The sensory garden on the University of Pretoria’s (UP’s) Mamelodi Campus recently provided the backdrop for a pilot project that empowers teachers to start small-scale sensory gardens at their creches and preschools.
The educators were all from early childhood development (ECD) centres in Mamelodi, Bronkhorstspruit, and Eersterust. For five Tuesday afternoons, they were introduced to ideas around sensory gardens, and how to start similar ones at their own schools.
“Sensory gardens include features, surfaces, objects, and plants that stimulate our senses through touch, sight, scent, taste, and hearing,” explains project leader Dr Martina Jordaan, Head: Community Engagement Research and Postgraduate Students at UP’s Mamelodi Campus. “Such gardens help to improve the health, mood, and cognition of those who visit them, and provide space for physical activity. Gardening and plant care help children develop gross and fine motor skills. Spending time outdoors, breathing fresh air, and being exposed to sunlight are good for their overall physical health.”
Educators from Mamelodi, Bronkhorstspruit, and Eersterust were introduced to ideas around sensory gardens, and how to start similar ones at their own schools.
Sensory gardens are also valuable educational tools. “As part of their development, it is important to introduce children from a young age onwards to concepts in the STEM fields, which refer to ideas in science, technology, engineering and medicine,” Dr Jordaan adds.
During the training sessions, the teachers received ideas on how they could use their gardens as outdoor classrooms to teach their learners basic lessons about the importance of water, the development of seeds, and other science-based and nature-related concepts. They, among others, attended an online training session by Dr Kate Kurkul from Merrimack College in the USA, during which she taught them to ask learners the right leading questions. She also provided notes on the value of sensory gardens. UP MEd student Tamika Roopsingh provided some insights from her master’s studies in Early Childhood Development. She focused on the value of reciprocal and responsive relationships between children and caregivers.
The group also visited the sensory garden at Eduplex Preschool in Pretoria.
The pilot project was made possible through funding received from the United States-South Africa Higher Education Network (SA-HEN), which focuses on partnership-building between higher education institutions in these two countries. It also allowed for on-site support during the final sessions from two visiting American scholars, Professor Audrey Falk and master’s student Valeria Garcia, from Merrimack College. The funding also provided participating schools with plants and seeds to start greening their own school grounds.
One of the teachers involved said preschools in her area do not have sensory gardens. She was excited about the opportunity to be the first to teach the children in her care about nature, thanks to the mini-garden she had recently started at her school.
Dr Jordaan describes the group of teachers who attended the pilot project as “very enthusiastic” and “very responsive to new ideas”. They are keeping in contact via an active WhatsApp group, which she uses to pass on new ideas that could be easily and appropriately implemented.
Dr Jordaan and the two visiting American scholars recently visited 12 schools which subsequently entered their school gardens into a competition that was run as part of the pilot project. “It was lovely to see how the participants implemented many of the ideas and concepts that were shared with them, how innovative they were, and to see their enjoyment of their developing gardens.” That included anything from flowers blooming in painted tyres, colourful ribbons and hanging gardens made from cooldrink bottles, to garden borders constructed from empty roll-on deodorant bottles.
Vhathu Phanda Early Development Centre in the heart of Mamelodi was announced as the winner, followed by Suikerbekkie Pre-primary (in Eersterust), Lethabo Preschool (in Bronkhorstspruit), and Bophelong Community Children’s Home (Mamelodi East).
Three similar training courses are being planned for 2023. A manual is being produced and an ArcGIS Storymap will be created as valuable take-aways for participants.
The sensory garden on the Mamelodi Campus was conceptualised and implemented in 2021 by Community-based Project or JCP Module students from UP’s Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and IT (EBIT), the Siyathemba Occupational Clinic on the Mamelodi Campus, and Landscape Architecture students from the Department of Architecture. The sensory garden is located next to the Mamelodi Animal Health Clinic, which is visited daily by members of the public. Since 2022 it has been managed by Dr Jordaan in conjunction with UP’s Facilities Management Department.
For more information please contact Dr Martina Jordaan at [email protected]