Congress Park school sensory garden helps teach students about world around them

The garden first opened to students one year ago

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A small preschool class runs along the gravel paths in the sensory garden at Sewall Child Development Center. One boy shouts that he saw a grasshopper, another chases after a flying bee. Moving on to an area with mulch, the class begins to look for creepy crawly bugs hidden under tree stumps.

In the year the garden has been open, the benefits to students, staff and even the community, have spoken for themselves, said Heidi Heissenbuttel, president and CEO of Sewall, which served 667 students total during the 2018-2019 school year. Sewall serves students aged 2.5-6 onsite, and offers toddler and infant outreach programming to 47 locations. The center offers inclusive education for students of all learning abilities and also offers developmental diagnostic and evaluation services.

“(The garden) really gives the children access to the outdoors and natural learning environments,” she said. “The effects of that seem soft, but you can’t even measure that.”

The sensory garden space was always part of the Sewall property, 940 Fillmore St., which also houses the REACH Charter School. What was once a .3-acre patch of weeds is now a colorful area filled with native plants where children can use all five of their senses. The colorful buds are perfect for sight and smell, while mint and a small cherry tree allow students to taste.

Enclosed by a tall, vine-covered fence on the East 10th Avenue side of the property, the garden provides children with a quiet refuge, allowing them to take in natural sounds — or escape loud classrooms. Soft plants like lamb’s ears bring touch into the garden. The school added a planting space in the playground to bring more physical touch into the gardening curriculum.

“It allows them to interact with plants in a way that maybe they wouldn’t do if they weren’t queued to,” said Lee McCoy, a therapeutic horticulturist with the Denver Botanic Gardens. “It’s a really neat model for a school.”

Several Botanic Gardens staff members from the botanic garden have students at either Sewall or REACH. Those parents helped with planting some of the garden there, McCoy said. The Botanic Gardens also has its own sensory garden area. There’s a shaded meeting area where the nonprofit hosts some horticulture therapy classes as well as summer camps. Signs in its garden help direct visitors to what each plant is meant for, whether its sight, touch, sound, taste or smell.

The Botanic Gardens space is also fully accessible to people in wheel chairs, McCoy said. Some plants on a rope-system can be lowered for people to touch and interact with.

“I think that’s one of the things, too, as a horticulturist that’s been tricky — at least initially to adjust to — is that sensory gardens are meant to be touched and not just observed,” McCoy said. “You want a garden where people feel comfortable engaging with it.”

McCoy likes to mix recognizable plants with less familiar ones. In addition to regular basil, she might include some purple basil. One of the plants in the Denver Botanic Sensory Garden area folds in on itself when touched.

‘Gravitating’ to the garden

Sewall first started planning for its community garden in 2016.

Denver resident Catharine McCord was researching the therapeutic effects of sensory gardens and how they could impact student learning for her master’s thesis. She interviewed students and parents at Sewall. Heissenbuttel said that after McCord finished her project, the school thought about implementing the parent’s work into Sewall’s curriculum.

The school applied for and received a $75,000 grant from the Colorado Garden Foundation in 2017 to begin building the garden at Sewall. The school opened them in May 2018.

In the year since building the garden, the school has also been inspired to begin shifting its curriculum toward Reggio Emilia, a teaching philisophy based in environmental learning and play that is also student-driven, according to Scholastic, Inc. McCord’s research and seeing the children in the garden space helped inspired the school to move toward that teaching philosophy.

“This is a huge piece of that outdoor learning environment,” Heissenbuttel said. “We’ve definitely seen the benefits of the kids gravitating toward here.”

The garden also has a large role in the community, Heissenbuttel said.

As the gardens were being built, volunteers from the Congress Park Neighbors Green Team helped with planting. School parents volunteered to weed or clean garden space. Independence House, which helps nonviolent offenders get back on their feet, helped with digging and some of the hard labor.

“It’s beyond what we would have dreamed of,” Heissenbuttel said.

The school also used native plants that required less water to teach families about using fewer resources, Heissenbuttel said.

“This is a lot of property, so if you’re watering this whole property, and we’re a nonprofit who struggles for funds, then we don’t want sustainability of this to take away from other resources,” Heissenbuttel said.

Staff at Denver Water acted as a consultant to Sewall for the garden. Jeff Tejral, water efficiency and reuse manager for Denver Water, said many creative opportunities in landscaping exist to create a space that’s not only functional and aesthetic, but water efficient as well.

Gardens and green space can be “more than just the leftover space where you didn’t put a building,” he said. In the case of the Sewall garden, it helped to bring the community together and educate them on low-water landscaping, or xeriscaping.

“That’s were the real, long-term social change happens,” Tejral said.

The garden has already begun to touch so many lives in the community, Tejral said, noting it inspired the Congress Park Green Team to learn about xeriscaping on its own. And children at Sewall and REACH have been introduced to gardening and nature in a very interactive way.

“It’s really about the people’s lives who experience that,” Tejral said. “We’re interested to see where it goes because we don’t know.”

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