Early Introductions to Sensory Gardens: Infants and Toddlers
Infants learn about the world through their senses: touch, sight, sound, taste, and smell. Creating safe, diverse and developmentally appropriate outdoor learning environments can offer benefits across curriculum and developmental areas.
The key to creating positive experiences in outdoor learning environments lies not only in the physical environment but with the modeling and behavior of caregivers. Just as infants learn about relationships from how people touch/hold them and from the tones of voice or facial expressions, this is also how they learn about their relationship to the natural world around them.
Early sense of trust is not limited to having basic needs met, but also feeling safe in a variety of environments. As a caregiver, you have the opportunity to help infants form positive relationships with both humans and the natural world. Creating safe outdoor learning environments that offer infants and toddlers the opportunity to explore and experiment with the natural world must be combined with caregivers who are willing and able to let children interact with their environment and model that interaction themselves.
Infants and toddlers are often thought of as "too young” to be involved in gardening, but they can be engaged through watering, harvesting, digging, and exploring worms, insects and birds. The best way to help these ages benefit from a garden experience is through their senses.
Sensory Garden Components and Ideas
Interactivity – Design sensory gardens to encourage interaction with the environment. Create opportunities for children to move through the garden. Grow edibles. What better interactive sensory experience than eating?! Include classroom or outdoor activities in which children help create parts of the outdoor learning environment or garden. Create child size places, such as vine covered hide-a-ways or tunnels.
Sight - Color, shape, visual texture, movement, light and shadow. When planning year- round sensory experiences for children incorporate colors, shapes, light and special features throughout the year. Plant flowers of varying colors that bloom at different times of the year. Consider planting long grasses or ‘weeping’ tree varieties that will move in a breeze.
Include plants and features that appeal to butterflies, such as herbs or flowering trees and Consider the view from inside the classroom and include interesting plants, flowers, or birdfeeders that children can see from Integrate mobiles, mirrors or sculpture into outdoor environments.
Sound - Many sounds in a sensory garden don’t need planning, such as the sound of wind rushing through the leaves, rustling grasses or singing birds. But, to enhance the variety of sounds you may include: Dripping or trickling water Wind chimes (homemade or store bought) Encourage birds into your garden with a birdbath, nectar or non-toxic berry producing trees and plants Quiet places (sometimes sounds are too overwhelming)
Touch - Think texture: Include soft flowers, fuzzy leaves, springy moss, rough bark, succulent leaves, and prickly seed pods. Choose hardy varieties of plants that can cope with handling. Place delicate flowers and plants in hard-to-reach places. Place plants and trees close to walkways so children walking along the path may be brushed by foliage. Don’t cut low-hanging tree branches unless they are a hazard. Intersperse rocks, wood, fabric or toys of different sized, shaped and textures.
Smell - Smells don’t just have to come from blooming flowers. When planning a sensory garden for infants and toddlers, think about both strong and subtle smells that they may explore directly or indirectly. Plant flowers with subtle smells that require you to stick your nose into the petals, such as violets. Consider planting a non-slip creeper or herb on or near a path so that, when you walk on the plant, it will release a beautiful aroma – for example, thyme. Choose plants that are pollinated by birds or insects rather than plants that release their seeds into the air. This will help any children who suffer from hay fever or asthma.
Taste- A favorite sense. Everything in an infant and toddler garden should be edible, or at least non- toxic. Edible flowers are not only beautiful but safe plants for the playground. Grow veggies and herbs in your school yard and use them in cooking or sensory experiences in the classroom.
Early introduction to fresh, healthy foods will have an important impact as children begin making their own food choices.