Special school

Geraldine Connolly, principal of St Michael’s Special School, Co. Roscommon, tells us about her experience of developing a sensory garden for autistic pupils.

How did you go about planning the garden?

There was a lot of general knowledge about sensory gardens: plants ideas, etc., but I was very anxious that it should respect the needs of the wider array of pupils in the school – specifically those with autism. I thought about the ways classrooms and the school environment were adapted to respect the challenges faced by children with autism. It was vital that they would want to go to the garden, feel safe in it and be able to play. We had wanted an activity garden with adventure structures for climbing etc., but we did not have enough space or money. The autism specific sensory garden has been far more useful. 

What helped you regarding the setup of the garden?

We got a grant from CLÁR that helped us and we employed a company who specialised in provision of synthetic grass and installation.

We identified key elements in school and addressed each issue individually:

  1. Transition: Three entrance arches were requested that formed a curved entrance allowing for a gradual transition to the garden. A small (1 cm) drop between the tarmac of the yard and the start of the grass was provided to make it easy to step down rather than over the threshold. This permits wheelchair access.
  2. Definition of zones: A wall to define the boundary was put in place: not very high; not a security feature. The entrance side has a low wall (30cm) with glass above it for predictability (so that the students can see where they are going, and when they are inside they can see someone coming). It is also useful for staff to supervise and it has now become a nice feature to view from the main school.
  3. As students experience so much sensory feedback through their feet, areas were defined within the garden with different grass textures, e.g. longer grass for a smooth entrance/tighter harder grass for the circle time areas. Orange grass was also installed as a visual for a “change” area, i.e. sometimes there would a swing, or a giant connect four game or a playhouse just inside the glass so that the students would tolerate change within the garden.
  4. The school has a very low circular area defined by a stone wall for circle/group time. It has built-in wooden seating for groups to work with their teacher for story time, singing etc.; sometimes a circular table is brought out for a party, or table-top activities. The wooden seating also has storage underneath for bats, balls etc.
  5. There is a small gazebo in one corner for chilling, quiet, or alone time. It has enough seating for small groups of friends.
  6. A single workstation is available for sand play or planting etc., or one-to-one table-top activities.
  7. Sensory plants are in raised beds with seating spaces and there is a small water feature. Walls have blackboards and wall games and artificial textured hedges and mirrors for visual clues and sequencing movement breaks.
  8. A paved, short pathway leads from the garden to a small support room that is a play area in case it rains. Some low mounds were included to allow jumping for sensory feedback.
  9. As a school it was felt that it was possible to plan a visual sequence of activity for a student who needed it. It also reflected the TEACCH classroom (one-to-one, group play, independent work).
  10. It happened that the boundary wall provides shelter and the garden became a sun trap, so it is always a joy to be in it. 

The space is inclusive and equally safe and enjoyable for children in wheelchairs or with sensory processing differences or children who are very busy with high sensory needs.

How is the garden used on a day-to-day basis?

On a day to day basis teachers have used the garden for circle time, maths trails, science, green schools and art. It is used for whole school celebration and events. It is regularly used for movement breaks and time out as well as for formal PE lessons. Classes go out for playtime and Seniors use it as a meet up area with their friends. It is very useful for socialising when reverse integration groups are in school. It can be changed to suit different needs, i.e. a severe profound group might experience the textures of the plants, a class of juniors might chase bubbles, a group of teenagers might take their music with them. It is very supportive for staff working one-to-one with students who have behaviours of concern and need some space. It enriches the school environment and appeals to the students because it has no gates or fences in front. 


What are the benefits of the garden?

The biggest benefits are around wellbeing and inclusion. School yards and standard playgrounds are not so enjoyable for many children with special needs (Special Needs Assistants often have to help them to play formal games or walk round with them or help them on the climbing frame). The area is more defined and adaptable and less daunting. Students can be on their own or with others; they can watch or join in but are not left out. It can become a personalised experience for a child in difficulty who needs time out or for a student is anxious and needs a quiet space. 

The increased independence is also very important. High levels of supervision are not needed in the space. Playground equipment can be challenging for students but this area has no danger. Staff have a less intrusive presence and this also creates a genuine sense of freedom to play for pupils who have special needs.

Anxiety and tension can be reduced by access to open air. Many of the students who require additional support seem to enjoy being alone watching the leaves, listening to the birds and looking at the cloud patterns. There is a calming effect of entering the garden and feeling the breeze on their face. However it is a defined space so it does not overwhelm a student. Games and equipment can be added or removed to suit the age profile of the students so it can be easily adapted for Infants or Seniors.

The garden supports teaching and learning in so many ways that it was money well spent.

Any tips for other schools who would like to do similar?

The area should not be too big so it is easier to manage. In the future, the school would like to include a small tunnel with a bridge. It would be great for vocabulary building (over, under, through, beside, etc) and for drama. Also a shaded area for very hot days would be useful. Primary colours were avoided with a focus placed on natural features for texture and interest. We use bunting when required to lift the mood. Paths were avoided because it ends up being a circuit. The school had some large pots with trees in that didn’t last (no one to water them in the summer and hard frost in the winter). The raised beds were easy to maintain. The built in wooden seats were not so good – unless they are painted/varnished every year. Recycled plastic might be a better option.