Kids see, touch and taste nature in new ‘sensory garden’


Liam Ozar and Charlie Holleman, both 3, play in the garden at the Childrens’ School on Friday. This is one of two new gardens containing flowers, fruits and vegetables that are now part of the Childrens’ School backyard. Photo by Ellie Haugsby.

Josh Cooper | Staff Writer

For Children’s School administrators, a major goal for several years has been to incorporate more outdoor learning for the kids who attend the program. This year, after five years of planning, designing and building, their goal has finally been reached.

The final product: the new “sensory garden” in the backyard of the Children’s School, which allows children to experience nature in a whole new way.

The garden features numerous types of herbs, fruits, vegetables, flowers and other plants. It also features a winding stepping-stone path through the garden, new shade trees and a walking bridge.

Ryan Kiblin, supervisor of the Gardens and Landscaping Department, said the goal of the new garden is to teach kids about nature.

“The garden is designed to teach the kids about the different colors and smells and textures that a garden can produce and to teach the kids the full scope of what Mother Nature can do,” Kiblin said.

Kiblin said the garden offers something unique to the kids, especially those who have little exposure to nature at home.

“Some of them come from urban areas and don’t get a lot of experience with nature,” Kiblin said.

The garden will also be used to teach the kids about farming and how “this is something that people do for a living,” Kiblin said.

The children themselves will be maintaining the garden.

“They’re going to water the vegetables and pull weeds … so that they can learn about the maintenance of the garden too,” Kiblin said. “So they’ll learn what goes into a garden, that it takes work and that it’s not just something that’s there for them to look at.”

New natural elements have been brought indoors as well. The classrooms are now equipped with transparent grow boxes, which allows the kids to watch plants put down roots.

Jack Voelker, director of the Department of Recreation and Youth Services, said the project has been years in the making.

“We’re picking up on some things that were mentioned in an evaluation from several years ago,” Voelker said.

The evaluation was conducted in 2006 by Mira Berkley, SUNY Fredonia associate professor in the College of Education, and Suzanne McLain, a former child care center director with more than 30 years of experience in early childhood programs. Among their recommendations was to “increase opportunities for outdoor play, experiences in nature, inquiry based learning and exploration.”

“Their recommendation, plus the existing interest in expanding these elements of our program as expressed by the Children’s School staff, led to this project,” Voelker said.

Voelker said the children wouldn’t be the only ones who have to learn about the new features in the coming season.

“I think it’s going to be very interesting for the teachers to begin to learn how to use this space,” Voelker said. “We expect that will be an ongoing process, and that they’ll find some creative ways to use this new space.“

Kiblin said one of their greatest challenges has come from an unusual source.

“Of course we have an ever-running battle with the rabbits,” Kiblin said. “We’ve been struggling hard to keep the rabbits at bay, but now that the kids are here, they shouldn’t be bothering things too much.”