When growing up children often hear their parents telling them to “go outside and play” knowing it is a space where they can safely let off steam, and quite possibly get out from under their feet.

The garden, and the outside generally, can be a powerful place where adults and children have many shared connections. For people living with dementia the outdoors may unlock vivid memories of nature and wildlife, long and sunny days spent outside and the laughter and fun of family games played that similar experiences indoors just cannot replicate.

A lawn full of daisies, buttercups and dandelions is a living carpet where daisy chains, dandelion clocks and the “do you like butter?” games are played. These are even more fun with a willing adult to play along with by wearing daisy chain necklaces and telling the time together.

The weather and nature are ever changing, creating a rich and stimulating environment to explore together and this connection can often help people living with dementia orientate themselves to the time of day and the time of year too. Sharing the joy of being outside with a child can bring past knowledge and interests to life through simple tasks like filling bird feeders, picking some flowers, watering plants or simply sitting and watching them play.

During our research into why care setting gardens are not used more actively we observed examples where the simplest interactions with the outside space by residents living with dementia and their families and gave them a sense of meaningful occupation and unlocked previously forgotten memories and knowledge about the world around them. A bunch of buttercups and a dandelion clock in one home helped a resident recall she was a parent and used to enjoy the games associated with these plants with her children. This beautiful interaction took place on a day when she had not recognised her daughter, making this recollection even more poignant.

In many ways children are set free outside. They can run around, play with balls or help out in a way that inside may be frowned upon or perhaps be considered too boisterous. Children themselves have the ability to help people living with dementia engage with the outdoors through the simple fact they are children doing what children do best outside, playing.

So perhaps one of the simplest ways to support children and people with dementia build a comfortable relationship is to create the natural opportunities of play and connection to nature that the outside can bring. So “Why don’t we go into the garden?” and see what unexpected moments may unfold.


Step Change Design Ltd. was formed to share the findings from a large self funded research project carried out by the two founding Garden Designers into why care setting gardens, particularly for dementia, are not more actively used even when designed to the latest guidance. Their work took them on a remarkable journey deep inside the culture of the care sector, and away from where they expected the answer to lay within the garden.

They have produced their findings in the form of a practical, and beautifully illustrated, Care Culture Map and Handbook. This tool aims to help care settings, and those who support them like Garden Designers, understand what may be hindering the use of the outside and guides them on a journey to greater relationship-centred care and more meaningful engagement by residents with the outside as and when they choose.

More information on their work and support is available at their website: www.stepchange-design.co.uk

Debbie Carroll
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Debbie Carroll

Co-Director at Step Change Design Ltd
I began gardening from an early age and have always had a passion for nature, wildlife, plants and art. Debbie Carroll Garden Design began in 2004 following studying Horticulture and Garden Design at Sparsholt College, Hampshire. Find out more...
Debbie Carroll
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