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North Hills Monthly

Sensory Gardens Provide Opportunity for All to Enjoy the Outdoors

Jul 29, 2019 11:03AM ● By Vanessa Orr

Everyone loves a garden, but for people with sensory processing issues, the right type of garden can be a godsend. Not only can it give them a place to discover tantalizing opportunities to see, smell, hear, touch and taste the objects around them, but it can also provide a safe space to relieve anxiety, as well as serve as a refuge from overwhelming situations.

Julia Konitzky, a mother whose three children attended HeartPrints Center for Early Education in Cranberry Township, approached the organization two years ago with the idea of creating such a space on the center’s playground. Her three boys all attended the school, which was instrumental in providing classroom accommodations for her youngest son after a medical emergency and for helping the family adjust to her middle son’s autism diagnosis.

“He didn’t talk until he was almost four, and they accepted him and loved him and stuck with him,” Konitzky explained of her desire to give back to the center. “They are a private school, so they don’t have to accept children with difficult diagnoses, but they opened their doors to us. They have taken such good care of my kids as well as all of the others; they are my heroes.”

While Konitzky originally planned to create a fairly small garden, the project has grown beyond her wildest dreams. “I did a lot of research on sensory gardens and outdoor learning, and then I started applying for grants,” she explained. “I couldn’t believe it! Help started rolling in.”

FedEx was the first company to provide a grant, and then Justin Griffith, the CEO of the Regional Learning Alliance, designated about an acre of land at its location in Cranberry Woods to be used for the garden. PNC’s charitable trust provided another $20,000, and Moe’s Southwest Grill donated another $2,000 to create a wildflower garden and Monarch butterfly sanctuary. 

Grace Byrnes, HeartPrint’s director, was thrilled by the response. “We were so excited when Julia brought the idea to us; it was just a dream,” she explained. “But then we started thinking about the dollar signs, and we were concerned because we’re a nonprofit that just makes it day to day. Then people started coming and helping—even though it’s not their school, and not their garden. it’s just so humbling.”

The garden has a number of features that make it special for those with sensory issues as well as those without. The Butterfly Garden includes a lot of native plants, including milkweed, and the children raise the butterflies in the classroom before releasing them into the wild. Fruit trees and a large edible garden, which Konitzky created with help from Whole Foods, offers visitors a chance to experience the sense of taste. Musical instruments in the woods that look like flowers, which were provided by a grant from the Pittsburgh Foundation, focus on the sense of sound, and there is a big stream and flowering bulbs that contribute to the sense of sight.

The garden will soon expand to include items encouraging a sense of touch, including cacti plantings and evergreen trees near the wetlands. A paved path, which is in the works, will allow even more access to the garden, which is already ADA-accessible.

“When we talk about going outside, the kids start jumping around, they get so excited!” said Byrnes. “There’s just something about going to the ‘forest’—you never know what you’ll find there. 

“It touches on all five senses, and really calms the children down,” she added. “Some of them like to rub their hands on the trees to feel the bark; others like running around in the grass or looking up at clouds. They do all of the things that we used to do as kids.”

The last phase of the garden, planned for next year, is to get it recognized as a Certified Nature Explorer Classroom. This will include the addition of a large play area with a mud kitchen and art panels to paint, among other interactive tools to help with gross motor skills. 

As part of the Cranberry Woods Trail System, the garden is open to the public. “It’s an offshoot of the jogging trail and a great place to slow down and smell the roses,” said Konitzky. “It’s also open to any school that wants to come have a nature day; they just need to schedule with HeartPrints first.”

Northland Public Library is in the process of creating their own learning garden, which will engage all of the senses, while also providing therapeutic benefits and experiences. 

“The Learning Garden started as a concept many years ago after we created a memorial space for a librarian who had passed away,” explained Valerie Golik, director of the Northland Public Library Foundation. “The staff wanted to expand this to make a place where we could do programs for children outside, but there was no safe, secure place to do it.”

After much planning and immense public support, the library broke ground on July 8 on what will soon become an outdoor educational center and a space welcoming to those with sensory issues. “Some of our staff and board members are involved with people with sensory processing issues, and they helped us to understand what we needed to do to make this space inclusive,” said Golik. “It was so helpful to have this brain trust as a resource.”

Northland is creating “landscaped sensory nooks,” which are designed specifically to meet the needs of these library patrons. “There will be nooks for those who need less stimulation that will be more monochromatic and very calming, as well as more colorful nooks for people who need more stimulation,” explained Golik. “There will be another nook, sponsored by the Mary Jane Berger Memorial Foundation, that promotes herb gardening, so it will be filled with good smells and different things to touch, like soft lamb’s ear or spiky rosemary.

“These 6’ x 9’ spaces are big enough to hold benches, so children and adults with sensory issues can be comfortable in a safe space while still seeing what’s happening,” she added. “They can still be part of something, but in a way that works for them.”

Different sensory elements, such as wind chimes, burbling water features, raised beds with smooth and hard surfaces, and flowering planters, will add to the space, which is anticipated to be finished in September (weather permitting), coinciding with Love Your Library month. While the Learning Garden's primary use will be as an educational space for children and adults, it will also be open to the public during set times so that they can enjoy it as well.

Funding for the Learning Garden came from many different sources, including individuals and corporations. “The Northland Public Library Foundation was instrumental in making this happen as they’ve been fundraising for the past four years,” said Golik. “FedEx and Northwest Bank were big supporters, and we’ve received a lot of wonderful support from our patrons and the community.”

Fundraising will continue as a way to pay for programming in the garden, and includes naming rights, among other opportunities. During September, as part of Love Your Library month, the Jack Buncher Foundation will partially match all donations to Northland, as well as other Allegheny County libraries.

To learn more about these sensory gardens, contact HeartPrints at https://heartprintsed.org or 724-741-1008 and Northland Public Library at https://www.northlandlibrary.org or 412-366-8100.