A Different Type of Perfect Garden opens

INSPIRED: SmileDial charity founder Kelly Dugan with his daughter Lucia, the inspiration behind the sensory garden project. Photo: Fairfax Media NZ/The Press

22 November 2016 – CHRISTCHURCH CHILDREN will be enchanted by a new inclusive and accessible garden that appeals to all five senses.

The project has been a real labour of love for Kelly Dugan, founder and chief executive at SmileDial, a charity that supports families of unwell and disabled children.

It’s taken more than three years of planning, but Dugan is excited to see the location at Rawhiti Domain in New Brighton “turning into a real garden instead of on paper.”

The inspiration behind the garden is Dugan’s five-year-old daughter Lucia, who has cerebral palsy, and the challenges she faces when joining in playground fun.

“Every time we took her to a park she ended up watching from the sidelines. There was nothing designed specifically for her. We’d have to lift her up or put her on things.”

While other parents may be able to sit down and read the paper or have a coffee, for many families of children with disabilities, visits to the playground can be fraught.

Dugan says parents can spend much of the time making sure kids don’t touch or eat things they shouldn’t, or crawl into dangerous spots under equipment.

ARTIST’S IMPRESSIONS: How the new sensory garden in New Brighton, Christchurch will look.

These concerns informed the garden’s overall design. Plants are edible and there are no moving swings or seesaws.

Footpaths are smooth and wide to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers, but also allow enough room for children to safely pass each other. And although the garden is unfenced, groundworks and plantings deter children who are ‘“runners”.

The aim is a playground where children can independently explore the natural environment while parents can sit and relax.

“It’s exactly what I wanted – to create a place where parents can do that and not have to worry” says Dugan.

And there is much to explore. The entrance to the garden is through a tunnel made from grapevines and laced with hundreds of fairy lights.

There’s also an interactive pole garden where children can play music and a dry river bed with a wheelchair accessible boat to encourage pretend play.

Bold, graffiti-art footpaths wind through the playground and a “whale wall” structure provides an undulating path.

And it’s accessible, whether children are in wheelchairs or walkers, or whether they stand or crawl. “This place is designed so all kids can enjoy it,” says Dugan.

OPEN FOR SAFE PLAY: Residents take time out in the perfect sensory garden

There’s been valuable input from the community, disability support groups and families, as well as the School of Landscape Architecture from Lincoln University. But Dugan’s own experiences influenced most of the design.

“As a parent, and in my work with SmileDial, the greatest knowledge I could pull from was my own experience and the people I work with every day.”

The result is what Dugan calls a Different Type of Perfect Garden.

With a vast array of stimulating sights, sounds and textures – not to mention tastes and smells – the garden is not only physically accessible, it can be enjoyed by children with vision or hearing impairments, and sensory disabilities too.

“I wanted to provide experiences for all senses. For kids, smell and touch are such important senses. It’s a garden where you can touch that – you can eat it.”

And Dugan says there will be some sensory surprises, including a bush that smells like rotten fish when the leaves are rubbed.

“We’ve got super-sour cranberry bushes, so if you eat one of those it’s going to be sour and yucky, but it won’t hurt you.

“People think smells and tastes need to be nice things, but have a plant that smells like rotten fish and kids love it.”

This article first appeared in the Altogether Autism Journal, issue 4 2016.