SEYMOUR — Fifth-grader Yesica Gaspar reached out to rub the furry leaves of the strange-looking plant.
“It’s so soft,” she said.
“That’s why it’s called lamb’s ear,” teacher Peggy Stark said.
“And this is chocolate mint,” Stark added, pulling a leaf off another plant. “Can you guess what it tastes like?”
Many of the students threw their hands up, volunteering to taste test the herb.
The plants are part of a new sensory garden in the Wildcat Habitat at Seymour-Jackson Elementary School.
Behind the school, the habitat is a fenced-in 1.5 acres of property the school has turned into an outdoor nature lab.
Different areas of the habitat are meant to recreate different natural environments such as a forest, grasslands, pond and marshy area.
There’s even a garden outlined in the shape of Indiana that includes the state tree – the tulip poplar, and the state flower – the peony.
Stark, who along with her husband, Steve, helped develop and maintains the habitat, said they had talked about putting in a sensory garden but wanted to make it a “project-based learning activity” for the students.
So she recruited Jackson’s Habitat Club, a group of nearly 40 kids in first through fifth grades who have an interest in protecting the environment.
“The kids researched sensory plants on the computer to find out which ones would be the best to plant,” Stark said.
In order to have an effective sensory garden, there have to be elements that engage all five senses – sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.
“Children need their senses stimulated, and this garden will do just that,” she said.
For sight, visitors will be able to see different colors of flowers as well as butterflies and other insects.
Sounds will be created by the wind blowing and rustling the leaves and grasses as well as the tinkling of a wind chime.
The sensory garden also has a variety of plants with different textures, like the lamb’s ear and thistle, that students can touch, and herbs and fruits they can taste.
“We’ve got an apple tree planted, too,” Stark said.
Noses will be turned on to the sweet smells of lavender and other aromatic plants.
The garden is built up and surrounded by a block retaining wall to protect it from rabbits and other wildlife.
Stark said even planning the garden was a good exercise for the students.
“They used math to determine how many blocks we needed and then made a model to see how to lay the blocks,” she said. “Math came into play again because they had to determine the perimeter and volume of the area to be filled with dirt.
“It’s not just paper and pencil; they are seeing a practical use for what they are learning,” Stark said. “The habitat brings what they are reading about in books to life.”
Stark said an important feature of the habitat is that it isn’t costing the school corporation any money.
“It’s all been donated, from the materials to the labor.”
The habitat started seven years ago when the school’s parent teacher organization came up with the idea to install a small pond.
Six years ago, students planted hundreds of different types of trees to create a forest for the habitat, and two years ago, raised planting beds were installed to create a “farm” area where students can plant and harvest different crops including popcorn, pumpkins, sunflowers and carrots.
The habitat is certified by the National Wildlife Federation for providing wildlife with food, water, care and a place to raise their young.
Fifth-grade English language learners teacher Kelly Bishop said the sensory garden and habitat is an excellent tool for teaching.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “It offers opportunities to explore and learn in a hands-on setting.”
Because none of Bishop’s students is a native English speaker, the habitat helps them build their vocabulary as learn about ecosystems they may not be familiar with, she said.
“Nature is a universal language, and you can’t teach this kind of lesson from a book,” Bishop said. “Out here there are no language barriers.”