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Gardening for Your Senses

Chatham University’s Occupational Therapy faculty explain how to create and enjoy the healthful benefits of a sensory garden 


Pittsburgh, PA — Chatham University’s Eden Hall Campus is home to a unique sensory garden designed to help visitors connect more deeply with nature and experience it through the senses.  As winter finally begins to give way to spring - Chatham’s Occupational Therapy experts share tips for how to create a stress-reducing sensory garden of their own.

Sensory gardens are outdoor spaces designed to encourage visitors to actively interact with nature by using some or all of their five senses: sight, scent, sound, touch, and taste. Sensory gardens can also help augment the effects of mindfulness practices, meditation, yoga, and other relaxation techniques for the mind and body.

“The key is to ask yourself questions about your particular sensory needs, so you can be intentional about which senses you want to activate: what sights, scents, sounds, touches, and tastes do you find calming, and which ones help you recharge?” says Theresa Delbert, OTD, OTR/L, Doctoral Capstone Coordinator and Assistant Professor at Chatham University’s School of Health Sciences. “With these goals in mind, you can include specific plants and physical features to create an interactive multisensory experience that will help you relax, refocus, and re-energize.”

While a sensory garden is easiest to create within an existing backyard or other green space, urban dwellers can also incorporate the principles of sensory gardens into community spaces, wooded areas, or porch, patio or other personal space. As Chatham’s Occupational Therapy experts note, what really matters isn’t where a sensory garden is located, but how you interact with it to create your own individual experience. 

“There is a difference between spending time in a place and actively engaging with a place,” says Janet Bucey, OTD, OTR/L, SIPT, Assistant Professor at Chatham University. “Sensory gardens offer people an opportunity to intentionally engage their full range of senses in ways they may not usually experience, which can have a profound effect on their mood, attitude, and energy levels. Having seen its positive effects on our Occupational Therapy students, in the future we plan to explore the influence of Chatham’s sensory garden on other groups who commonly experience great anxiety or stress, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia patients.”

From military veterans working to overcome PTSD to special needs students and their caregivers, a variety of studies find sensory gardens promote positive feelings of well-being and “occupational balance,” the state in which a person’s life activities and demands are in a pleasant equilibrium.

To see video of the sensory garden at Chatham University’s Eden Hall Campus, please click here.



●      Sight — flowers, trees, birds, shapes, colors, motion, etc.

○      What colors are you drawn to because they make you calm or happy?

○      Do you rest and recharge better in sunlight or shadow?

○      Are there animals you enjoy watching? If so, consider incorporating a feeder, bath, or other attractor into your sensory garden, so you can observe their sights and sounds

●      Scent — herbs, blossoms, grass, earth, etc.

○      Oregano and thyme offer a hearty aroma that stimulates energy and alertness

○      Lavender can help calm anxiety

○      Mint provides a scent that many find fresh and rejuvenating

●      Sound — birds, wind, water, bells, chimes, silence, etc.

○      What sounds do you want to hear, and what sounds do you want to block out?

○      Mobile items such as pinwheels can be both visually and auditorily stimulating

○      If you find the sound of running water soothing, consider incorporating a fountain

●      Touch — warm, cool, breezy, soft, scratchy, fuzzy, cozy, rough, etc.

○      Consider adding plants whose leaves, petals, and bark have a variety of textures

○      Avoid plastics or metals when possible, and prioritize wood, stone, and fabric instead

○      Do certain sensations calm or energize you? For example, would your sensory garden benefit from a rocking chair, fan, weighted blanket, warm sunlight, etc.?

●      Taste — sweet, savory, physically or emotionally satisfying, etc.

○      Do certain tastes remind you of happy memories?

○      Does the aroma or taste of a cup of coffee, tea, or other beverages differ outdoors, or in a space that is intentionally designed to offer fewer visual distractions?

○      Growing tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, carrots, etc., can provide both tactile and flavorful sensory stimulation



Founded in 1869, Chatham University has an enrollment of over 2,300 students across over 60 undergraduate and graduate programs in several areas of excellence, including sustainability & health, the arts & sciences, and business & communications. Chatham has consistently been named a College of Distinction and a “Best College” by U.S. News & World Report. Chatham is also perennially ranked as one of the greenest colleges in the United States by Sierra Magazine and the Princeton Review, and is proud to be the alma mater of environmental trailblazer Rachel Carson (Class of ’29). Chatham consists of the School of Health Sciences; the Falk School of Sustainability & Environment; the School of Arts, Science and Business; and the School for Continuing & Professional Studies. Located in Pittsburgh, PA—one of the country’s most livable cities and great college towns—Chatham is spread across three distinct locations: the historic arboretum, Shadyside Campus; Chatham Eastside in the fast-growing East End; and Eden Hall Campus, one of the world’s most sustainable campuses and home to the Falk School of Sustainability & Environment and the Center for Regional Agriculture, Food, and Transformation (CRAFT).  Chatham offers the entry-level Doctor of Occupational Therapy (ELOTD) program for students wishing to obtain this credential who hold a bachelor’s degree. At Chatham University’s School of Health Sciences, students can earn the OTD in only 32 months—two terms beyond the Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT). The OTD provides more real-world experience through a doctoral project in students’ areas of interest. Through this project, students increase the scope of their careers to include paths such as leadership, advocacy, research, program development, and advanced clinical practice. In addition, there are multiple opportunities to engage in advocacy and leadership roles throughout the program, including program committee positions to foster the development of professional service and leadership skills.

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