A gardener has transformed play times for autistic children by turning a grassy field into a magical sensory garden.
Paul Atkison’s own daughter, who had special needs, died aged just 22 months old and ever since he has wanted to “give something back.”
Ten years after her death the 51-year-old swapped his post at a private school, where he spent more than two decades manicuring lawns and trees, to garden at a special needs school nearby.
Paul started work on the sensory garden just a month into the new job and was boosted by a £4,000 Tesco grant, to help the school’s 520 students, aged from three to 19.
He wanted to create a space for the children that would both appeal to their senses and give them somewhere to explore nature away from the obstacles they face outside its grounds.
The father-of-four said: “I spent 22 years working in a private school and people take that environment as normal. I just wanted to give something back.”
He added: “I said ‘I want to build something different from anything else and it has to be accessible for all our children.’”
The garden is roughly three-quarters the size of a football pitch and is focussed around a central hub with different paths leading off it, each offering a different sensory experience.
One route has underfoot textures tailored for wheelchair users and a variety of plants border another path allowing the children to use their hands to feel their way along.
Among the garden’s features are a beach-like stretch of sand, a water spraying machine that creates a cool mist, a rock pool and even a hobbit hole.
Four tonnes of rock formed the site’s foundation and the children even pitched in by planting seeds and suggesting ideas for the garden.
The dad said: “It’s about them enjoying their surroundings and putting something into the garden. Because it is a community everybody feels responsible.”
Paul said the effect of the garden on the children’s anxiety has been “massive.”
He added: “You can see the effect the garden has. It makes a massive difference to behaviour. The children don’t get so many anxiety attacks. It’s a place where they can calm down.”
The government only funds the basics at Five Acre Wood School, in Maidstone, Kent, and Paul relies on volunteers and donations from the community to keep the garden thriving.
He started the project in 2017, but there is more work to be done. Next on his list is a raised outdoor aquarium where children can gaze at fish and a rolling path that mimics the sensation of a roller coaster.
Speaking at the unveiling of the garden, head fundraiser for the school, Alex Meaders, said: “Two years ago it was just a grassy field and today it is full of incredible opportunities for our children to engage on a sensory level.
“They love coming into the garden, they love being outside no matter what the weather.”