Sensory design to support learning

Japanese garden within the Royal School for the Deaf, ManchesterFrom British Victorian social reformers to the American ‘City Beautiful’ movement, the modern Western tradition of landscape design has a long history of observing the connections between the physical, moral and spiritual well-being of our citizens and our living environment.

“There is evidence suggesting that mental health and emotional stability of populations may be profoundly influenced by frustrating aspects of an urban, biologically artificial environment. It seems likely that we are genetically programmed to a natural habitat of clean air and a varied green landscape, like any other mammal. The specific physiological reactions to natural beauty and diversity, the shapes and colours of nature, especially to green, the motions and sounds of other animals we do not comprehend and are reluctant to include in studies of environmental quality. Yet it is evident that in our daily lives nature must be thought of not as a luxury to be made available if possible, but as part of our inherent indispensable biological need.”
(from ‘Frederick Law Olmsted (1822 – 1903) a Biography’, J.E. Todd, 1982)

In the Eastern tradition these notions have a yet more ancient heritage and have been more systematically applied as an approach to ordering the qualities of the living environment.

‘The body of the earth is like that of a human being. Ordinary people not being able to see the veins and vessels, which are disposed in order within the main body of man, think that it is no more than a lump of solid flesh. Likewise not being able to see the veins and vessels, which are disposed in order under the ground, they think that the earth is just a homogenous mass. Now if the chi of the earth can get through the veins then the water and the earth above will be fragrant and flourish, and all men and things will be pure and wise. But if the chi of the earth is stopped up, then the water and earth and natural products will be bitter, cold and withered and all men and things will be evil and foolish’.
(from ’Book of the Garden, ‘Sakuteiki’, by Toshitsuna Tachibana, 11th Century)

The work of contemporary environmental psychologists Roger Ulrich, and Rachel and Stephen Kaplan defines and analyses the received understanding of the innate goodness and therapeutic effects on humans of nature and beauty and the physical and psychological damage to human beings caused by degraded environments.

“stress causes negative psychological and sometimes behavioral manifestations that work against wellness” (Ulrich)

The Kaplans have sought to develop the conscious deployment of this work in the field of environmental design with either explicit or inferred therapeutic intentions (Kaplan R. & S. 1982, 87). Their work examines our informational needs and our cognitive response to the environment – understanding, coherence and legibility, exploration, complexity and mystery.

The well established horticultural therapy movement in the USA and UK and the interest in health and well being through the design of external space in healthcare settings reflects a growing acceptance of these principles in some sectors of public life, demonstrated by some strategic policy statements and increasing investment. Increasingly these principles are being explored (albeit often unconsciously) in learning environments; particularly in primary and special needs education.

The Empire of the Senses & Learning; enriched environment, profound opportunity

Picture of small by playing in park, next to tyresEven the most cursory study of ‘education’ amongst indigenous cultures such as the native people of Australia demonstrates that their profound understanding and appreciation of the world around them derives from a full sensory experience as an aid to learning; smell, movement-touch, aural-musical, visual; not just at a kindergarten stage but extending into later life. A startling comparison may be drawn between this rich diet of experiences and our own, all too sensory impoverished learning environments. The value of these traditional human learning patterns and environments is reflected in the work of contemporary environmental psychologists Hartig & Evans (1993) who suggest that we are genetically best adapted physically and psychologically to the demands of the environment where early man evolved. They contend that this may explain landscape preferences which although no longer important for survival, retain benefit value in that they signal positive states of being.

Relatively recent research in the field of ‘Multiple Intelligence / Emotional Intelligence’ into how we learn, suggests that diversity of sensory and intellectual stimuli is key to increasing our capacity for learning. Besides the expected linguistic, mathematical and visual dimensions, other aspects should be present, including musical and kinesthetic-physical activity. Claxton suggests that there is a profundity of the learning experience to be gained by the shared creation of environments and through the self-knowledge & interpersonal relationships involved in this activity (Guy Claxton 1997).

The notion that sensory enrichment is just the latest educational mantra is misplaced. It is however a response to our growing understanding of how the brain handles emotions, logic and creativity. In addition, in an increasingly software dominated educational environment, sensory enrichment challenges the tyranny of the visual cortex which, from televisions to touch screens reigns supreme as a venue for the learning experience.

There is long established recognition of the importance to learning of deeper, darker aspects of our human wiring diagram. Embryologists tracking developing vertebrates of all types observe the early emergence of a recognizable structure termed the reptilian brainstem. This is intrinsically connected to the sense of smell, the limbic system and to the capacity for memory. Scent as a stimulus is, it would seem, deeper and more ancient than sight. This would account for the capacity of scents and odours to dredge up from deep in our sub-conscious an instant recall of people, emotions and events forgotten or unconnected to the present mind. The work of environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich (1995, 97) explores the sensory & structural properties of the landscape to elicit deep-seated automatic responses.

The challenge that this enriched agenda represents to the design and management of our existing learning environments is considerable. However, it also represents profound opportunities for all stakeholders and beneficiaries in this field. If the challenge of exploiting this sensory potential within the field of education seems to imply the devising of ever more structured learning experiences, rigorously addressing each sense; it may lighten the heart to contemplate how we might realize this opportunity in the apparently anarchic context of play.

