Extended Version from the Sensory Stations in The Childhoodnature Handbook Companion (Widdop Quinton, in press):
A Therapeutic Garden: Recounting the experiences of a joint project by a parent and two children
This writing recounts the experiences of a joint project of a parent and two children (ages 5 and 7) building a therapeutic garden. These experiences of seemingly simple childhood pleasure link to deeper philosophical concepts, Japanese aesthetics, Zen and the existing literature on children and environments. This writing argues for the utilization of everyday objects and the immediate environment, not only to engage the sensory and motor skills, but also social skills and imagination.
A therapeutic challenge
Therapeutic delight in a backyard came in unexpected ways. It started out with a plan by a parent and two children (ages 5 and 7), something to entertain them, something to support their development and their “sensory integration” the buzzword at our beloved alternative school. We are all for sensory integration, and the school has integrated much playtime and rich natural settings into its curriculum. Outdoor play and natural settings are central to the school’s education philosophy, and there is considerable evidence that such arrangements foster sensory integration and psychological wellbeing (Cosco & Moore, 2009). Unfortunately, some administrators seem to recommend a sensory integration assessment to almost any child that undergoes any kind of challenge, without much consideration of other possible psychological, cultural or environmental factors. While it is understandable wanting to rule out any neurological dysfunction, the likelihood that a child may be suffering from a sensory integration dysfunction aka sensory processing disorder is extremely high, particularly considering the catchall symptoms that range from autism to ADHD, from sensory over- to sensory under-responsivity, to use the terms of its proponents (Ayres, 1979; Kranovitz Stock 2005). Once diagnosed with the controversial disorder, not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association or by the American Academy of Pediatrics, sensory integration therapy is available. While preferable over the controversial drugging of children, the empirically unsupported sensory integration therapy (Hoehn & Baumeister, 1994) involves activities that can be done on most conventional playgrounds. With a little investment, it can be done in one’s own backyard! After all with possibilities of the placebo effect, spontaneous remission, and maturation on our side, there could be significant anecdotal improvements rivaling the success stories in occupational therapy journals. However, the main purpose of this writing is not to produce specific empirical evidence of the effectiveness of our sensory integration station, but to explore an alternative to investing time and money on a dubious diagnosis with a questionable therapy. This is also an alternative to wasting money and resources on some mass-produced prefabricated synthetic play equipment shipped from the other side of the globe that would deface the yard, to be an eyesore for the next couple of years, only to be outgrown and/or falling into pieces and destined to a landfill. There is nothing wrong with playground equipment, but they belong on public grounds and not necessarily the caricature versions withering away in private backyards. Furthermore a natural playscape compared to a traditional playground setting yields better motor functions (Fjørtoft, 2004). Based on assessments on pre- and post-interventions children in the experimental group in the natural setting showed significant improvements over the control group in a traditional playground setting on motor skills such as balance and coordination. The findings can be explained with the natural setting affording a more complex environment.
The following will be a phenomenological exploration (Seamon, 2000) of our experiences of the construction our backyard project. In order to create varied surfaces that foster vestibular (spatial and balance) and proprioceptive (bodily and coordination) senses, inspiration was found in everyday objects lying dormant under the porch, such as wood planks and bricks leftovers from past projects, to be awakened for their newfound purpose. It was very much like a treasure hunt when we considered the potentials of the different objects could fulfill and it made us realize the richness of the world. Venturing at the edge of the property that borders some woods, unassuming piles of rocks and logs can be found. The locally sourced materials can furnish some basic stations. The possibilities seem endless with the benefits of soft architecture (as opposed to hard architecture as outlined in Sommer, 1974) that allows for the flexibility to adjust for different uses. As matter of fact, it is so flexible that it would allow for a quick rearrangement and clean up, if needed, something that would be impossible with the standard play equipment found in many unfortunate back yards. We are often discouraged to alter our environment, either because we are unable to, or we are not supposed to because of the potential of damaging the equipment, posing a danger to oneself or others, or simply because it is a violation of the social norm. This leads us to adopt a fatalistic attitude towards the environment, a sort of learned helplessness stifling creativity and our sense of environmental efficacy. This in contrast was liberating!
