Sensory gardens promote leisure and mindfulness

PITTSBURGH – Sensory gardens create opportunities for relaxation and mindfulness, say some experts.

Occupational therapy experts at Chatham University in Pittsburgh say summer is a good time to create stress-relieving sensory gardens.

Sensory gardens are outdoor spaces that allow people to interact with nature using some or all of the five senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. Like meditation, yoga, and other relaxation techniques, sensory gardens can help heighten the effects of mindfulness.

Occupational therapy students have created a sensory garden on the Eden Hall campus of Chatham University.

“The Eden Hall Sensory Garden is a pilot to see how we can improve the quality of life for our students here on campus and possibly our community members,” said Janet Bucey, assistant professor at Chatham.

While Chatham focuses on his college students, the university said anyone can create a sensory garden.

“The key is to ask yourself questions about your particular sensory needs so that you can consciously decide which senses you want to activate: Which sights, smells, sounds, touches and tastes do you find comforting and which help you to recharge? ”Said Theresa Delbert, PhD coordinator and assistant professor at the School of Health Sciences at Chatham University. With these goals in mind, you can incorporate specific plants and physical traits to create an interactive, multi-sensory experience that will help you relax, re-focus, and re-energize. “

For a multisensory experience, consider the following:


Consider tweaking a mind garden with flowers, trees, birds, and other shapes, colors, and movements.

  • Which colors make you calm or happy?
  • Would you prefer to rest and refuel in the sunlight or in the shade?
  • Are there any animals that you like to watch? If so, consider adding a feeder, bath, or other attractor to your sensory garden so you can observe their sights and sounds.


Consider planting herbs, flowers, grass, and other fragrant plants and flowers.

  • Oregano and thyme provide a hearty aroma that stimulates energy and alertness
  • Lavender can help relieve anxiety
  • Mint provides a fresh and rejuvenating scent


Consider adding elements that will attract birds. Maybe add a wind or water element like bells, chimes and others.

  • Which sounds do you want to hear and which sounds do you want to block out?
  • Mobile objects such as wind turbines can stimulate both visually and aurally
  • If you find the sound of running water soothing, consider adding a fountain


Notice the warmth of the sunlight, the coolness of the shade, the breeze on your skin and the different textures in the garden.

  • Consider adding plants whose leaves, petals, and bark have different textures
  • If possible, avoid plastics or metals and prioritize wood, stone, and fabric instead
  • Do certain sensations calm or energize you? For example, would your sensory garden benefit from a rocking chair, fan, weighted blanket, warm sunlight, etc.?


Consider incorporating elements that are physically and emotionally satisfying, such as edible plants.

  • Do certain tastes remind you of fond memories?
  • Does the aroma or taste of a cup of coffee, tea, or other beverage differ outside or in a space deliberately designed to be less visual distractions?
  • Growing tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, carrots, etc. can provide both tactile and taste sensory stimulation.

While a sensory garden is easiest to create in an existing backyard or other green space, city dwellers can also incorporate the principles of the sensory garden into common areas, wooded areas or verandas, patios or other personal spaces. The decisive factor is not where a sensory garden is located, but how it is interacted with.

“There is a difference between spending time in one place and actively engaging with a place,” said Bucey. “Sensory gardens offer people the opportunity to consciously activate their entire range of senses in a way that they normally do not experience, which can have a profound effect on their mood, attitude and energy. After seeing its positive effects on our occupational therapy students, in the future we would like to investigate the influence of the Chatham Sensory Garden on other groups who are often very anxious or stressed, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia patients.

Studies show that nature-based therapies can have a positive effect on veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

A study published in Health Psychology Open included eight Danish veterans who participated in 10-week nature-based therapy. The results showed that the veterans had acquired coping skills and tools for use in stressful situations, showing an overall improvement in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sensory opportunities are not a new concept for people with special needs. Many schools and children’s centers create sensory spaces for children. The University of Alabama at Huntsville has created a sensory garden for students with special needs in their Early Learning Center, and the little gardeners love it, according to the center’s director Deana Aumalis.

However, according to Kasey Stepansky, academic field research coordinator and assistant professor, there hasn’t been much research into how sensory gardens affect college students.

“We were interested in the effects this therapeutic space would have on the campus environment and the campus students,” said Stepansky.

Megan Jones, a graduate student in occupational therapy, said she felt stressed as a student, and the sensory garden helped alleviate some of that.

“Being able to get out there, even if it’s just a matter of sitting down and enjoying the surroundings and taking in everything you experience, is a really relaxing feeling,” said Jones. “I think it’s just a really good tool that students can use.”

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