Browsing through the hundreds of ideas submitted to The School We’d Like competition, a sensory or wildlife garden jumped out as a project which many teachers were calling out for, especially at special schools.
But what are the secrets to creating the perfect sensory garden? We spoke to Pauline Holbrook, deputy headteacher at Portland Academy, one of the runners-up in our special schools category with an idea to build a sensory woodland walk, and Robert Sergent-Fairley, an expert in building sensory gardens for schools, to find out how to build a stimulating outdoor learning space.
Choosing the right space
A sensory garden can be everything from a window box to a huge area. It really depends how much space a school has, says Pauline. But there’s always a space in the school you can make into a more sensory environment. So no school should be put off.
The shape and the size of it is determined by what the school wants it use the space for, she adds. It also depends what students you have. For example, if you don’t have any children in a wheelchair, you can have tighter corners and more slopes.
Pauline explained: “Sometimes schools start too big or too small and at the end of the day you’ve also got to be aware that somebody has got to look after it. These things don’t look after themselves. There’s nothing worse than an unloved space in the school.”
What to include in your sensory garden
Robert says the visual impact of the space is the most important element. His recommended mantra for schools is green, green and more green.
Raised planters are great for schools because it cuts down on maintenance and means you don’t have to hack out the ground, he advises. Trellis work is also good because you can grow climbers up it. It also provides privacy for the children in the garden. The biggest impact will be from the trees, which should always be evergreen so children can use the garden all year round.
Every single plant has a different feeling – wide, narrow, elliptical, oval or hairy. Touch can also be covered using ground surfaces such as mosaics, pebbles, gravel, polished glass pieces and shingles. Robert recommends using timber – rough, smooth, grooved – in pathways or deckings. There are plenty of stone materials including bricks and pavings which feel great to touch under foot or hand.
Robert advises choosing flowers that are highly scented or shrubs such as the Mexican orange blossom which, when you rub the leaves, gives out a fragrant, aromatic scent. Timber smells great when it dries out too. Shrubs, flowers, herbs, leaves – these can all give off a wonderful scent. Lavender and rosemary are two classic plants for this purpose.
One thing that’s tricky to cover is hearing, Robert admits. However, you can cover that by including tall plants like bamboos for the wind to blow through or short tufty plants. In the autumn some of the plants throw out seed packets which rattle. You can also hang items from trees such as wind chimes.
Water features can also be a useful addition, if there is space. “You can get a very good self contained pebble pool from your local garden centre,” Pauline says. “It’s very safe because it’s got the mesh over and you can bury it down.”
A fruit and vegetable garden are the most common ways schools stimulate this sense, explains Robert. Although this is entirely dependent on space and budget.
If you’ve got older students then you can make the maintenance duties part of their work experience programme.
“If you’ve got a really good site team or interested members of staff, you can build it into the curriculum, which is something we do,” she said. “We do horticulture for students and have work experience with the site team. That gives them a huge ownership of it so you don’t get as much damage – accidental or otherwise. It can also be built into your site maintenance contract.”
Remember that a lot of things grow over the summer when you are not there and your school will need to take that into consideration.
Pauline explained: “Again, it’s about considering who is going to look after it over holiday periods and water plants, especially if things are in tubs as they are going to be more susceptible to dying off. It’s the planning beforehand which makes it really work.”
Robert says one way to avoid maintenance headaches is to use artificial grass. It’s so good, you won’t even tell the difference, he says.
For Pauline’s students, learning outside is infinitely more meaningful than reading books. The children learn by doing and experience. But whether your students are SEN or not, the garden can be a stimulating place to learn any subject.
“Just getting students to talk about what they are experiences all helps with the learning,” Pauline says. “It has huge benefits and gets them to use all their senses.”