“Sensory Gardens” across America are missing the mark. While there is a visible attempt to bring natural elements into accessible spaces for older adults and those with dementia, something is lacking from the user experience.
Interactions with the natural environment should not be passive experiences. Many sensory gardens try to provide sensory input to the visual, auditory, and olfactory senses. But it is hard to feel connected to the experience, or have a good sense of your place in the environment, without the opportunity for a full sensory-motor loop.
Sensory INTEGRATIVE Gardens are environments that engage the person in an interactive experience with nature or offer some other cause-and-effect transaction. Watching a bird feeder or listening to a bubbling fountain provides part of the equation, but how does the person truly feel part of the experience?
In order to be an integrative experience, there needs to be a sensory input and a motor output. Can a participant scatter the bird seed? Walk on the grass? Stand at the fountain and play with the water? Can these features be made to be more accessible and hands-on?
Many senior living courtyards offer sidewalks that allow for continuous mobility- a “track” around the yard. While walking on a smooth surface is great exercise, the motor component is basically automated and the person may not be not challenged or stimulated with sensory input (which is something they are frequently seeking).
By changing the walking surfaces and challenging the balance system- mulch, grass, rocks- you are offering an integrative experience, and one that is completely natural in human habitats. There is sensory input- the unstable surface, rough or round texture of the elements, a change in color of the ground- and a motor output- ankle/knee/hip/postural adjustments. We were designed to do this, folks!
What about passive movement for those who can’t actively engage with elements in the environment?
Activities like rocking in a chair and swinging on a bench swing provide vestibular and proprioceptive stimulation that promotes postural adjustments and an improved sense of where they are in space. The visual feedback and the air direction changes help a person know where they are in relation to the environment around them.
Movement floods the sensorimotor system with feedback that is far more powerful than sedentary observation. The brain craves sensory input as much as the body craves movement. Providing opportunities to link the brain and body together through a sensory integrative experience that targets a fundamental human need.