September 29, 2022

Sensory Adventure


Nigel Abbey Design Consultants and The Garden Builders combined to produce an exciting and beautiful play and learning space at a London school to encourage its pupils to use all their senses in a bright and safe environment.

The brief was to create a sensory garden suitable for nursery and reception-aged children (three to six years old). Up to 60 children could use the garden at any one time so it needed to be low maintenance with limited planting.

William Morris Primary School sits next to a large council housing estate and affordable housing in Merton Borough, a socially mixed demographic area of south London. The dynamic executive head teacher helped the school rise from a government schools rating of ‘failing’ to ‘good’ only three years after her appointment, and her vision of extending the learning environment outside the classroom has been hailed as a significant contributing factor in that success.

As the garden has to accommodate a high number of children at any one time, open space was an important factor and we had to treat the area as a semi-open play and learning space that encouraged children to explore and find out about the wider world around them while developing basic motor skills by negotiating gentle features and feeling different tactile materials. We created a virtual world where children could explore and excite all of their senses.


Exciting Setting

The central island feature is surrounded by ‘sea and land’, marked out by areas of artificial, brightly coloured grass, providing a safe, visually stimulating and exciting setting. The garden contains water features, wind chimes, touch walls and picture units. The touch walls have natural items such as sea shells embedded into them. The picture units feature large images as a ‘window on the world’, with images of the American, Asian, African, Australasian and Antarctic continents. The island itself is adorned with a real palm tree and highly scented plants.


Semi-abstract ‘boats’ with seating provide areas for quiet learning groups and can also double up as picnicking area. Additional parasols on the ‘land’ provide shade on hot days, while the entrance wall represents a wave. The garden is dedicated to Mary Kingsley, the inspirational London-born Victorian explorer and writer with the totem featuring a summary of her achievements. The project demanded a high level of research and development to achieve the design concept in full and a number of bespoke items had to be sourced and commissioned, including special exterior, quality canvas art prints, touch-wall panels, bridges, a jetty, boats and a totem. There were also various features that we had to source, including wind chimes and water features.

Planting was also crucial as the stock had to be stunning, easy to maintain, safe for children, scented and hardy. Plant stock was supplied by Provender Nurseries under the direction of plant expert Lorraine Hartley. The touch-wall panels were particularly challenging but we got there thanks to Stephen Greenfield Model Makers, a company mainly involved in the movie industry.

The touch panels feature genuine shells, pebbles and gems which had to be safely embedded into coloured acrylic bases. They also made ‘permanently flying’ flags out of aluminium alloy with surface-applied graphics.

Timber Totem

The totem was routed into solid timber by DAB Graphics – a company that specialises in signs for nature trails and wildlife parks. We supplied black and white artwork and the design was cut out of the timber. The artificial grass installation was a major feature that demanded complicated cutting and seaming. This was carried out by Blades Artificial Grass. Giant boulders were supplied by Specialist Aggregates.

Working at a school has its own inherent problems which we had to overcome. Timings were tight and we had to complete works out of school term-time. During construction in the school holidays of summer 2012, we had to co-operate with other contractors that were working on site – a consulting company building an extension and a subcontractor erecting a canopy. We had to liaise with the large consulting company to provide an electrical supply to our project site for the water features, which proved complicated – mainly trying to cut through red tape.

The smaller company gave us a few headaches over its site management but we overcame these problems while keeping the school fully informed at all times.

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