Stimulating the Senses

By Kathryn A. Navarra

People of all ages, abilities and backgrounds are drawn to the sound and sight of moving water. Water features in the landscape define an atmosphere, add curb appeal and create a wildlife habitat. Ponds and water features enhance a property’s value, bring greater enjoyment to its viewers, and have even been found to have health benefits.

“Most people choose to add a water feature because it is therapeutic, it creates a relaxing sound and sight,” said Jennifer Zuri, marketing communications manager for Aquascape, Inc.

Horticultural Therapy, the newest type of rehabilitation treatment, focuses on the benefits of natural landscapes, especially ponds and waterfalls, in helping individuals recover more quickly from surgery.

According to The Sustainable Sites Initiative, Standards & Guidelines: Preliminary Report, hospital patients who have a view of natural landscapes recover faster from surgery and require less pain medication. In addition, heart rate, blood pressure and other measures return to normal levels more quickly when people view natural rather than urban landscapes after a stressful experience.

Individuals with disabilities and special needs significantly benefit from access to water features as well. The type of water feature, be it a pond, pondless waterfall, fountain or water play table serve a unique role in rehabilitative therapy options.

“A raised water play table stimulates the child’s brain and gives them the opportunity to interact in the environment and activate all of their senses,” said Renee Lee, director of parks and recreation in Ft. Collins, Colo. “Water allows them to focus without having sensory overload.”

Enlightening example

Contractors throughout the country are learning about the benefits water features can have for individuals with special needs. For example, Randy Countermine, owner of New Dimensions Outdoor Services, an upstate New York-based design/build firm, had firsthand experience when he was hired by the Strothenke family to install a wildlife habitat pond for their children. While the pond was intended for both of their

 children they knew their son, a child with special needs, would especially benefit.

“When he was younger he was drawn to water,” said Mrs. Strothenke. “We would get out of the car at his grandparents house and he would run to their pond and start throwing rocks into the water. We would walk into the local furniture store and he would gravitate to the slate waterfall that was along the back wall.”

Countermine worked closely with the Strothenkes to create a pond that could be enjoyed by the entire family. The figure-8-shaped pond spans 12 feet across at its widest point and is roughly 30 feet long. Two pumps hidden underground in a vault feed the pond and circulate the water to the waterfalls. At nearly 7 feet deep, the pond holds approximately 12,000 gallons and has become a gathering spot for the family.

For some individuals, having a disability can be isolating and make interaction in social settings unbearable.


“Having the pond has given our son a place to be himself,” said Mrs. Strothenke. “He loves to sit in front of the waterfall at the end of the pond. It could be the soothing sound of the water or just watching it hit the rocks, but it really catches his attention.”

 The pond has also encouraged the Strothenkes’ son to explore the sense of touch. Individuals with disabilities can have severe tactile disabilities.

“Just the other day he asked if he could touch the fish,” Mrs. Strothenke said. “That was a big step for him.”

Meeting patient needs

Designing a pond, waterfall or fountain with the individual and their needs in mind is key. “My approach to a landscape that is being designed for a specific patient situation is to define what type of water would be beneficial,” said Annie Kirk, director of Acer Institute. “Then what level of maintenance is the facility or homeowner able to afford and have the ability to take care of.”

Therapeutic water features are not limited to a homeowner’s back yard or a public park. Healthcare facilities throughout the country are beginning to acknowledge the benefits of water features.

For example, senior care facilities, especially those for memory loss have discovered the value of installing a water feature. “Older adults who are in the early stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s may struggle with making the transition of moving into a new facility,” said Kirk. “A water feature can be a great orientation marker and can orient the person as to where they are in the space.”

According to Kirk, a water feature can also help Alzheimer’s patients with long-term memory recovery. The patient may say “I remember playing in a pond when I was six years old…”

Even though water features have benefits for individuals in adult care facilities, careful attention must be given to the type of feature and its design. “In senior care facilities, patients have issues with incontinence. A water feature with a trickling noise will remind them of something that is uncomfortable or embarrassing,” said Kirk explained. “Instead of a waterfall, a pond is a better option. They can watch birds swoop in or squirrels sit on the edge, and it provides a new social, active event outside.”

Given the flexibility in the design of water features, they can easily fit in with any lifestyle or architectural theme. Even though the field of Horticultural Therapy is still developing, there is no question that individuals with special needs have benefited from them.

For contractors the opportunities are limitless. With careful attention to your client’s needs, your water feature designs and installations could transform their lives.

Kathryn A. Navarra is a landscape industry professional based in New York. She is also an accomplished author and freelance correspondent with more than 200 published articles to her credit. She can be reached via e-mail at

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Check Also