7 Tips for Designing a Garden for Special Needs Kids

Make your garden a rewarding space for kids by adding water and removing chaos.
Hands-on Gardening

Hands-on Gardening

At Growing Solutions Farm in Chicago, the 1.5-acre urban garden is designed for individuals with autism.

Photo by: Photo courtesy of National Garden Bureau/Growing Solutions Farm

Photo courtesy of National Garden Bureau/Growing Solutions Farm

At Growing Solutions Farm in Chicago, the 1.5-acre urban garden is designed for individuals with autism.

Creating a garden for kids with special needs requires planning with them in mind, to make their time exploring and working in the spaces enjoyable and rewarding. 

Around the country, schools, botanical gardens and arboretums are considering the needs of children in designing sensory and healing gardens. Many of the features in those larger spaces can be applied to your home garden, and they could help children improve their motor and communication skills and enjoy gardening.

Mom Julie Tracy, who created Growing Solutions Farm in Chicago for her autistic child, and Diane Blazek, executive director of the National Garden Bureau, shared tips for designing a garden for kids with special needs. The Bureau in 2014 launched a fundraising campaign for the Julie + Michael Tracy Family Foundation and its 1.5-acre urban garden where young adults with autism develop skills for future jobs.

1. Ditch the hodgepodge layout

Some gardens are beautiful in their chaos, but gardens for special needs individuals should be set up in a more methodical way. The design must be organized and clear to the kids who are using and visiting the garden. For example, make it easy for kids to find the tools and garden supplies without a lot of prompting or searching, Tracy says. Map out the beds and plants in a way they can easily follow, instead of a scattering them throughout the property. The National Garden Bureau’s Pinterest page on special needs gardening offers ideas and photos.

2. Select the right supplies

Provide child-size tools for kids who are working in the garden. Also, have drinks and snacks nearby and encourage frequent breaks, since some children can become quickly overwhelmed. Select plants that are quick to grow, so that children can delight in the colors and taste the food from the garden. Also, ask children to select what type of vegetable, fruits and flowers they would like to grow.  

3. Add a water feature

Water can be soothing, and it's a key element to include in a garden for kids with special needs. Spaces need to be inviting from a sensory standpoint, says Blazek. Ponds, water gardens and fountains add sounds and create places that kids can touch. “Most kids with autism enjoy being around water. There should be lots of opportunities for watering,” she says.  

4. Make signage a priority

Adding signs with pictures to the garden beds can help children identify and learn about what is growing. “We put a lot of thought in terms of people being able to walk onsite and know instinctively what’s going on and where everything is,” Tracy says. Another option is to put numbers on the beds and create a manual that lists what is growing in each bed, for children to follow as they walk through, play and work in the garden.

5. Use sturdy materials 

When choosing your supplies for garden beds, select wood and materials that are sturdy enough to hold up, if a child needs to lean or sit on them. The beds at Growing Solutions Farm, for example, are made out of an appearance-grade cedar, which has a more upscale look. That type of cedar was selected because the wood is more smooth and doesn’t splinter, Tracy says.  

6. Space out your sections

Consider how far apart the beds need to be to accommodate items such as a wheelchair. At Growing Solutions, the beds also are higher than expected, about 16 inches off the ground, to make them more accessible. The Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin offers instructions on creating raised beds.

7. Show it off

During the design phase and when the garden is ready to go, post photos and videos on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and other social media outlets. That way, kids can get excited to see and share what’s going on in the garden. You can find YouTube videos of gardens such as The Sensory Garden at Commonwealth Elementary in Fullerton, Calif.

One more thought: If you want to work with an expert to design a garden with children with special needs, look for one with training in this specific area. For example, The American Horticulture Therapy Association, accredits certificate programs offered by colleges and botanical gardens. Find a professional who has completed a certificate program that focuses on creating gardens and plant- and nature activities for special needs individuals.

Award-winning Gardens

For more ideas, check out photos and details about recipients of the American Horticulture Therapy’s Therapeutic Garden Design Awards:
The Buehler Enabling Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden
Trillium Family Services: Parry Center for Children
The William E. Carter School Sensory Garden Outdoor Classroom  
Legacy Emanuel Children’s Hospital Garden

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