Playing in the Sensory Garden

A Garden for All

Sense-ational Endeavors campers create a sensory garden for all to enjoy
By: Marissa Carney

There’s a new place to kick back and enjoy nature on campus, and while you’re there you may run in to some of the kids who had a hand in creating it.

The sensory garden, located between the Hawthorn Building and the Eve Memorial Chapel, was constructed as a part of a Beta Sigma Nursing Honor Society service project under the direction of Cathy Dillen, instructor in nursing. Dillen and second degree nursing students have worked with the Sense-ational Endeavors program from its inception in 2011, and the garden is an extension of that collaboration. The camp, part of the college’s summer Kids’ College, is a two-week sensory-based educational enhancement program tailored to the needs and interests of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

With a donation of $1,000 from the Beta Sigma chapter Dillen and some volunteers built the walkway and stone walls and planted several perennials. Twenty of the nursing students helped plant annuals, water the garden, and prepare it for the Sense-ational Endeavors camp.

Sense-ational Endeavors focuses on sensory integration, an important tool in facilitating learning and sensory processing in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. The camp offers a combination of sensory activities, physical movement, and social skill development as well as recreational activities and exercise tailored to each child’s ability. Each day is themed with structured activities providing a variety of sensory experiences including physical movement, arts and music, and social skill development.

A child plays in the Sensory Garden

A child plays in the Sensory Garden

Credit: Penn State

Before the camp begins, the nursing students learn the theory about Autism Spectrum Disorders and Sensory Processing Disorders through lectures and course readings. They learn non-pharmacological interventions and how to interact with the children and their families during camp. Dillen says through the camp, nursing students see the potential and growth of children on the spectrum and are also able to take away different types of leadership skills. Both of those things will be useful to the students as they continue through their careers.

During the camp, each child was paired with a nursing student to explore and play in the sensory garden, bringing to the forefront each child's reaction to stimulation through the five senses. In the garden, there are auditory stimuli like wind chimes, visual stimuli through color and depth, whirly gigs, statues, smells such as oregano, basil, and thyme, and tactile stimuli like fuzzy, pointy, soft, fluffy, and grainy plants and decorations. There is even an elevated flower bed for those who have difficulty accessing a traditional garden plot, including anyone using walkers or wheelchairs.

Katelyn Cherry, a nursing student, says she looks forward to the camp every year and always has a lot of fun playing with the kids and doing games and crafts. She states this year was especially nice with the addition of the garden. “It was really cool, and the kids got really into it. They got to pick where their plant went, dig the hole, put it in, and pat the dirt around it. They loved it and were all smiles.” Dillen adds, “Campers loved the garden. They sat on the bench, played in the water in the bird bath, listened to the chimes, and worked with the soil. Hopefully they continue to visit to show family and friends ‘their plants’ and revisit the sounds, smells, and colors.”

Those involved with the sensory garden are hopeful the community will use and enjoy it, as well. Shelly Beaver, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist, part-time lecturer at the college, and one of the camp managers, says the garden shows Penn State Altoona’s dedication to creating an inclusive educational community. “Through the development of the sensory garden, children and adults with and without disabilities in the local community have a beautiful and safe place to learn about horticulture and explore a variety of stimulating textures, tastes, and sounds. The sensory garden is a place where the Penn State Altoona and local communities can learn and thrive together.”

Beaver and Dillen are looking for volunteers to help with regular maintenance of the garden like weeding and watering. If you’re interesting in getting involved, you may email [email protected] or [email protected].