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Enhancing Therapeutic Effects: The Role of Sensory Elements in Facility Gardens

Updated: Oct 24, 2023


Enhancing Therapeutic Effects: The Role of Sensory Elements in Facility Gardens - The Occupational Therapy Hub

In the worlds of education, health, recreation, business and many other sectors, one element of design is popping up where it was often once absent: gardens! Lush, lively greenery, that pampers the senses of sight, touch, sound, smell - and sometimes even taste!


Beyond the enjoyment of 'taking in the outdoors', studies have highlighted a variety of health and wellbeing benefits. For example, The American Heart Association recommends spending time in nature to quell stress and anxiety.


A myriad of studies have shown that just a few minutes spent in a green setting can reduce cortisol levels, lower heart and respiration rates and promote greater focus.

In the worlds of architecture and design, this trend is known as biophilic design (Kellert, 2015). Its aim - to forge a stronger connection between human beings and nature - is growing in prevalence. If you work in a health or care setting and are considering incorporating a garden that caters to the senses, then read on...


Enhancing Therapeutic Effects: The Role of Sensory Elements in Facility Gardens - The Occupational Therapy Hub


Pampering the Sense of Sight

Research undertaken at the Vrije University Medical Centre in the Netherlands has shown that simply looking at images of nature can settle a person’s nerves and reduce their heart rate and stress levels (Dockrill, 2016). This is because it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls certain rest functions, within mechanisms of homeostasis. Of course, in-person exposure to flowers, plants and trees can facilitate wider benefits, by tapping into the senses.


When deciding to landscape an outdoor living space for inpatients, a community project or within a care setting, the essence of biophilic design is an important consideration. Assuming sufficient space allows, features to incorporate might include:

  • Plants, trees and flowers of various species, colours, textures and heights

  • Structures constructed from sustainable natural materials

  • Areas that inspire curiosity and exploration, such as water features

  • Elements that a wild, untouched landscape would contain, such as private nooks separated from other areas by a 'living wall'

  • Viewing/resting spots at different levels



Enhancing Therapeutic Effects: The Role of Sensory Elements in Facility Gardens - The Occupational Therapy Hub


Adding Fragrant Elements to Your Sensory Garden

The National Institutes of Health reports that the sense of smell affects mood, stress and working capacity (Sowndhararajan and Kim, 2016). Brain studies have revealed that certain scents can influence brain activity and cognitive functions, as measured by an electroencephalograph. Studies have also shown that specific fragrances, including lavender, chamomile and bergamot, can enhance mood, promote relaxation and reduce stress and anxiety. If there are benches or seating areas for relaxation at your facility, it could therefore be therapeutic to grow fragrant plants nearby - such as lavender, roses and aromatic herbs (think basil, rosemary and thyme). These can transport dwellers to a more peaceful and content state of mind. They could also help counter illness or health-related worries and anxiety.



Enhancing Therapeutic Effects: The Role of Sensory Elements in Facility Gardens - The Occupational Therapy Hub


Harnessing the Effects of Sound

Incorporating sounds from nature into a sensory garden can create a serene environment that promotes mindfulness, becoming a favourite place for dwellers to gather during leisure time. Research has shown that both the sight and sound of water can induce a flood of neurochemicals, that increase blood flow to the heart and brain and boost wellness. One 2023 study showed that, even in virtual reality settings, the sound of water brings restorative benefits to those who immerse themselves in such environments (Hsieha et al, 2023). Such sounds can be added into a garden via pond water fountains or stand-alone water features.


By growing a wildlife-friendly garden, birds and other sound-producing wildlife can also be attracted to the space. Start by choosing native plants and refrain from trimming the grass and plants too short. Provide elements such as bird baths, feeders and nooks for small wildlife to hide in.



