Cultivating the Future: A Sensory Therapeutic Garden For Special Education

Meet Mr. Steven Rude, a school psychologist in the LA school district. At a unique school in Reseda California, Steven evaluates very young children with varied severe and complex special needs. This school is one where children have the most serious disabilities. Some are in wheelchairs. Some are autistic, some have limited communication and some are intellectually challenged.

Steven spent 20 years working with kids placed in non-public programs due to acute emotional problems. With a deeply empathetic heart for those less fortunate, he is dedicated to his work with children facing great adversity. Prior to his current sensory garden project, Steven managed a 15-bed vegetable garden at a local Headstart kindergarten. It was flourishing and even provided some food donations to homeless folks but, sadly, was abandoned when COVID forced the school district to close it.

Red Tape

The principal of the district's Early Special Education/Preschool Assessment Center asked Steven to create a garden for the children here, many of whom have the most severe limitations. When he accepted this challenge, Steven realized that this garden would have to be as special as the students – one that could provide them with an experience that would engage all of their five senses.

Although the LA school district is flush with funds, no school district money was allocated for this project. The paperwork, permits and red tape would have taken at least nine months to get the project started, so Steven got busy planning and organizing.

A Garden For the Five Senses

Steven knew that creating a meaningful garden space for these special kids would take a lot of effort and expertise. A Go-Fund-Me account allowed him to engage architects, designers, master gardeners and plumbers. An underground irrigation system was built; paths covered with decomposed granite designed large enough for wheelchairs and walkers were constructed. A chain link fence was taken down and replaced by an inviting white picket fence.

Two redwood beds were created just for unique and colorful vegetables, like eggplant and bright orange squash, that would appeal to the senses of the children. Since many of them have feeding tubes, there are no spicy peppers or vegetables with strong flavors growing here.

The children here now have the opportunity to experience the fragrances of herbs like mint, cilantro and rosemary. Flowers, native plants and succulents invite them to touch and explore visually and, with caution, some children are allowed to sample the strawberries. The teachers named the garden “Cultivating the Future.” A beautiful garden sign that incorporates some of the classroom art was designed by a former Disney employee.

Perhaps the most charming aspect of this garden, besides the colors, smells and ambience, is the outdoor speaker system that pipes in sensory sounds of nature, like birdsong.

Green Space in LA

The new superintendent at the LA School District is big on green space, according to Mr. Rude. He is looking at getting schools involved in composting, recycling and pollinator gardens. He’d like to incorporate the science aspect of organic gardening into the curriculum, and wants to develop green space to replace the asphalt at the schools. This kind of thinking in the heart of the second largest city in the country is encouraging.

This sensory and therapeutic garden sets a brilliant example of how gardening can enrich the lives of everyone, including our most unique citizens. Steven Rude’s incredible compassion, insight and empathy for children with special needs is reflected in this serene space where these children, far from the mainstream, can fully experience peace and the wonders of nature.

If you like and support what this project is doing for special needs kids, you can donate to Cultivating the Future here.

Every year, Gardening Know How awards $1,000 to 20 different, hand-picked garden projects across the United States and Canada. If your community or school garden has a growing, unmet need for more soil, seeds, fertilizers, building materials, or even just help getting the word out about your program, we’re ready and willing to help you meet those needs. As community gardens and school gardening programs spring up all over, we’re happy to do our part to help. Click here to learn more about how to apply to the GKH Sponsorship.

Interested in learning more about school or community gardens? Visit our Community Gardening for Everyone page today.

Caroline Bloomfield
Manager of Marketing Communications

Caroline Bloomfield is Manager of Marketing Communications at Gardening Know How since 2019. A northwest native, she has resided and gardened in multiple zones in the U.S. and is currently at home in Eugene, Oregon. Writing and editing for various publications since 1998, her BA in American Studies from Southern Maine University includes an emphasis in English. She was raised in California by avid gardeners and continues to enjoy the natural world with an appreciation for the concepts of sustainability and organic care for the planet.