A hallway of the Fremont Public Schools administration building in Fremont, Nebraska, has been transformed into an oasis. The Sensory Courtyard is an area dedicated to engaging all five senses. Home to a hobbit house, a fossil garden, a tree swing and even a “Snoezelen Room,” the Sensory Courtyard is a sanctuary for children with a multitude of special needs who might otherwise not be able to explore their world safely and comfortably.
Children, young adults and entire families enjoy the hands-on experiences of the courtyard. Basalt columns showcase the visual, tactile and audible properties of flowing water. Dancing lights and reflections soothe the spirit. As natural light filters through the glass ceiling, families gather at the sensory table to learn and play games together while listening to calming wind chimes.
“I love taking my son to there and seeing his face light up with each new sensation and sensory element. Looking around the courtyard, I see the smiles of children and parents. It’s a beautiful experience,” says Miranda Long of Fremont.
The courtyard encourages the exploration of new textures, promotes positive attitudes and inclusion and enriches educational and motor skills development. The courtyard also raises awareness of special needs within the community-from visual impairment and mobility limitations to tactile defensiveness. Lions Clubs International Foundation (LCIF) awarded a $75,000 grant to the Lions of District 38 0 for the courtyard.
The courtyard includes Snoezelen Rooms, relaxing, multisensory environments beneficial for children with autism, those with behavioral concerns, people with visual impairments and even older adults with cognitive disabilities. These rooms help reduce anxiety, stimulate reactions and encourage communication. Lights, sounds, textures and smells can be used to calm agitation or spur exploration.
“When you are given a diagnosis of autism, developmental delay or anything else that places your child in the special needs category, you quickly become overwhelmed by all the things that the doctors, family, friends and society tell you they can’t do,” says Summer Mau, a board member of the Autism Center of Nebraska. “I wanted to do everything I could for my children. The Sensory Courtyard gives us a fun family experience, free of judgment of the abilities my children lack. There are not many situations in our community where we get to experience things together as a family.”
Ayden Crom, 3, also has benefited from the courtyard. He is tactile defensive, which means that his body interprets the sensation of touch with fear, pain or discomfort. The pain of anything touching the soles of his feet was so great that he could walk only on his knees. Ayden’s involuntary responses to touch kept him from meeting many developmental milestones for his age.
I love taking my son there and seeing his face light up with each new sensation and sensory element.
Initially, Ayden was unable to interact with many of the courtyard experiences. Sitting on the edge of the ball pit in the Snoezelen Room was all he could handle. But his teachers persisted, taking him back regularly over the next several weeks. He got a little bit closer to the ball pit each time, experimented with putting a toe in and eventually jumped in.
Now Ayden will sit in the pit and cover himself with the balls, rock on the horse, accept a ball in two hands and sit on a hard chair. He explores the fossil garden without fear and presses his feet against the squishy bottom of the mud hole. He’s catching up on key developmental milestones and is now ready for preschool.
Lion Mary Robinson, the champion of the courtyard (sidebar), dreams of expanding it to include even more hands-on sensory experiences. Camping, additional art, tasting activities or STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) exploration areas could be added.
Lion Overcame Dire Illness
A certified orientation and mobility specialist at Fremont Public Schools, Lion Mary Robinson teaches students who are blind and visually impaired. Robinson came up with the idea for the courtyard after learning about a young child who is blind but made great strides when he began gardening with his mother. Robinson worked for three years with her John C. Fremont Lions Club, neighboring clubs, local nonprofit organizations, artists, architects and the school board to bring her dream to life.
Only months before the courtyard was due to be unveiled, progress came to a screeching halt when Robinson received a devastating diagnosis. What she had written off as simple fatigue was, in fact, acute myeloid leukemia (AML). AML is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow; it is the most aggressive form of leukemia with the lowest survival rate.
Armed with a positive attitude, support from her family and community and her refusal to give up, Robinson fought for her life. Her treatment was aggressive, causing her to be very sick. But all the while, she kept a smile on her face.
The grand opening of the Sensory Courtyard was postponed while Robinson was being treated. After several rounds of chemotherapy, she was cancer-free, and the courtyard opened to rave reviews.