Constructing the stations
The sensory integration station consisted of five sub-stations:
Balance beam (Bricks underneath the ends of a wood plank to be balanced on)
Wood blocks (Wood blocks placed on the ground to be stepped on)
Seesaw (Log held by bricks underneath the middle of a wood plank to be traversed)
Rocks (Rocks placed on the ground to be stepped on)
Log (Log placed on the ground to be balanced on)
There was something very satisfying in trying to assemble the materials for the stations, contemplating the different purposes they could serve, and exploring the different affordances or opportunities for different actions (Gibson, 1966/79) they would offer.
We approached this project as builders (planners) and dwellers (users)(Heidegger 1951, Ingold 2000). As we construct the stations we are builders, as we test them we are dwellers, and we become thinkers, as we are pondering to what extent our constructions are living up to the intended purposes, and how they could be improved.
We would build the balance beam, then get to experience the balance beam and see to what extent our imagined balance beam would be actualized. Was it holding up? Was it offering an optimal challenge, not too easy, not too difficult, to make it most enjoyable (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)? What were the risks for slips, stumbles, and falls? In unexpected ways it exceeded our expectation as the wood plank resting on bricks underneath the ends would slightly bend as we would traverse it, giving it a bouncy feel, making it more interesting as it provided a more enriched sensory and more challenging motor experience.
The see saw had an element of the unexpected as well. The log underneath the middle of the wood plank was unstable, thus the log needed to be reinforced by bricks to be held in place. Something that we came to realize only after testing ascending from one side of the plank, tipping it, and descending on the other. There was another added bonus of the auditory experience of a “clank” as the wooden plank would tip back to its initial position as we got off.
The little surprises, the trials and errors, and the sudden insights, while serving the grander purpose of creating a sensory integration station was making this experience very satisfying.
Transformations from the material to the spiritual
The rocks have been very special. We were scouring for rocks and trying to discover the ones with the appropriate affordances. For our specific purposes we were looking for affordances such as of step-on-ability, jump-on-ability, and jump-off-ability. We soon discovered the dilemma of that the rocks that would be able serve these purposes would have to meet a certain size and weight criteria or else they would not support these activities as they would roll off and users would fall off. However, the rocks that would meet the size and weight criteria ended up not being very lift-able, let alone carry-able forcing a compromise as logistical reasons limited size and weight. The rocks that made it into the selection were step-on-able, jump-on-able, and jump-off-able, but they were also slightly roll-able depending on the force applied when stepping or jumping, which this added another interesting dimension to the “rock station.” The great thing about the rock station was its flexibility that a slight rearrangement of the rocks, such as the spacing and the angling could adjust for different levels of challenge.
But there was something more to the rocks.
The vision for our backyard, the sensory integration station was about to be transformed. Borrowing Ingold’s (1993) terminology, we first considered the stations as a taskscape, an environment viewed in terms of it actual and potential physical engagement. More specifically, it began as a workscape for us that was to become a playscape. Then, we awoke to a desire to create a landscape something that would afford a visual experience. Thus the sensory integration station was to serve multiple purposes.
We have rarely given rocks that much attention before looking at their functional purposes for the sensory integration station. Now we were carefully examining their shapes and sizes, as we wanted to offer variety of experiences. But it went beyond that. We wanted it be an aesthetic experience as well. Thus shape, size and color was taken into consideration in the selection and arrangement of the rocks. We were beginning to consider the rocks based on their “personality” (e.g. a temperamental rock with light colors and sharp edges or a round dark colored calm rock).
In selecting the rocks, we were looking for diversity, and considering the rocks as a group that should display different personalities. In the Japanese aesthetic experience of wabi-sabi noticing the depth and complexity in seemingly simple rocks, can be associated with
the concept of wabi. There was something fulfilling as we were making choices, or rather listening to the rocks telling us where and how they were to be placed. “In Western cultural climates, one may be looked upon with greatest suspicion of initiating a dialogue with rocks and plants,” it is essential in Zen garden-making (Carter, 2008, p. 59). While we were not considering ourselves as Zen gardeners, the concept of a dialogue with rocks and plants do not seem so outlandish!
