provide a series of sound making/creating installations in keeping with its use for performance, storytelling, celebration, etc.
- Zone B would be a trellis-covered entrance to the sensory garden with planting chosen for colour, scent, and the ability to trail and drape.
- Zone C would form the ‘work’ zone with accessible raised planting beds where learners could get close to plants so perhaps used for herbs, simple vegetables, growing experiments. Wall hanging gardens could also be incorporated into this area.
- Zone D would be partially separated by a living wall partition, behind which is a quiet, planted zone with some seating for people to relax and enjoy. A water feature would add to the relaxation qualities of this zone.
Area 3: Sensory Trail: The trail provides a range of sensory experiences but would have more association with movement. It would therefore have a direct application to teaching orientation skills, for example through people learning to recognise different sounds, textures and smells along the trail and gaining confidence in their own abilities to interpret the environment and find their own way. Body awareness is enhanced through both feet and hands as the trail is experienced. It is important that a trail leads to something engaging, so it is envisaged that the end of the space leads to another simple seating area which would be set for an activity on arrival. The trail would have two options, a sensory pathway, and a sensory hand trail – often a piece of art with a variety of texture and colour taking the learner on a horizontal journey along a wall.