Courtesy Jane Catezone

Part of the joy of being a parent and then a grandparent is watching 3-year-olds explore the world around them. Educators sometimes refer to that exploration as “sensory integration,” which turns out to be essential to a child’s normal development.

Two years ago Jane Catezone, a preschool special ed teacher at Garfield Elementary School on Jackson; Jamie Stauder, the school’s principal; and other teachers worked with McAdam Landscaping to create a garden on the south side of the school building. Their objective was “to provide multisensory experiences that touch on all the senses — seeing, hearing, feeling, touch, tasting.”

 “We really try to help do that with the elements in the garden,” Catezone said, “and just provide a healthy way to explore the environment.” The children use their sense of sight in the garden by watching insects through a magnifying glass. 

“In December,” said Julie Brown, a teaching assistant, “the children will come out and touch pine cones and needles, but are most fascinated with the fountain, the bubbles it makes and the way the water travels over the rocks. I think the most magical time is when we release the butterflies in the spring after watching the caterpillars make cocoons.”

Stauder noted that “the children can feel the dirt, and smell the fragrant plants. We hit on all the senses.”

According to a website called FamilyEducation, sensory integration isn’t just about keeping preschoolers entertained: “We usually think of the senses as separate channels of information, but they actually work together to give us a reliable picture of the world and our place in it.”

Stauder explained it this way: “In our vocations as adults, whether it is a skilled job or working in an office or as a professional, we all need to have our senses cued in.”

Catezone said that in addition to serving as a learning laboratory, the garden has become an emotional and perhaps even spiritual retreat. 

“The garden,” she said, “provides an alternative experience to the playground. We’ve seen children choose to spend time in the garden instead of the playground during recess or after school because you can get what you need from the environment in a quiet way instead of using your large motor muscles.”

When McAdam installed the garden. On the four sides of the pole are written,

Deep peace of the shining star

Deep peace of the flowing air

Deep peace of the running water

Deep peace of the quiet earth

Catezone said the garden isn’t only for preschoolers; older classes use it as well. She added the garden was planted next to the sidewalk in part to be accessible to parents bringing their kids to school or just neighbors walking by. People walk on the garden path on weekends.

Catezone, in her 13th year at Garfield, is presently teaching in what is called a blended classroom, i.e. a situation in which special ed kids are mixed in with children who are “typically developing.”