Sensory Gardening for Kids

An Adventure in Dirt



We live in a sensory world. Everything we know about the environment comes through our sensory systems: what we see, hear, feel, smell and taste. We have two more sensory systems we didn’t learn about in school: the vestibular system, which tells us how our body is moving through space, coordinating balance and movement; and the proprioceptive system, which tells us where our body is in space, how much force we need to accomplish a task and perception of deep pain. When all systems work in coordination, we respond appropriately to sensory information.

Some individuals have sensory systems easily overwhelmed by even a small amount of stimulation. They can be hyper-sensitive and avoid certain experiences. Others may not get enough sensory stimulation to detect information from the world and are hypo-sensitive. These individuals may seek out sensory experiences. Sensory differences are most noticeable in children. They can be over-active, seeking out sensory experiences, or under-active, avoiding participation in some activities. Often these children are mistakenly diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed medications they don’t need that make things worse for them. It is important children receive appropriate evaluation for diagnosis and treatment.

Regardless of sensory differences, gardening is a multi-sensory experience. The overly sensitive child can be encouraged to experience activities at their comfort level and help them be less fearful. The under-sensitive child will enjoy the physical activity and dirty business of gardening.

TOUCH: Plants and dirt come in a variety of textures. Rocks can be smooth and round or rough and odd-shaped. More sensitive kids may want smooth and soft dirt. Sensory seekers may like adding their own ingredients. Walk barefoot through the grass and dirt. Play in the mud.

SIGHT: There are so many colors of plants and flowers. Dirt and rocks vary in color. Find the butterflies, lizards, worms and other insects living and enjoying your garden.

SMELL: Flowers and dirt have a variety of odors. Plant different kinds of mint and herbs for the nose to explore. Close your eyes and try to guess that smell.

SOUND: Help your child identify different sounds they hear such as the birds and wind, the sound of plants moving in the breeze. Add a wind chime or whirligig—or both.

TASTE: Explore the different flavors of vegetables and herbs. Make a salad or have a cooking adventure. Yes, even the dirt tastes different. Not an activity encouraged, but those sensory seekers may explore it anyways.

VESTIBULAR: Gardening requires lots of movement. Dance in the garden. Pretend you’re the butterfly and fly. Be the tree or plant swaying in the breeze.

PROPRIOCEPTIVE: Dig, dig, dig. This uses lots of muscles and different forces depending on if the tool is a hand, shovel, rake or trowel. Pat the dirt down. Squish the mud using different forces and see what happens.

Gardening combines multiple sensory systems. Help the sensory-seeker experience how to control the experience to enjoy it. Help the sensory avoider gently engage in the fun.

Karen Van Wie, PMHNP-BC is a psychiatric nurse practitioner providing services for children, adolescents and adults through her private practice at InnSæi: Health for Mind and Body. She assesses for sensory processing differences in children and adults. Connect at 520-343-2105 or InnSaeiHMB.com.

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