Sensory garden gives students with diverse abilities a place to grow

sensory garden

UAH’s Early Learning Center recently added a sensory garden to give children of diverse abilities the opportunity to explore the many sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures that make up this carefully curated outdoor space.

Michael Mercier | UAH

Last year, the Early Learning Center (ELC) unveiled its first sensory room, giving students in its Preschool Autism Language and Social Skills program a calming space of their own to relax and refocus their minds. Now, the community outreach center for the College of Education at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) has added yet another resource to meet the needs of children with diverse abilities: a sensory garden complete with mud kitchen, raised planter boxes, and a pond.

"When we moved into the ELC, the garden area was overgrown. But I knew it could be a special place for our children," says Deana Aumalis, who serves as the center’s director. "So seeing its transformation into a sensory garden that is both safe and enriching for our students is a dream come true." Credit for that, she adds, goes to ELC budget analyst Alicia Wilkerson. "She took my vision and reached out to several community groups and units within the university to make this a reality for our children."

ELC students help tend the plants in the sensory garden.

Michael Mercier | UAH

Wilkerson has a long history of going above and beyond the call of duty to help the ELC better serve it community of tiny scholars. Not only was she an integral member of the team behind the aforementioned sensory room, but she was also responsible for recruiting a muralist to brighten up the center’s walls. So it was without hesitation that she accepted Aumalis’ invitation to head up the sensory garden project. "It was something that I kind of jumped on because, walking by and seeing it overgrown since I’ve worked here, I could see the potential," says Wilkerson. "And after hearing Deana’s vision, I could see how it would look – even if I didn’t know where to start!"

Fortunately, finding space for the garden wasn’t an issue thanks to a , pre-existing courtyard beyond the center’s northside wall. But before the courtyard could be considered safe for use, its neglected pond would have to be remediated. Enter Kevin Patterson, a pond and pool expert whom Wilkerson found through a friend of a friend. "He kind of fell in love with our mission here at the ELC," she says. "So he came out with his church group and they got the pond up and running, and built the right kind of fence so that the kids could see through it but not get too close to the water."

Next up? Removing the courtyard’s "knee-high weeds," leveling the ground, and preparing the soil for planting. "Randolph High School had reached out to us in the past about volunteering and this seemed like a perfect opportunity," says Wilkerson. "They ended up sending about 25 of their students for three days of solid work, in addition to buying and donating the materials they used. They were really excited about the project and passionate about trying to make it safe for the kids."

As for the final touches, they came courtesy of Daniel Jean and John MacLeod, landscapers with UAH Grounds Management. "They brought in the different types of mulch, they filled the planter boxes with soil and the kitchen with dirt and mud, and they added the bushes," she says. "They also adjusted the benches to the proper height and leveled the pieces in the mud kitchen to make both areas more accessible." Even now, she adds, "they still check on us and have really been big supporters."

Students can learn about the natural life cycle of plants in the sensory garden.

Michael Mercier | UAH

Come May the garden was officially ready for planting, a job Wilkerson had reserved for the center’s students. "The kids planted all the vegetables, the herbs, and the flowers, and are now following the full circle of the plants’ lives – tending them, watching them grow, and eating, touching, or smelling them," she says. "It’s a full sensory experience that brings hands-on learning to them. And everyone takes something different from it depending on their interests." She definitely has no shortage of helpers when it comes to watering. "I had to buy more watering cans because everyone wanted to water!" she says with a laugh. "Fortunately, we’re blessed to have so much that needs to be watered."

The mud kitchen has also been a popular addition, and there is hope of adding musical equipment and a learning space in the near future. In the meantime, they’ve been able to purchase wheelbarrows and diggers, among other equipment, with a $2,500 grant the ELC received from Target earlier this year. "We’re so thankful for their support, because of course without funding, none of this would have been possible," says Wilkerson. "Between them, Randolph, Kevin Patterson and his church group, and UAH Grounds Management, we have really hit the jackpot in terms of support. And seeing how much fun the kids are having has showed me that it was more than worth the time and effort that we all put into this fun and safe new space for them to explore."


Deana Aumalis
Director, Early Learning Center