Interactive Sensory Garden Featuring Flora that is Indigenous to this Land

By Alex Elizabeth Stribling, Lead Toddler Teacher

Northwest Indian College’s Early Learning Center has innovated an Interactive Sensory Garden that enables preschool children to engage in experiential STEM education. The lush and lively garden is the very first thing children see when they come to school, making it even more engaging when their teachers guide a walk through it. Whether we are experiencing rain or sunshine, our children have engaged in the garden and witnessed the plants grow over the last few months. As teachers, we can only do so much by showing children how plants grow through pictures and arts/crafts. To have a live sensory garden that greets them every day is something only mother nature can teach.

What piques the children’s interest so much is the different textures the plants have. Stachys byzantina (lamb’s ear) has been an instant favorite, which the children refer to as “bunny ears.” It is one of the larger plants toward which the children gravitate, and it is too intriguing not to touch. We have several tiny succulents that are all over the sensory garden. With a little guidance from teachers - since some of them are so tiny to see - the children gather and awe at the waxy coat these plants have.

To maintain the garden, the children and teachers go out with scissors and water pails to give the sensory garden a “haircut” and a “drink.” After trimming weeds and flowers, we bring them back into the classroom to examine them (through sight, touch, and smell). Children also paint with the leaves and make stamps with them. Thus, this garden has been well used!

The impact of this sensory garden has been incredibly helpful and useful to children and teachers. It is an example to our children that education is not bound within the four walls of a classroom. We are reinforcing Native family values and practices, by demonstrating to children learning is a constant exploration in our everyday lives - inside and outside. The garden has been a great teaching tool as the teachers explain the process of the plant’s life cycle. We also have the opportunity to discover new bugs and insects as we sift through the garden. The bees were out this past summer, which resulted in excellent conversations about their purpose as pollinators!

This sensory garden prompts children, and adults alike, to literally engage outside of the box. There is space to discover what our natural elements can teach us, reminding people of all ages that it is a good thing to take the time to wander, engage, learn, and grow.