Garden Sense

The scent of rosemary and other herbs, the song of birds, the feel of water droplets on your skin—to many, these are ordinary moments in a garden, unworthy of much notice. But for some students with sensory-processing disorders and other disabilities in the Leander Independent School District, these kinds of experiences can be an important part of their learning. “Getting outside, touching the earth and things like that help expose students to a variety of senses,” says Lisa Robertson, a support specialist who works with students who have special needs at LISD. 

To incorporate this important sensory learning, several LISD campuses have recently installed sensory gardens in partnership with a nonprofit organization known as The AG Project. “In general,” notes Lisa, “if you have sensory issues, that means you’re going to avoid, or be overly drawn to, certain things—maybe certain types of lighting, or textures, or loud noises. Just being outside really makes you acclimate.”

What’s more, Lisa says that completing tasks in the gardens has also helped students build their academic and overall life skills—from measuring garden plots (which provides math practice) to doing research on organic pest-control methods, to going to a store to buy gardening supplies. “Some of our students really need community-access skills so [that] they are able to then go into the community and figure out what we need to buy.”

Lisa has noticed that the gardens seem to make the youngsters happier and more motivated. “We have some students who are nonverbal,” she says. “They may make some vocalizations, but they tend to be quiet throughout most of the day. But when they go outside to do the gardening, they’re making sounds, and you can just tell that their mood has improved.”

The AG Project Founder Patricia Robertson, a kindergarten teacher at Parkside Elementary School and no relation to Lisa, says since the organization was founded in 2012, she and fellow board members have provided teachers with lesson plans to use in the gardens and have raised about $5,000 to build gardens at six locations—including Parkside, Leander High School and Bagdad Elementary School, where PVC-pipe raised beds were recently installed at a specific height so that students in wheelchairs could be able to touch and feel the herbs they’ve planted.

Patricia—who founded the organization in part as a tribute to one of her former students with sensory issues—says she eventually hopes to partner with the University of Texas at Austin to research the benefits of sensory gardens for students with disabilities. “Our goal is to get enough financing to research and work with UT and see if it’s a viable sensory therapy,” she says. But she’s quick to point out that she’s immensely proud of the work already being done on the various campuses. “[The AG Project] has become a passion for me,” she says. “It is the thing that makes me tick.” —Nicole Lessin

Find out more at theagproject.org