The power of the great outdoors

In my career as a landscape designer I have had the privilege of designing a number of outdoor spaces for children with special needs. My interest started when I volunteered at a local special school that had a farm and garden. The school catered for a wide range of children, from those on the autistic spectrum to children with behavioural problems. During my time there I observed the unique role the outdoor environment plays in a child’s development, and as I went on to train in landscape design it gave me a passion for wanting to be involved in projects that have a therapeutic aspect to them. As I started training and setting up in business, I worked as a brailist, supporting a young child through early years who was integrated into a mainstream school.

This experience gave me an insight into the world of visual impairment, which I have since found extremely useful when creating gardens for both blind and partially sighted adults and children.
In all my dealings with special needs children both in special schools or integrated into mainstream it would seem to me the range of needs is as vast and complex as the children are unique. As a designer this can make specific schemes challenging as well as exciting, however I do believe there are some key elements that can appeal to all children and adapted to different situations.

Fostering a sense of wonder
There seems to be in all children an inbuilt sense of wonder for the natural world, both in its vast expanse and its unique and beautiful detail. The question I would pose is ‘how as adults can we encourage and nurture this?’         
Good design comes into play, but enthusiasm and encouragement from the adults involved has always been a vital part of any schemes I have designed that have gone on to be a great success. In practical terms ensure the features in the garden are fully accessible, flowers should be near enough to smell, touch and look at closely, in raised beds if mobility is a problem. Ponds should be included as an excellent way of encouraging wildlife, shallow areas for pond dipping with habitat creation for newts, frogs and toads. Simple exercises can foster this sense of wonder and develop a life long passion. The writer and naturalist Roger Deakin attributed his love of the natural world to a science teacher who encouraged him and his young friend to measure how far diving beetles went down in their school pond. A simple exercise that completely captured a young boys imagination, Roger Deakin went on to jointly set up the common ground movement, which celebrates local distinctiveness and was a lifelong naturalist.  

Creating Community
A fully integrated garden design can encourage children and adults working together in the outdoors and across the whole school. For example, raised beds should not be set apart in one part of the garden, but by mixing up the provision for growing food children who are more able can work alongside those in wheelchairs. Adults too, from the local gardening community can be encouraged to get involved and share their knowledge with the children. Ramps for wheelchairs to make as much of the garden accessible as possible and textured paving to help those with a visual impairment get around the garden are important features that can be made to look attract as well as being practical. Yellow is the last colour a person losing their sight will see, so this can be used to good effect when marking paths and steps. The hands on, working alongside approach to gardening can be used to break down barriers and build relationships across the school, both between children and with adults.

Care and involvement
Following on from community comes care, care for each other and learning to take care of plants, which fosters a sense of responsibility and maturity. Gardening can be used to give children a growing sense of nurture and choice. A simple idea for choice is to create a small space for each child to ‘own’ giving them the choice of what they grow in this space and if it’s edible how they cook it and eat it. A good guideline on this is a one metre square patch, I’ve seen this work very effectively in a school setting, children can be encouraged to share seed, share ideas and help each other to achieve some healthy plants. The unique role of nurturing plants can help a child express feelings of not being looked after, or can give them a responsibility they had not previously had, helping them to grow.

Mistakes have been made in the past when designing play spaces for schools that are too prescriptive, it has been recognised more recently that children thrive with a sense of risk and adventure. Choosing the level of risk and stepping out into an adventure are important metaphors for life, although this understandably needs assessing it is a key element in a child’s learning and development.         

The other important feature when designing play spaces is to allow space for children to use their imagination. For example, a simple area of raised decking, which to an adult may look nothing exciting, to a child involved in imaginary play becomes a stage, a pirate ship or a story telling platform. The rule on this from a design perspective is sometimes less is more and keeping activities simple. Some of my best sessions in schools have been den building exercises, using natural materials like hazel, willow and leaves to create a space to climb into. This fosters teamwork if it is run in groups, and once, in hospice situation I was running, it became a very poignant discussion with the children about where they feel safe, particularly when so much around them is changing and out of their control.

Engage all the senses
Where one sense is impaired, the other senses become all the more important. To evolve a design that engages all the senses allows the garden to develop with the children who use it into the future.
With touch we often think only of the hands, but the feet can also be important, barefoot walking on different textures, or children being encouraged to engage their whole body in touch, rather than just a camomile lawn to walk on, what about a camomile and thyme bank to lie on and touch? Soft grasses planted near a path to run fingers through or the very soft leaves of Stachys byzantina (lamb’s ears) can be a wonderful experience. It’s not only plants that offer an opportunity to touch, rocks, water, textures in the hard landscaping can all be included in this vital element.
The importance of children having the time and space to grow their own food is widely recognised as a key element in school gardens. Although it needs careful monitoring for showing plants that can and cannot be eaten, the sheer joy of growing a plant from seed and then cooking it and eating it is always a massive hit in my experience. Vegetables can be planted alongside edible flowers to give a wide spectrum of colour in the garden as well as taste. The other thing to consider is fruit, soft fruit is easy to grow and always fun to pick, avoid very thorny plants like gooseberries and do plan for a season when the school is open. Early raspberries or late autumn raspberries are probably best so the majority of the crop does not come out in the school holidays when there is no one there to enjoy it. Where a school has a multi cultural intake, learning about growing and cooking food from different cultures can be of enormous value in breaking down barriers.
It’s important to never under estimate the power of scent in a garden, there are two ways to introduce scent when designing with plants. The first one is scented flowers, make sure these are accessible to the children, planting scented flowers near seats and over pergolas, encouraging children to take the time to smell the flowers and enjoy them.     

Alongside this there are many plants that have aromatic leaves, many of the herb family including; Lavender, thyme and marjoram to give a few examples. I would again put these aromatic plants near a path way or create a no grass lawn with them so they can be walked on and touched, releasing their pungent scent.

Sound & Sight
The sound of water is a very evocative noise in a garden, smaller, lower waterfalls and dripping water will give a much more soothing sound than a large rush of water, which can be very energising. A simple water feature with a single sump and pump is inexpensive, generally safe as the water is contained and not open, this can be used to great effect in a courtyard setting. Wind chimes are often used, but I would turn again to plants to give different sounds in the garden. Tall ornamental grasses rustle in the wind and add movement and sense of semi enclosure around a seating area. I completed a garden recently for a man who is completely blind and as such he has developed a very keen sense of hearing, he was able to describe to me the sound a leaf makes when it is growing on a very hot, still summer day. Birdsong is extremely important to hear in a garden, wherever possible to encourage birdlife through feeding and habitat creation, then give the children permission to sit and listen to the sounds around them.
The use of colour is so important, strong, hot colours like reds and yellows can make a border ping with excitement, colours to calm are on the softer spectrum; white, green and blues. It is possible to create a whole mood in a garden just through good use of colour. As many of us look before you venture into a garden space, leading the eye through the garden before you follow on yourself is a very good design tool. Curved paths invite you to explore, focal points or seating that can be glimpsed from a distance will encourage a visitor to want to move through the space.
As a Landscape Designer for over twenty years, I have observed the growing enthusiasm to use the outdoor space well around our special schools, schools, hospices and hospitals. The need to be in touch with nature on a regular basis feeds something fundamental in all of us.

Hannah Genders is a registered designer member of the British Association of Landscape Industries (BALI).

Further Information
To find a registered BALI member visit