Learning through play is a well-established practice and concerns notions of ‘Exploratory’ versus ‘Explanatory’ approaches to learning. ‘Explanatory’ focuses on traditional cognitive learning. ‘Exploratory’ uses multiple senses to facilitate the learning process within a particular context. The opportunity presented by an environment fostering playful interaction with all our senses is surely a tempting prospect, embraceable by learners of all ages as well as by educators, and the designers and managers of such environments. We need only view the gang mown green deserts or bit-mac exercise yards that comprise many school grounds to grasp the scale of unfulfilled opportunities for richer learning.

“Inclusive design: why wouldn’t you?”

The value of designing with the widest possible range of abilities in mind has been ably demonstrated by the progressive learning environments development within Special School grounds. In particular special schools have recognised the value of exploratory play in natural settings and have pioneered many excellent examples demonstrating the educational and social benefits arising from such environments. In considering the implications of recasting education as a multi-sensory activity carried out in a broad range of both external & internal environments as a process of lifelong learning, the idea of ‘inclusive design’ as practiced within the Special School case studies should be considered fundamental.

One fifth of the population can be termed, ‘disabled’ or ‘excluded’. This begs the question; rather than catering for millions, worldwide as though they are a minority interest group, shouldn’t we be changing the way we design and manage our environments to make the inclusive agenda an indivisible part of any brief? Surely it is fundamental that teaching / learning environments for people of all ages should reflect this philosophy?

David Mackay, the architect of the Olympic Village at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, talks about the nature of the contemporary city and the quality of life which it should offer its citizens. At Barcelona David’s brief was to design the Village specifically for the Paralympics that parallel the Olympic Games. In such a visionary city the ‘Village’ was naturally required to provide a residential neighbourhood integrated into the city when the games themselves had finished. David is a long-term practitioner in the Catalan capital and is now a resident of the Village itself. In a place designed with such a particular brief I was curious to know whether there was any overriding sense of ‘accessibility’ being the quality of the place? Far from it, David informed me that it was becoming one of the most popular places to live in the city, and not just for people with disabilities. When asked why he thought this might be, he said that when he asked other residents what they thought of the design of the neighborhood; its buildings and public spaces, the transport system etc., they all said more or less the same thing; “why wouldn’t you design a community like this?”

Truly inclusive design should recognise and challenge the shortcomings of traditional ways of defining disability. In the past these have focused on specific, usually permanent limitations. Instead we must see that there is a continuum of relative degrees of ability across all age groups, backgrounds and circumstances. Very often this will require a reflexive response to particular challenges posed by the needs of individuals. The capability to respond effectively to diversity demands that our environments have within them intrinsic flexibility and responsiveness to customisation. This is entirely supportive of the fast changing and innovative quality of the best teaching & learning environments.

The implications of this reflexive and responsive attribute of inclusive design are that it addresses issues of ‘process’ as an intrinsic part of the final product. Inclusive design is as much a social, cultural issue as it is one of physical (and other sensory!) design adaptations. Fundamentally, inclusive design should be about recognising and responding to the full richness and diversity of our human family. Rather challengingly for designers, managers and providers of environments, it is about raising the normal standard of expectation people may have in terms of the richness, diversity and accessibility of their world.

… the good news; Best Practice Case StudiesPicture of teacher with child, feeling rocks within the Royal School for the Deaf, Manchester

There is a wealth of excellent individual projects exploring a range of inclusive / multi-sensory education environment design techniques. These occur either on an individual class, school, and rarely an education authority basis, dependant upon individual commitment and opportunity, sometimes following guidance from LTL. Very often projects occur in partnership with an outside agency such as a Groundwork Trust. The projects often involve Horticultural therapy directly targeted at children with mental health problems or physical disability. In addition, projects may involve a broader spectrum of activity aimed at extending the learning programme of the facility outside of the buildings classroom. The relationship between the health and environment agenda and education has become more direct since 1990 when Health became one of a number of cross-curricular themes within the National Curriculum.

• Learning Through Landscapes
Since its establishment, LTL has promoted greater awareness of the potential for school grounds to benefit children’s educational social and physical development. The effect of contact with nature to encourage positive behavioral change and social relationship development was highlighted in the LTL ‘Special Places: Special People’ report by Wendy Titman. The study collected data from 400 schools and visited 20 special schools.

• Special schools
There are many excellent examples of best practice in exploratory play and multi sensory engagement within the area of Special Schools (Stoneham 1996). Special school teachers have highlighted the range of opportunities and benefits which school grounds can offer special needs children; including physical skills, confidence building, and acquisition of social & behavioral skills, care, responsibility and self worth. School grounds were also highlighted both as alternative low stress teaching environments for students with poor classroom discipline and as venues for counselling.
(Stoneham 1996), (Price & Stoneham 2001), (Stoneham & Kendle 1998)

• Coombe School, Reading
Coombe School uses its school grounds as a venue for all stages and subjects within its curriculum. Direct creative engagement of the pupils and staff with the materials of the environment and each other is the key to a vibrant educational facility.

