Engaging the senses outdoors

Logo: Sensory Trust

Jane Stoneham, Sensory Trust

A sensory approach

It’s well known that getting out and about and engaging with the natural world is beneficial to most people, but for some the benefits are especially profound. For example, for young people with disabilities, engaging with nature and the outdoors can be key to them learning about the world, and about themselves. For people living with dementia and other health issues, it can inspire new activities and interests and help build connections with communities and the wider world at a time when social networks are shrinking.

Why engage the senses?

We experience everything through our senses. We use our intellect, memories and assumptions to process the information, but it all starts from the raw materials we receive from looking, touching, smelling, listening, tasting and a whole range of lesser headlined senses. They trigger different parts of the brain and elicit different responses, smell for example is strongly connected with memory.

The Big Five – sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste – are what most people think of when we talk about the senses. But two more, proprioception and vestibular, relate to our sense of movement, balance and awareness of our own bodies and are as fundamental as the other five to how we negotiate and decipher the world around us. The real picture is wider still and includes ones like a sense of heat, pain, hunger, balance etc. There’s an exercise that we have done many times. We ask people to close their eyes, think back to when they were ten years old and recall a favourite memory of being outdoors in nature. The recollections are always dominated by sounds, smells, tastes and textures and the visual sense barely features. So if we want people to engage more closely and to remember their experiences more strongly, we need to think about wider sensory experiences in the landscapes we design, the outdoor experiences we provide, and the interpretation we create.

Designing to engage the senses

There are many different ways for a venue to build opportunities for sensory engagement. The simplest is to look at what opportunities already exist and to make these accessible to visitors. We developed sensory mapping as a technique to review a site for its sensory highlights. The results can be used to plan a sensory trail, to identify where best to locate seats or as the basis for new visitor information. An added bonus is how it helps site teams take a fresh perspective on a place they are very familiar with.

Sensory trails provide experiences along a route to immerse people in a multi-sensory journey. They are good for the whole range of settings – parks, woods, schools, care homes and hospitals - and can be extended to indoors too. They can be especially useful when space is limited or to link between different spaces. In a learning context, sensory trails can help develop orientation skills, for example by people recognising different textures, sounds and scents along the trail and gaining confidence in way-finding. In a care setting, sensory trails can encourage people to venture further afield, to explore new areas or to become more immersed in the detail of the home environment.

Sensory Trail markers in use at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, inspiring people of all ages to immerse in the sensory detail of the gardens (Sensory Trust)
Sensory Trail markers in use at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, inspiring people of all ages to immerse in the sensory detail of the gardens (Sensory Trust)

We often hear from sites wanting to develop trails but lacking the funds to invest in site works, and it has inspired us to make a low-cost resource. The Sensory Trail Marker kit provides a simple and flexible way of installing a trail and has the advantage of being easy to change with the seasons or to open up different parts of the site. You can find more details at

In a similar way, we design different types of sensory engagement activities and resources to help sites open up more opportunities. Some are as simple as a collection of sensory props that we use as the basis for creative workshops, but most are resources that have been developed through a process of user-testing with many different groups. There is a collection of ideas free to download from our website at

gofindit is a game of scavenging to make a sensory  match with the cards (Sensory Trust)
gofindit is a game of scavenging to make a sensory match with the cards (Sensory Trust)

gofindit has proved to be one of our most popular resources. It’s a scavenger hunt in the form of a card game and has proved to be a great way of getting children immersed in the outdoors as they seek out objects to match the different cards. You can read more at

Designing specific sensory garden spaces is an option that lends itself especially well to care and health settings. These spaces are designed as collections of different sensory experiences, where people are encouraged to explore through touch, smell and as many other senses as the design can inspire. You can find free guidance at

All our techniques have been tested in different environments and settings. They help awaken a sense of wonder in people, and create opportunities to discover new things. We continue to find that engaging the senses changes the way people explore and connect with their surroundings and its stories.

The Sensory Trust advises on the development of accessible, engaging outdoor experiences. Our website has guidance and details of our consultancy and new training packages. Jane Stoneham is director of the Sensory Trust, do get in touch if we can help –

First published in CJS Focus on Overcoming Barriers in association with the Outdoor Recreation Network on 14 November 2016

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