The ‘Senses’ and Skills of Gardening

young girl watering plants
Gardening is fun! Photo by Maggie

Gardening is a great, enriching activity to perform, especially for children – not just in the summer, but in the fall as well. Children naturally learn and develop novel skills, through the interactions that they have with their environments. Gardening enables children to build upon these skills in a natural environment and it allows them to be exposed to various forms of sensory input.  

The Seven Senses

graphic of the 7 senses

We all are familiar with our five external senses:

  • Sight (visual)
  • Smell (olfactory) 
  • Touch (tactile)
  • Taste (gustatory) 
  • Hearing (auditory)

However, we also have two internal, lesser-known senses:

  • Vestibular
  • Proprioception

The Vestibular System is located in our inner ears and is activated when we move our head in space (up/down, side to side, or lateral direction).

The Proprioceptive System is located in the receptors of our muscles and joints, and is activated any time one performs an activity that entails pushing, pulling, or lifting an object (or in other terms “heavy-work” activities).  The proprioceptive system also acts as a regulator. When the proprioceptive system is activated it releases a neurotransmitter, serotonin, which is calming to the nervous system. Gardening is an activity that can provide proprioceptive input, by one actively engaging in the performance of heavy-work tasks (i.e. carrying a filled watering can). A child who may experience sensory processing difficulties naturally seeks out this type of input, in order to help them be in a more regulated state.

The ‘Senses’ of Gardening 

Think about this: Before heading outside, you apply sunscreen (tactile input). When you step outside of your house, you are hit with an array of sensory stimuli (visual, olfactory, auditory, and/or tactile). Initially, you feel the warmth of the sun hitting your face (tactile input). You grab your tools and place them in your wheelbarrow filled with the flowers and herbs you had just recently bought. Then you wheel the wheelbarrow over to your garden (proprioceptive input). You empty out the contents of the wheelbarrow, bend down, and sit on top of your knees (proprioceptive input). Then grab your hand shovel and start digging holes in the soil, looking down at the garden bed below (proprioceptive and vestibular input). As you’re digging, you feel the dirt slightly touch your hands (tactile input). You suddenly hear a bumblebee buzzing past your ear (auditory input). You stand up and look around (up/down and left/right) to see where the bumblebee flew (vestibular input).  And to think, this is just the beginning of the sensory input that one may experience while gardening. 

No Green Thumb Needed 

As mentioned, gardening works on numerous skills, in a fun and interactive manner. Below is a list of skills (not all inclusive) with some examples that one may be working on while engaging in this activity.


  • Fine motor precision – Carefully placing one seed at a time into individual cells of a seed tray.
  • Bi-manual coordination – Opening up a seed packet – stabilizing the packet with one hand, and utilizing the other to open it.
  • In-hand manipulation – Placing seeds in the palm of your hand, and manipulating one seed at a time into the pads of the fingers to place into a container (palm to finger translation).
  • Promotes grasping patterns (i.e. pincer grasp) – Picking up a seed with the thumb and index finger. 


  • Strength 
  • Endurance
  • Bilateral coordination


  • Proprioceptive Discrimination (the ability to grade force on an object)
    • While removing a plant from a plastic pot, one must grade  their force appropriately. Pulling too hard could result in one  accidentally removing stems or leaves off of the plant.
  • Tactile discrimination (the ability to feel an object without relying on the visual system)
    • Feeling different sized seeds in the palm of one’s hand, without the need to look.






Gardening can also help improve one’s:

  • patience (delayed gratification),
  • frustration tolerance,
  • cognitive flexibility (as one may need to change their original plan), and
  • social skills (if working with another peer or family member). 

Create Your Own ‘Sensory Garden’ 

A ‘sensory garden’ can incorporate a mix of plants and/or garden décor, to provide one with a unique, sensory experience. 

  • Visual  – Utilizing plants with vibrant or different colors, varied heights, or those simply unique in nature, can provide some visual input to one’s garden.  
  • Olfactory – There are an abundance of plants that have scents. Think of herbs that you may use while cooking, like rosemary or basil. 
  • Tactile – Plants with texture – soft, hard, spikey, or bumpy – are a fun way to add tactile input to your garden. Providing different landscape textures (i.e. sand, rocks, or mulch) are another way to provide additional tactile input.
  • Gustatory – Think of herbs, fruits, or vegetables that you can grow, and eventually eat!
  • Auditory – Provide your garden with sound by either hanging up a wind chime or perhaps having a water source (like a small fountain). 

Have fun, and be creative. There is no right or wrong way when designing your own garden!


If you or your child has any allergies (i.e. environmental, oils in plants, insect bites, etc.), there are other alternatives that can be performed (i.e. utilizing faux flowers). 

Due to these unprecedented times, many local garden centers/nurseries are now offering free contactless delivery or contactless curbside pickup to ensure the safety of their customers. 

About Sasco River Center

A multidisciplinary practice offering a range of diagnostic and therapy services for children, adolescents, young adults, and families; specializing in Collaborative & Comprehensive Testing, Psychotherapy & Sensory Processing.

We are a merger of Sensory Kids & The Southfield Center for Development