• Meldreth Manor School, Hertfordshire
Meldreth School uses a range of separately themed areas comprising platforms; each with a rich, stimulating palette of materiality. The school has engaged with Postgraduate students from the University of East London in a collaboration called ‘Learning Curves’; combining art and landscape to provide a range of stimulating interactive features.

• The Royal Schools for the Deaf, Manchester
The Royal Schools use innovative planting, plant management techniques and hard landscape materials for children with sensory impairments. The school has recently developed a Millenium Multisensory Garden and is now exploring the possibility of creating a wildlife nature trail the next stage in the development of its grounds.

Design approaches to inclusive multi-sensory learning environment design

It useful to remind ourselves of some key inclusive design principles to guide our approach and flag up opportunities for an inclusive approach to the design and management of enriched educational environments:

Working with, not for, people.
Assumed preferences and needs too often drive design decisions. We should begin with a thorough appreciation of the stakeholders and beneficiaries and an evaluation of & the potential of place, to recognize and interpret / sensory richness. The involvement of an inclusive range of users is therefore essential in site planning and development.

Integration, not segregation.
Well-intentioned multi sensory environments often have the subtext of ‘design for disability’ clearly stamped on them. We should design so as not to reinforce feelings of difference and ‘deviance from the norm’. Inclusive design benefits the widest possible spectrum of society.

Sensory stimulation…making the point clearly.
Too often we see the results of an unfocussed approach to the multi-sensory environments; “I suppose we should have a Sensory Garden? Oh…and by the way, how much lavender should we put in it?”
A better approach is; “we want to create a garden which is a great place for all folks to enjoy and we want to ensure particular user groups and activities are. How do we design to appropriately engage user’s senses and equitably support these aims?”
The research, case studies and techniques are out there, so lets get the design specification right.

But how will it survive the kids and the contractors? Management and sustainability

The attrition of the normal school working environment and the strictures of the grounds maintenance budget have traditionally been limiting factors opposing richness and diversity of educational environments.
Creative site user involvement & ownership of the design and management process as part of the learning program is essential to its sustainability. Only by this means can we achieve the essential connection of people to a cared for place.
Working with the possibility of how much of the above model is possible within each site will help determine a sustainable balance of sensory rich learning environment. Innovation should help tip the cost benefit analysis in favour of enrichment.
Horticultural or other collaborative construction or site development activity should be designed into the project as a continually evolving element of the site use program.

Opportunity for use. Inclusive information provision

Innovative physical site design and management can be ineffective without effective user information & interpretation of what is on offer. This is vital to encourage continuity of use in educational environments with changing patterns of staff and student users. Such material may be provided in the form of pre & post use information, classroom-learning materials: eg. website / on-line/ hard copy back-up.

Accessible on site Information interpretation / way-finding can be conveyed via a number of non-text based systems such as Widgit, Braille, audio-guides, and textured pictorial information.

In conclusion

Given the fundamental understanding and sophisticated contemporary analysis of the beneficial effect of positive environments and contact with nature, the provision of such conditions would seem to be an essential prerequisite for any modern education system. Further, the provision of learning environments offering inclusive access to a sensory enriched world of learning would appear to be a matter of common sense and natural equity. However, at present in the UK there is insufficient recognition of this understanding as evidenced in either policy, or funding provision.

Despite this state of affairs best practice continues to be pioneered where opportunity and commitment of dedicated educators exists. It remains the responsibility of designer / managers of education sector environments to use innovation and the background research available to demonstrate their potential to provide users with an enriched experience of education and personal well being. This experience should not be viewed as limited to schools grounds alone. Lifelong learning and the diversification of venues for learning mean that these are issues concerning the inclusive design of all public open space.


  • Hartig T. & Evans G.U ‘A Measure of Restorative Quality in Environments’, Journal of Environmental Psychology 1993.
  • Claxton G. ‘Unconscious Learning: Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind’ Fourth Estate 1997
  • Todd J.E. ‘Frederick Law Olmstead(1822 – 1903) a Biography’ 1982
  • Roger Ulrich ‘Methods of Assessing Human Responses to Nature’ Environmental Design Research Association Annual Meeting Report 1995
  • Ulrich R.‘ Improving Medical Outcomes with Environmental Design’ Tenth national Symposium on Healthcare Design Report 1997
  • Kaplan R. & S. ‘ Cognition & Environment’ Praeger 1982
  • Kaplan R. & S. ‘Handbook of Environmental Psychology’ Wiley 1987
  • Stoneham J. ‘Grounds for Sharing, a guide to developing special school sites’ Learning Through Landscapes 1996
  • Price R. & Stoneham J. ‘Making Connections, a guide to accessible greenspace’ The Sensory Trust 2001
  • Stoneham J. & Kendle T. ‘Plants & Human Well Being’ The Sensory Trust & Horticulture for All 1998.

Source: Taken from Landscape Design Journal, Feb 2003 Edition.