Enhancing Therapeutic Effects: The Role of Sensory Elements in Facility Gardens - The Occupational Therapy Hub
Graphic credit: Hsieha et al (2023)


Enjoying a Tasteful Experience

One of life’s greatest pleasures is arguably that of picking a ripe piece of fruit from a tree, or harvesting your own seasonal vegetables. If the garden you are creating or renovating has the space, provide dwellers with a dedicated section to grow vegetables; zucchini, tomatoes, radish and lettuce are relatively easy for novice gardeners to tend to. If there is room for trees, try to grow a few fruit-bearing ones, such as apple, orange and pear trees. Again, choose native plants if possible; this will reduce the need for frequent watering, as they will be well-adapted to the local climate.

In smaller spaces like terraces or balconies, a breadth of fruits and vegetables can still be housed in raised beds, containers or aeroponic towers. Inpatients or care home residents might alternatively enjoy growing herbs in indoor pots. Use a few trays, compost, specific beans or sprouts (e.g. mung beans or alfalfa sprouts) and have a watering can nearby.



Enhancing Therapeutic Effects: The Role of Sensory Elements in Facility Gardens - The Occupational Therapy Hub


Choosing Varied Textures

To offer a more varied and tactile experience to garden dwellers, try to fill the space with items boasting different textures. These might include plants with soft or rough leaves and a variety of grasses, such as Japanese forest grass or pampas grass. This will provide visual and tactile contrast to the hardscaping (stone, wood and/or concrete). Vary texture further by including different paths and finishes. For instance, why not use a herringbone pattern for a brick pathway, or roughly-hewn stone for a rustic look?



 

In summary

Regardless of the space available, you can make the most of a garden by growing one that stimulates and entertains the senses. A variety of visual features is a good place to start. Aim to include structures and flora that are normally found growing wildly. Continue then by appealing to the other senses, especially smell and hearing. The more sensory experiences incorporated into the garden design, the more likely dwellers are to feel transported into a truly serene and special place, with potential benefits for both physical health and mental wellbeing.



Enhancing Therapeutic Effects: The Role of Sensory Elements in Facility Gardens - The Occupational Therapy Hub


 

References and Further Reading


American Heart Association (2018) Spend Time in Nature to Reduce Stress and Anxiety. Available at: https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/spend-time-in-nature-to-reduce-stress-and-anxiety. Accessed: 19 October 2023.


Dockrill, P. (2016) Just Looking at Photos of Nature Could Be Enough to Lower Your Work Stress Levels. Science Alert (online). Available at: https://www.sciencealert.com/just-looking-at-photos-of-nature-could-be-enough-to-lower-your-work-stress-levels. Accessed 23 October 2023.


Gomez, M.N. (2023) Occupational Therapy and Mindfulness in Health and Social Care Settings. The Occupational Therapy Hub - Therapy Articles (online). Available at: https://www.theothub.com/article/occupational-therapy-and-mindfulness-in-health-and-social-care. Accessed 22 October 2023.


Hsieha, C-H., Yang, J-Y., Huang, C-W. and Benny Chin, W.C. (2023) The effect of water sound level in virtual reality: A study of restorative benefits in young adults through immersive natural environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology. Volume 88, June 2023. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272494423000609/. Accessed 20 October 2023.


Kellert, S.R. (2015) What Is and Is Not Biophilic Design? Metropolis (online). Available at: https://metropolismag.com/viewpoints/what-is-and-is-not-biophilic-design/. Accessed 22 October 2023.


Knight, B. (2020) Topic of the month - May/June 2020: Social and Therapeutic Horticulture Interventions. The Occupational Therapy Hub (The OT Journal Club). Available at: https://www.theothub.com/forum/the-ot-journal-club/topic-of-the-month-may-june-2020-social-and-therapeutic-horticulture-interventions. Accessed 23 October 2023.


Sowndhararajan, K. and Kim, S. (2016) Influence of Fragrances on Human Psychophysiological Activity: With Special Reference to Human Electroencephalographic Response. Scientia Pharmaceutica. 2016; 84 (4): 724-752. Available via National Institutes of Health: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5198031/. Accessed 23 October 2023.


U.S. Lawns (2023) Therapeutic Landscaping: Integrating Nature's Healing Power into your Workplace Design (online). Available at: https://uslawns.com/blog/therapeutic-landscaping-integrating-natures-healing-power-into-your-workplace-design/. Accessed 20 October 2023.

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