Dialogues with a log
It was as if the log was calling for us from a woodpile! The log is slightly bent, so that it would slightly wobble when stepped on. It is the most challenging and interesting station because of the slight unpredictable wobble. The texture on certain parts with decaying wood is surprisingly soft. Traversing a log in itself poses a challenge, even more so when there is unevenness, and particularly when it would wobble as one tries to move across. It demands full alertness, and simultaneous tension and relaxation. Tension is required to hold oneself upright and to proceed from the one end of the log to the other, relaxation to accommodate for the unpredictability of the log wobble. Relaxation allows for feeling the log wobble, and allows for swift adjustments in the balancing and to absorb the movement of the log wobble. Once one is able to feel the wobble, the wobble becomes more predictable, and more control is gained the body, and it becomes possible to control the wobble. No longer is one wobbled by the log, one begins to wobble the log. As soon as one believes to have figured it out, one is thrown off (literally and figuratively). No two traverses are the same, and one has to approach it with some degree of openness and humility.
The body has been conceptualized as acting upon the word and acted upon by the world (Mearleau-Ponty, 1945/62). In this particular context, it is the body acting upon the log, and acted upon by the log. It is a dialogue, initiated by stepping on the log, to which the log responds with a wobble, to which one must respond. The acting upon is the speaking; the being acted upon is the listening part of the dialogue.
But the log is much more than something to be stepped on and traversed. It is something to be looked at and contemplated: The aesthetics are particularly striking and perhaps the result of another kind of deeper dialogue. It is a birch tree with peeling bark. Underneath its smooth white and black spotted bark wrapping around the log, a rough brownish wooden texture is revealed. It has a beautifully raw, weathered and aged look, and can be associated with the concept of sabi. We kept wondering whether it is appropriate to step on and traverse on this beautiful log. With each use, parts of the bark peal off, and part of the wooden texture beneath chip off. And yet, the pieces of torn off from the log only enhance its beauty! This very process adds a flavor of bitter-sweetness. The beauty of the log is enhanced, as it lies in the green grass with bit and pieces of bark and woods scattered about, blending in and at the same time accentuating the yard. As if it was meant to be.
Coming Full circle
While each station has been described separately, they are part of system with ascending difficulty and complexity. The have been arranged in a semi-circle, which appears to be a little Zen inspired. The enso is the iconic circle, the often-replicated single thick brushstroke of black ink on white paper, drawn in a quick moment representing eternity. There is a slight fading of the ink, as the circle draws to a close, leaving a slight opening.
In this particular arrangement the user is invited to circle around (eternally), but at the same time is offered the freedom to do otherwise. The semi-circle is also meant to display an empty space or nothingness (mu), to leave it open ended, to invite to add another station, fill it with one’s imagination, or to experience the freedom of movement uninhibited by a station and suggest that perhaps the best station is no station at all?
Helphand’s (1999) explorations of cairns- teaching a stone how to talk contains a fragment that resonates with our therapeutic garden: “we can negotiate a glimpse of the meeting point between traditionally polarized sets—the built and the unbuilt, the utilitarian and the useless, and the sacred and the profane.” The of the ideas of earthworks or land art also resonated with our view of our therapeutic garden- an attempt to engage with the landscape using the materials and working with its salient features, and creating sustainable art… and a play space.
Considering the alternatives of a mass-produced prefabricated synthetic play equipment shipped from the other side of the world, the virtually free, locally sourced organic materials, was a sensible, aesthetic and ethical choice.
As it is often the case with contemporary art, the descriptions may be much more elaborate than the actual product. But then again it is not so much the product, but the process that matters, that allows to connect with nature, to be inspired, to be challenged, to have something something to keep pondering about, and to grow as a person, to self-cultivate- the main purpose of the Japanese arts (Carter, 2008).
The real therapeutic effects were achieved, not so much through the sensory-integration, but via the creative process. The sensory integration literature has referred to the brain as “sensory-processing machine” (Kranowitz Stock, 2005). This antiquated analogy of “the brain as a machine” or even the more updated version of “the brain as a computer” leaves something to be desired. The brain is not something lifeless passively receiving inputs and sending outputs. A more active organic analogy is appropriate: the brain as a tree. Literally, neurons and the nervous system resemble the roots and branches of a tree. Figuratively, the brain, like a tree can grow and flourish in many ways in a nurturing environment: A nurturing environment that includes therapeutic gardens, where the trees can bear fruits of creativity. Participating and bearing witness to it is truly therapeutic!
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