My focus on landscape design for children with special needs started the year after the birth of my son. But this was entirely coincidental. A colleague recommended me to the Director of St. Edmond’s Home for Children in Radnor Township, Pennsylvania, in 1999. While I came to the job as a design professional, I was quick to learn from the parents who knew about their children’s needs and interests. One parent, in particular, was Carrie Quade, who used her creative talents to stimulate her daughter’s interests. Carrie is a sculptor who not only made indoor pieces at St. Edmond’s Home, such as a large, life-like tree that engaged children in the multipurpose room, but also mobile water tables with pop-out plastic tubs that supported an array of tactile objects – wet or dry – that could be used both indoors and out. Carrie also spent much time taking her daughter around the grounds and knew where it was easier to push a wheelchair and still invite engagement with the natural elements on the site. This led Carrie and me to collaborate on pathway systems that could be, in themselves, fun for the kids in wheelchairs, where they could roll through a variety of planted outdoor “rooms” and learn about nature in the process.
I designed the gardens at St. Edmond’s to stimulate the children through engaging their senses: scent, touch, sound and even taste were considered as well as visual aspects such as color. The plants were also selected to bring birds and insects into the garden. Being in deer territory, plants were selected to not be as palatable to the four-legged critters. But the staff reported that the children were delighted when deer or other animals walked along the pathways or when birds nibbled on berries next to the windows of the multipurpose room. Kids (and adults, by the way) become engaged when they have access to activities. Here, being able to see animals close up – right through the bedroom window – engaged the children at St. Edmond’s Home! As the kids rode their wheelchairs along the pathways, they could also reach out and touch a variety of plants, savoring their textures and fragrances.
These same principles guided the design of our home landscape. Before my son was diagnosed with autism at age five, we knew he was different. He had high interest in certain objects or subjects and little or no interest in everything else. He rarely spoke, and certainly not in complete sentences, until he went to school. My husband and I knew he was interested in animals because we observed him stop what he was doing to watch birds, squirrels, or other creatures in the garden. When we moved to another house on the other side of town, my husband and I discussed bringing nature up close for our son’s benefit. I started designing the garden as a wildlife habitat, perhaps more so to engage my son and immerse him in nature, as well as to provide food, shelter and water for a variety of creatures (many we never even dreamed would live here).
In future blogs, I’ll share (and discuss with you, if you write or call) different ways we used to engage our son in the world, especially in the outdoor environment, and ways he has gotten us to engage as well.