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Trailside Nature and Science Center at Watchung Reservation

Union County, New Jersey

The Union County Watchung Reservation Sensory Friendly Trail is specially designed for park visitors of all ages and abilities and provides a way to safely experience the outdoors with opportunities to interact with nature. The Sensory Trail is a 0.3 mile ADA accessible loop with a central gazebo. The interpretive signage includes two talking audio kiosks highlighting the natural and human history of the Watchung Reservation, a 2,142 acre preserve and the largest park in Union County. In addition, the Braille trail loop with guide ropes features multiple interpretive signs to learn about the local flora and fauna with 3D reliefs and Braille for the visually impaired. The central gazebo offers a sensory play area to attract children and encourage exploration and discovery. Sensory stimulation is provided through sensory gardens, musical components and nature-themed play structures designed to meet the physical, social and cognitive needs of different age groups. All of these elements on the trail provide tactile experiences and create opportunities to enjoy the touch, sound and smells of nature. There are two outdoor classrooms along the trail with faux log and acorn cap seating where Naturalists can gather groups and make presentations.

Considering the end users are of all ages and abilities, it was important to the project team to ensure the finished product provided the same user experience to as many groups as possible. To do so, we wanted to provide as many different types of educational and recreational elements as possible that could be shared between user groups. For instance, the interpretive signage included braille and 3D reliefs of the topics for the visually impaired to complement the text and images viewable by other groups. In addition, the talking kiosks, included audio boxes which elaborate on the interpretive signage, again for the visually impaired or children not comfortable with reading a lengthy excerpt. These educational elements are connected by a guide rope with wooden markers distinguishing the braille signs from the talking kiosks.

The project also includes several gathering spaces/classrooms for with small groups from one of the Trailside Nature and Science Center's guided programs. These areas continue to play off the natural setting, using faux log benches and acorn cap seats.

In addition to all the educational elements, the final design elaborated on as many senses as possible through the use of various plant types, raised garden beds, musical play components and nature themed play components. These elements clustered around the central gazebo provide for a complete sensory experience, again for all ages and abilities.