Fusing horticultural therapy practices with a meaningful uses of technology
Our first prototype for the Children’s Hospice project - the Connected Garden – recognised the significant importance that gardens hold as a place of refuge, play and relaxation. In our assessment of leading hospices, we found they placed great value on the ability for children, young people and families to be in nature if they wish. The reason is clear: being in nature can take us away from ourselves, invoke feelings of calm and appreciation, and makes us feel happier.
Given our work was focused on a new Italian hospice building set by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, his central idea of ‘living amid the trees’ inspired us to consider the outdoor space to be as integral to the hospice service as any of the indoor facilities or medical care. The Connected Garden explored how to fuse the innovative horticultural therapy practices we uncovered through research with meaningful uses of technology, to enable and support accessible use of a garden space for every visitor and patient of the hospice.
The concept emerged from a desire to address several questions: facilitating peer-to-peer connections, leveraging virtual games or environments to aid children with mobility loss, and crafting regular physical spaces for play. The underlying idea was to establish the garden as an interactive, communal space to nurture a sense of community for families in the hospice setting, particularly as children desire autonomy from their parents and adults seek spaces outside the hospice for acclimatisation.
Our main goal was to test and develop the hypothesis that a garden could serve as an interactive, communal space, bringing together both the families at the hospice and remote members. We aimed to empower both children and adults, providing them with a sense of responsibility and connection through the act of growing plants.
Through design development, we developed three concepts, of which the “Flower Power” concept strongly emerged, from the desire to facilitate both autonomy and togetherness for children and adults within the hospice. It was envisioned as a bridge between the hospice’s interior and the garden, making nature more accessible. Its primary goal was to cater to the children’s need for independence from their parents and adults’ desire for spaces outside the hospice to acclimatise to the service.
The therapeutic value of nature
Through this exploration we learned of horticulture therapy. It highlighted the therapeutic advantages of gardens in hospices, from being a calming space to facilitating activities like playground games and vegetable farming. We learned from Elisabeth Pilgrem, an expert in Social and Therapeutic Horticulture (STH) which validated the therapeutic benefits of interacting with nature. Drawing on Attention Restoration Theory (ART), the therapeutic attributes of nature were underscored, emphasising the restorative aspects of ‘being away’ and ‘fascination’. Following these insights, a second refined hypothesis was established, focusing on the collaborative element of the concept. This led to the development of functional prototypes which underwent iterative design and testing phases.
Drawing from the therapeutic benefits of nature, the design process transitioned into creating games that incorporated these principles. The emphasis was on collaborative, normalising play, with plants and nature at the core. The technologies were introduced, turning plants into interactive tools through capacitive touch sensors. This innovative blend of nature and technology paved the way for games like “Fishes”, “Sloth”, and “Carrot & Rabbit”.
Technology and interaction
The technological cornerstone of the project was the integration of capacitive touch sensors with plants. By attaching four of these sensors to various plant parts, distinctive electrical resistance changes were detected based on where the plant was touched. This data was fed into a machine learning algorithm that built a classifier capable of predicting the touch location based on the sensor readings, thereby turning plants into interactive interfaces. This innovative approach allowed the plants to be the primary input source for the games, with real-time feedback being provided through various outputs such as LED patterns, sound, or game actions. The system was designed to be intuitive and engaging, allowing children to naturally explore and interact with the plants while receiving immediate sensory feedback. Such technological integration not only made the games more immersive but also highlighted the potential of blending nature with technology in a therapeutic context.
Two design sprints were executed, each followed by a user testing session. The first sprint focused on creating interactions with plants, resulting in three co-operative mini-games. Feedback from the first user test was invaluable, highlighting the importance of feedback during play and the engagement levels of children with the games. In the second sprint, the prototypes were refined, splitting into two main exercises – an improved ‘carrot & rabbit’ game and an experience centred on play and exploration through plants augmented with audio and light. User testing revealed that both games served as significant distractions from the clinical environment, with children showing prolonged engagement.
Throughout the user testing sessions, there was consistent engagement with the prototypes, particularly highlighting the captivating nature of the plant-as-interface concept. However, certain gaps were identified, such as the need to focus on interactions between siblings specifically, and the need to involve children from children’s hospices directly.
The Connected Garden prototype combined the therapeutic benefits of horticulture with modern technology to enhance the hospice environment for children and families. By integrating touch-sensitive technology within plants, the prototype bridged the natural world with interactive experiences. This approach aligns with the hospice’s vision of creating a comforting and communal space, allowing children to engage with nature and join in collaborative activities. For families, it offers a means to connect and find moments of peace together. It represents a thoughtful blend of nature and innovation, reflecting the hospice’s commitment to holistic well-being and support.