The world has so much to offer! Subtle fragrances and various shades of beautiful flowers, a murmuring stream, and singing birds… Isn’t it great to sit and listen to the whispering leaves combined with melodious bell chimes, or walk barefoot on flat pebblestones and bark, or touch a bouncy green lawn? To fondle a cute little goat, cuddle a fluffy rabbit, catch the fountain drops, sit on a bench, look around and feel great… all that isn’t merely a dream. You can experience all those things if you come to the Boarding Home for Children with Special Needs in Minsk. The sensory garden and contact zoo was opened there on September 13 this year.
This project was made possible thanks to School Piggy Bank programme of the Mother of God of the Sign Cathedral in New York run by Prince Vladimir Youth Association together with the Synodal Youth Ministry Department of the ROCOR.
A sensory garden is a territory that provides favourable conditions for interaction with nature and exploration of the world using one’s senses: eyesight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. It is designed using plants, substances, and patterns that help to perceive the beauty of the environment to the fullest extent. The diversity of colours, smells, tastes, and substances gives an excellent opportunity to improve sensory skills and to have fun.
The sensory garden in the Boarding Home is divided into several areas, each of which has its own purpose, crucial for the development of the children’s nervous system.
When we enter the garden, we get to the area of “good mood” that engages with hearing and eyesight. It consists of two areas, the Rainbow of Sounds and the Sunny Cocktail. The Rainbow of Sounds area of the sensory garden focuses on hearing. It is achieved by a number of structures made of various stuff and called The Music of the Wind. These structures consist of several hanging pipes and a swinging pendulum and give out pleasant melodious chimes.
The Hearing area makes use of cereal plants, whose seeds whisper in the wind and create a unique melody blended with the rustle of the leaves. The Rainbow of Sounds area smoothly transitions into the Sunny Cocktail area with lots of colourful and pleasantly-looking flowers. Flowers with big yellow leaves that resemble chamomiles are in full bloom here right now.
As we move from the area of “good mood”, we enter the area of “tranquillity”, which is titled Quiet Harmony. It consists of cool-hued flowers and aromatic plants. Lilac-coloured asters, veronicas, irises, astilbes and other blue, pale blue, and purple flowers will take turns in blossoming from spring till autumn and make children happy. The area of aromatic plants contains various species of mint (apple mint, chocolate mint, spearmint), marjoram, catnip, savoury, and common sage.
There is a touch-and-feel area on a clear glade in the garden. It consists of a sensory path where one can tread barefoot. Every element of this path is filled with natural materials of varying shapes, sizes, and structures: pebbles, bark, sand, pine cones, corn, and sawdust. Along the sensory path, there are various flowers, e.g., woundwort and lady’s mantle, the leaves of which have different surfaces: smooth, rugged, and soft.
This touch-and-feel area also contains a sensory table filled with sand. It improves manual dexterity, which in turn bolsters speech development. This is because the areas in the brain that are responsible for manual dexterity are located close to the speech area. That is why playing with sand is so helpful for children, especially children with special needs. The table is supported by four thick legs. Its height and width make it possible to play not only in the upright position but also while sitting on a wheelchair.
There is a lawn on a flat plot of land near the sensory area. It is designated for games and walks. Tables for creative work can be moved out to this lawn when the weather is fine. Children can spread out blankets, relax in the middle of the garden, and play with animals on this lawn.
A big fountain that binds all areas together is the focus of the entire sensory garden. The noise of water harmoniously complements the area of sounds and joins the sound of the wind, the rustle of leaves, and the Music of the Wind in creating a very special natural symphony. The sound and ripple of water have a calming effect on one’s nervous system, which is why the fountain matches the tranquillity area perfectly. The outer and inner walls of the fountain are decorated with a multicolour mosaic of various shapes, made in many workshops of St Elisabeth Convent. Aside from the fact that one can enjoy looking at the fountain from all sides of the garden, its walls are interesting to touch and look at, which has a beneficial effect on the children’s sensory development.
There is a contact zoo in the sensory garden, which is the most exciting and special area of the garden. Children can not only look at the animals but also fondle them, hold them on their hands, and take care of them. There are hens and chicken of two decorative breeds, namely, Silkie chicken and Millefiori chicken. These breeds are very cute and noted for their fluffy feathers and calm character. There is a house for two Pygmy goats near the coop. They never grow as big as other goat breeds. They are known for their friendly character, and everyone can cuddle, feed, and play with them.
There are five cute, fluffy, and harmless decorative rabbits of two breeds (Lionhead and Lop-eared) in the contact zoo. When children communicate with animals, when they touch the wool and the soft noses, it does not only improve their tactile abilities but also boosts their non-verbal communication skills. Children and animals find good rapport with each other instinctively. When a little child holds the little animal, he or she feels the life that is different from his or her own.
Of course, there is a human’s best friend in the zoo, too. It’s a kind, friendly, tender, and attention-seeking dog. All animal houses were built especially for this garden and have a strong and insulated structure. The animals are going to feel comfortable all year round. The Sensory Garden and Contact Zoo for Children with Special Needs project were built from the ground up in just a couple of months, from late spring till early autumn, thanks to our American friends and to the effort of many people from the Convent and beyond, who are ready to help the children who live in the boarding home.
Aside from what has already been done, we plan to bring a xylophone to the sound area so that the children could play it and learn to make sounds in harmony with nature. We also plan to provide children on wheelchairs with eco-therapeutic tables where they will be able to look at, touch, and even plant some flowers and herbs on their own. We also plan to erect some stakes and poles made of various stuff (timber with and without bark, metal, plastic, tied with a rope, etc.)
The sensory garden and contact zoo is a territory of relaxation, development, exploration, treatment, education, and fun. Children will be able to learn about beauty, diligence, kindness, and love of all creatures. We hope that the children who live in the boarding home will have many a great discovery in the sensory garden and contact zoo!
It’s been almost twenty years since the sisters and brothers of Saint Elisabeth Convent started to visit the Boarding Home for children with special needs, which is located near the Convent grounds in Minsk.
We continue to tell you more about the different ministries that we conduct here at Saint Elisabeth Convent. We have already touched upon the topic of bringing God into the lives of disabled children that live in the boarding homes of Minsk.