A Piece of Magic: The Lifeworks Sensory Garden

A photo of two lifeworks clients wearing pink shirts and sitting together in the Lifeworks Apple Valley sensory garden

The sensory garden at our Apple Valley center is a space for Lifeworks clients and staff to relax, connect, and interact with the five senses. When the center opened in 2012, the outdoor area that would become the sensory garden was a large patio. The evolution of our program at Apple Valley allowed the space to become more intentional and collaborative. Last year, clients and staff laid the foundation for the future of the sensory garden. Today, it serves as a focal point for community building in the Apple Valley program.

Photo of a garden box filled with herbs and plants in the Apple Valley sensory gardenThe sensory garden sits just outside the back of the building. On warm, sunny days, people use the space for rest, conversation, or even dance parties. A retractable awning keeps folks cool when the summer heat kicks in, and various chairs and tables create places to gather. Vegetables and flowers add a natural element to the garden, while a water feature adds a calming energy. These features are not unlike an outdoor space one might have at home, but what makes the sensory garden special is the communal effort Lifeworks staff and clients have invested in making it what it is today.

“The sensory garden came about because we wanted the clients to experience the five senses,” says Sandy, a Service Facilitator at the center. “We planted herbs so they could rub their fingers on them and smell the different herbs, like lemon balm and rosemary.” From musical pipes that clients can play, to tomatoes grown to make salsa and art created by clients, every corner of the garden is a sensory utopia.

The art on display is centered around “Alice in Wonderland,” a theme clients decided on together. Sandy helped clients craft their visions through painting, glasswork, and more. “A lot of times, clients are continuously told what to do around the house. The art out there allowed clients to express themselves. I think that’s very important. It gives them [high] self-esteem, and they feel like they own the space.”

A lot of times, clients are continuously told what to do around the house. The art out there allowed clients to express themselves. I think that’s very important.

Photo of Layne, a client at Lifeworks, in the sensory garden Jamie, a Lifeworks client, recognizes the garden’s benefits for those who spend time in it. “It’s taking pride in what we do when working as a team. Some people may have a rough day and go out there and get happy.”

Layne, another client at Lifeworks, uses the space to lead a group that creates gratitude cards. Her favorite aspect of the garden is all the thriving foliage. She says, “I love all the flowers and vegetables out there because they look so fresh. They make me want to do my own garden at home!” To keep all the plants in good shape, each group at the Apple Valley center has taken on tending to the garden. Sandy says that by allowing clients to manage the garden, it truly becomes more of their own.

A recent addition to the sensory garden is a new xylophone and a box drum. The pair of instruments were donated by Minnesota Wisconsin Playground, a family-owned company that partners with municipalities, schools, architects, and other organizations to plan, design, and build their visions from the ground up. Minnesota Wisconsin Playground focuses on ensuring playgrounds and other public spaces can be enjoyed by everyone through inclusive design.

A Lifeworks client playing with a xylophone in the Apple Valley sensory garden“We are thrilled to host a yearly outing for Lifeworks clients,” Hannah, a representative of Minnesota Wisconsin Playground shared. “Last year, one of the clients visiting us saw the xylophone in our office and immediately started playing music for everyone, so our hope was that the xylophone would be a big hit!” The new instruments are a fun and immersive way for clients to engage with sound and are a popular activity in the garden.

With the inclusion of the new instruments, Sandy and the clients at Apple Valley want to incorporate music into the theme for the sensory garden next year. After deliberating, they decided to fuse existing themes and came up with “Alice meets Cat in the Hat in Music Land.” To prepare for the new personality, the clients will be getting busy on projects for the garden over the winter. Whatever new additions are ready for the garden in the coming year, Sandy’s biggest concern is ensuring clients continue to find comfort and seek creativity in the space. “We’re just trying to add a little magic and make the world a little happier.”


A photo of tables and chairs on the patio at the Apple Valley sensory garden