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Brookline School’s Garden Nurtures Students’ Senses

By Jodi Weigand
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Jimi Hutchin, 14, sings "God Bless America" with help from Pioneer chorus director Mark Kwolek during a tree-planting ceremony for the Brookline school's sensory garden on Tuesday. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review

Pioneer school in Brookline on Tuesday formally dedicated one of the area’s first sensory gardens located at a public school.

The gardens provide people with intellectual and developmental disabilities a range of sounds, sights, textures and smells. Pioneer serves about 75 children and adults ages 5 to 21 with rare disabilities and special medical needs.

Pioneer school special-education teacher Mary Lou Walczak helps Cache Brown, 8, plant a tree for the school's sensory garden on Tuesday. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review

“What an important prototype this is going to become for our entire region,” said Judy Wagner, senior director of the community garden and green space program for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which helped design the garden. “This is a very special example of how greenery can really improve the lives of everyone.”

Pioneer’s garden, on about an acre of land in the school’s backyard, has textured plants and brightly colored, fragrant blooms. It features a fountain, hummingbird feeders, swings and benches. Still to be installed are vine canopies over some of the walkways, outdoor musical instruments and raised planters for students to use. A $100,000 grant from the Edith L. Tress Charitable Trust funded the gardens.

“Students will be able to grow fruits and vegetables, and we’ll harvest those for (a course called) activities of daily living, where they learn how to cook and shop and store food,” said Principal Sylbia Kunst. “Our teachers will develop lessons using different parts of the sensory garden.”

Chris Hutchin of Carrick said she’s glad her son Jimi, 14, who has attended the school since 2000, will get to spend more time outdoors.

“A big part of the kids’ growth is being outside,” she said.

When designing the garden, Pioneer officials and the architect sought input from organizations such as the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children and Allegheny Valley School, which both have sensory gardens.

“They can encourage imagination or stress release (or) if someone needs to have more stimulation because they’re lethargic,” said Carol Erzen, director of training and staff development at Allegheny Valley School, which provides therapeutic programs to adults and children with disabilities. “It’s a place to truly enjoy nature.”

Kunst said having a secure, handicapped accessible garden at Pioneer will provide more learning opportunities.

“This is another way for our kids to be involved,” she said.

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