What is a Sensory Garden

Sherry Hoyt was principal at Commonwealth when she hired Sue Pettinicchio and asked her to design the garden.

Students with special needs can find it difficult to learn abstract concepts.

“We wanted the garden to help them access the same concepts as other students,” Pettinicchio said, “but in a hands-on way that gets their attention.”

The garden nurtures learning and social skills. Not an inch is wasted.

It starts with a little red schoolhouse scaled to kid size. The inside will offer hands-on, tactile experiences such as shaving cream or corn.

“Feelings for our fingers,” she noted in kindergarten-speak.

Pettinicchio envisions bird-nesting boxes between the house and the fence, so the children can observe the lifecycle through the windows. She will document each stage, create a book and revisit it often to help children retain the information.

There’s a plaza paved with steppingstones for outside circle time. Walking on stones encourages motor planning. Herbs planted between the stones will stimulate the sense of smell.

Next is a pebble pit surrounding a water pump. You can’t pump the water and catch it yourself; success requires a social interaction. There’s a pebble harp: Each stone creates a different sound after it’s dropped through the slots, before it falls back onto the ground.

There are four dirt-filled garden areas, a plot for each classroom to farm crops that can relate to stories they read. These children love to dig.

“Put their hands in dirt and their eyes focus and their gaze sharpens,” Pettinicchio said. “When they pour water and someone gets wet, they have power over their environment, and that’s powerful to learn.”

The garden is designed to engage these children, who could easily be lost to worlds of their own.

“Every minute counts at this age,” observed their teacher. “We set high expectations. We treat each child as if they have unlimited potential. … They surprise me on a daily basis.”