Seeing, tasting, touching, hearing, smelling – particularly for kids with special needs, a garden is a wonderland of sensual stimuli.

Plants can be used to enhance social, physical and psychological well-being; the therapeutic benefits of garden environments have been documented since ancient times.

Now there’s a name for it – horticultural therapy – and it’s widely used in a broad range of rehabilitative, vocational and community settings. We’re proud to say that Children’s Fairyland is now one of those settings.

We recently welcomed 25 preschoolers with a range of special needs to our 10 acres of gardens. Our experience inspired us to do more programming of this type in the future.

We’re able to enthusiastically explore this new use of the park thanks to two of our stellar employees. Horticulturalist Jackie Salas came to us with an extensive background in general horticulture, kids in gardens and “hort” therapy. Shana Barchas, our educational specialist, had taught school, gardened with at-risk youth at Hidden Villa Ranch in Los Altos Hills and counseled schoolchildren with special needs.

The one thing neither Salas nor Barchas had ever done was therapeutic work with preschool-age children.

We created a lesson that focused on the five senses, taking care to make it accessible and engaging while increasing the children’s interest in plants. Working closely with the team at Royal Sunset Preschool in Hayward, we identified three classes of preschoolers with special needs who we thought would benefit from such an experience. The kids, ages 3 to 5, have challenges ranging from autism to physical and cognitive disabilities. We divided them into small groups and presented 20-minute “lessons” throughout the day.

After introducing the five senses, we explored each one with different kinds of potted and cut plants that Jackie had collected from the greenhouse and around the park. We began with touch, using words like “soft” and “rough” to describe the sensory experience of touching a velvety lamb’s-ear leaf or a bumpy log. Some of the children seemed to understand the words and some did not, but all learned from the physical act of feeling the plants.

Sight came next, followed by sound. (One 3-year-old, clearly inspired by the lesson, jumped up and played the drums with sticks on the aforementioned log!) Aromatic flowers were featured in the smell section. Finally we reached taste, an opportunity for the children to sample cilantro leaves and borage flowers.

Salas may be a professional horticulturalist now, but when she was a kid growing up in Hayward, the garden was her favorite refuge.

“For me, plants are a source of peace,” she says. So it’s easy for her to understand how plants can positively affect others. Preschoolers were a new challenge for her, however.

“I had to slow down quite a bit and think of the words I was using,” she says.

Her favorite moment? When a boy in a wheelchair with limited body movement smelled a yellow azara plant (sweet cinnamon) and a heliotrope (vanilla).

“His face just lit up in a huge smile,” says Salas.

Royal Sunset Preschool teacher Nicole Kelly came along to observe and participate. She’d never heard of horticultural therapy, but she quickly saw its benefits. Her favorite moment came when one of the kids was beyond excited to touch the soft lamb’s-ear leaf.

“The look on his face was a ‘wow’,” she says. “Those are the moments you live for.”

Our special program would not have been possible without the commitment of the Royal Sunset Preschool teachers and the high level of parent involvement on the field trip. We already have two more trips from other preschools in the works and will be doing our research to learn more about hort therapy through the American Horticultural Therapy Association and the Horticultural Therapy Institute.

We learned that we should probably focus on slightly older kids and that learning takes many forms. One child, after tasting cilantro, spat it out with a pronouncement of “Yuck.” But Barchas, who has advanced degrees in both teaching and counseling psychology, explained to me that even this experience was very valuable.

“He was taking a risk in a safe environment, which is one way that we learn. He confirmed to himself that he was capable of trying something new, he learned that he didn’t like it and he found a way to express his opinion,” she said. “Trying it and saying ‘yuck’ is a much more valuable experience than not trying it at all!”

That’s what I love about this place. It’s not just the kids who are learning something every day.

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