“Encouraging kids to use all their senses to explore the natural world is a very fundamental science skill,” says Greta Pemberton, manager of children and youth programs at the esteemed Brooklyn Botanic Garden in Brooklyn, New York. Of course, with an edible garden, kids can literally taste the plants—but there are so many more aspects of nature to explore. These sensory gardens will help your child learn about sizes, shapes, smells, and more!
The first thing that might come to mind here is beautiful flowers of different colors—but don’t stop there. “You can also think about the shape of the leaf or flower as another component that kids can engage with,” says Pemberton, who loves the idea of doing a shape garden with kids. She suggests planting purple oxalis, which have triangular leaves that fold up at night. Then add a sweet potato vine that has heart- shaped leaves. A flowering nasturtium plant offers round leaves, while a borage plant has blue flowers shaped like stars. “This is a great option for young kids because you can do shape matching, point out different colors, and work on developing language skills,” she adds.
From soft and furry to rough and prickly, plants offer a wide variety of textures. Explore them all in this garden! Lamb’s ear has velvety leaves. Or try bunny tail grass, which has soft seed heads that kids love to rub on their cheeks, says Pemberton. Mint and scented geranium have rough leaves. And for something really special, Pemberton suggests adding a Mimosa pudica: “This is one we bring out again and again; it’s sometimes called the tickle- me plant. When you touch it, the leaves actually move away from your finger. It seems like magic, but it’s all about the way these plants move the water around in their leaves.”
To discover the scents of different plants, Pemberton suggests teaching kids to rub leaves gently between their fingers to release the internal oils. One way to set the stage for that: Plant a whole bed of different varieties of scented geraniums. These flowering plants will look very similar, but each variety offers a different scent. “As you rub each plant’s leaves, one will smell like a pine tree, the next lemon, the next mint, and so on,” says Pemberton. “It’s really cool!” (A variety of herbs also makes for a great smell garden.)