Senses and Sensibility: Sensory Adventures in the Gardens

Posted on Tue., Sept. 5, 2023 by Sandy Masuo
A sign in a garden that says, “Meet Me in the Garden.”

Meet Me in the Garden invites visitors to experience The Huntington as a sensory adventure. Photo by Linnea Stephan. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Every visit to The Huntington is as unique as the visitor. Each individual explores the gardens and the galleries through a personal lens, adding deeper meaning and relevance to the collections. With the aim of engaging a more diverse cross section of people, The Huntington created the Meet Me in the Garden program as a way of welcoming visitors with different sensory needs. The program debuted in spring 2019 and, after a hiatus during the pandemic, resumed in 2023 on a quarterly basis. The program is geared toward families with members who identify as disabled, but all guests are welcome to participate.

“We value learning and discovery in all their forms,” said Elee Wood, The Huntington’s Nadine and Robert A. Skotheim Director of Education and Public Programs. “Whether you use your nose, eyes, ears, hands, or mind, Meet Me in the Garden encourages multiple dimensions of experience to help people flourish and develop.”

A group of children participate in activities at a table in a garden.

Exploring the textures, colors, and shapes of plant materials leads to inspired creativity. Photo by Linnea Stephan. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

The Huntington’s former youth and family programs and community engagement manager, Kate Zankowicz, laid the groundwork for this collaborative project. An energetic advocate for inclusive and accessible programming, Zankowicz worked with Ali Vogelsang, a USC doctoral candidate in occupational therapy with an emphasis in inclusive, community-based programming. Together with Huntington staff and a group of community advisers, Zankowicz and Vogelsang produced a suite of activities that encourages participants to explore the gardens through smell, taste, sight, and touch.

To create an experience that is welcoming from the outset, visual schedules—which use images to communicate a series of activities or the steps involved in a particular task—are provided to registrants in advance of their visit. On the day of the event, additional visual and text-based instructions are provided at each activity station. Past iterations took place in the Herb, Rose, and Shakespeare gardens, where participants crafted name tags, engaged in sensory tours, created collages with botanical materials, experimented with plant-based paints, or simply relaxed and made new friends.

Overhead view of a table with two people reading Braille.

Braille offers another mode of expression in the garden. Photo by Linnea Stephan. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

At the past two Meet Me in the Garden sessions, Huntington Members Cynthia and Chris Derick and son Ethan generously volunteered to teach attendees how to spell and read plant names in Braille. Cynthia explained that the program has made a lasting impression on her family. “Ethan is both physically and intellectually disabled, so mainstream-targeted events present different types of challenges,” she said. “The only exception to this has been The Huntington’s Meet Me in the Garden. The staff succeeded in creating an experience that enchants guests with sights, sounds, tastes, scents, and tactile activities. We’ve attended three of these events and each one had something fresh to offer. We appreciate the enhancements the team has implemented over time, which show the caring culture that is at the core of this program.”

A child and an adult stand on a blanket in a garden.

Relaxation stations provide space for participants to take breaks and socialize. Photo by Linnea Stephan. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Vogelsang, who is now a practicing occupational therapist, remains actively engaged with various aspects of Meet Me in the Garden, including activity development and training for staff and volunteers. “This is a program that I am proud to say is rooted in research and community need,” she said. “But I am even more proud of how it has blossomed thanks to the input from the individuals and families who value it. I cannot wait to see how it grows and evolves.”

People surround a table covered in craft supplies.

Activities are designed to engage individuals with a range of sensory needs. Photo by Linnea Stephan. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

For future sessions, there are plans to incorporate activities that have been featured in family workshops, such as hands-on botanical harvests and dyeing textiles. Currently in the works are Meet Me in the Garden sessions that will take place in the Desert Garden and near the Lily Ponds. Participants are welcome to arrive anytime between 9:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.; the early entry provides time to get acquainted with the environment before the gates open to the public at 10 a.m. (You can learn more about the program schedule on the Meet Me in the Garden event page.)

“The Huntington took a very thoughtful approach in building this program,” Cynthia Derick said. “By having conversations with families like ours, Huntington staff came up with a curated drop-in event that is inclusive, accessible, and meaningful to guests with disabilities and special needs.”

A child sits at a table with art supplies as an adult looks on.

Meet Me in the Garden will continue to grow as a collaboration between Huntington staff members and the communities they serve. Photo by Linnea Stephan. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Sandy Masuo is the senior writer in the Office of Communications and Marketing at The Huntington.