From Walkway to Wonderland: Sensory Courtyard ignites the senses in Fremont

From Walkway to Wonderland: Sensory Courtyard ignites the senses in Fremont



By Tyler Dahlgren

NCSA Communications Specialist

It was once merely a walkway in the Fremont Public Schools Administration Building, a large area of space used simply to get from one side of the big brick structure to the other.

That was before Mary Robinson attended a convention for the visually impaired, boarded a plane and returned to Nebraska with an idea that, if she could get it to come to fruition, would change countless lives for the better.

Previously, Robinson was an Itinerant Resource teacher with a passion for working with children with special needs. She was considering master’s degree options when her supervisor handed her a brochure about teaching students with visual impairments.

“My grandmother had Macular Degeneration and I thought entering the field of visual impairments would be a great way to help those kids in need,” said Robinson.

Nine years, and the construction of an incredibly innovative facility, have passed, and Robinson is exactly where she needs to be.

It’s known as the “Sensory Courtyard”, an educational wonderland that is home to detail and will take your breath away. It’s a place where children of all abilities learn through adventure, and, most importantly, at their own pace.

The courtyard is charming and comforting.

Just past a giant stone that commemorates the Lions Clubs International Foundation for a $75,000 matching grant donation, a giving tree with several additional awarded grants, individual donations, and local Lions Clubs contributions, such as the clubs Mary belongs to, including the John C. Fremont Lions Club and the Fremont Kiwanis Club. 

A plaque thanking Michael Torres of De La Torre Art Designs for the construction of most of the facility’s structures sits a “Hobbit House”, which looks more like something you’d see on a Hollywood movie set than in the middle of an administration building in Nebraska. Robinson credits Torres's skill and tireless work for bringing the courtyard to life.

On the other side of the courtyard stands an aesthetically pleasing tree with a swing and a number of toadstools. In between, there is a turtle garden (the kids love the turtles) with fossils, a mud-pool, and a basalt water column. A door just beyond the “Hobbit House” leads to the “Snoezelen Room”, a dark space illuminated by fascinating glowing lights all intended to stimulate the senses.

There’s wind chimes and a caved area that serves as an uncluttered area where the kids can read, play with toys, write in their journals, and “become one with nature”, Robinson says.

Scientific exploration and learning. Enhancement of motor skills. Relaxation. All were part of Robinson’s vision, which she brought to the Fremont School Board in 2011.

“When I approached the school district, I didn’t come with just an idea,” Robinson said. “My husband's friend (a landscape architect) drew up some plans, and the administration was very supportive from the start. To this day, they allow me to do whatever is needed to ensure the courtyard's success.”

The idea came from an interaction Robinson had on a “Teachers of Tomorrow” trip to Florida with a mother and her three-year-old son, a completely blind boy growing increasingly uncomfortable and fussing in his stroller.

“I approached her, and started talking to the boy. His mom said ‘Well, he can’t see you’, and I said ‘That’s okay, I work with the visually impaired,” Robinson said.

Early interventionists had made little progress easing the boy’s tactile defensiveness. The mom, as it turned out, was forced to quit her job a year earlier to provide more care. That’s when she planted a garden.

“He hated it at first, but every day she would expose him to that garden, make a mess in the dirt, plant seeds, let him explore, and as time went on, with regular exposure, he started to touch the vegetation,” Robinson said. “Pick it up, smell it, feel it. His developmental gap was getting smaller and smaller and he was making strides with the early interventionists as well.”

It was clear to Robinson what she needed to do.

“I knew in my heart that this was something I had to pursue and the spark inside of me was growing,” Robinson said. “I thought if that mother can do that with a garden in her back yard, think of what a Sensory Courtyard could do.”

And it’s not solely utilized by the visually or hearing impaired. Autistic students, behavioral programs, Mosaic adult programs and even regular education students have access to the courtyard.

The Sensory Courtyard was built on the principles of inclusiveness, the backbone of public schools and an ideology that Robinson views as essential to how the facility operates.

“Inclusiveness is so important, and has to be the top priority,” she said. “All kids, no matter what abilities they have or what age they are, need to have access.”

That stretches beyond lessons learned and into upkeep and day-to-day operations. Robinson manages all of the reservations and the calendar, in addition to working with students, and has two other workers in the department help as needed, plus what she calls an “amazing” custodial staff. The young adult program (18-21-year-olds) clean the courtyard two times a week.

“The Fremont Public School District is like family, and I absolutely love it here,” Robinson said. “We collaborate and everyone works well together. It’s a special place.”

The courtyard is the first of its kind, but Robinson hopes to inspire the construction of similar facilities. Tours have increased as word of what is happening in Fremont spreads.

“I think having copycats would be the biggest compliment we could ever get,” Robinson said.

The grand opening, in August 2015, was a resounding success, with several hundred attendees and a ribbon-cutting ceremony from the Chamber of Commerce. That surprised Robinson, in the best of ways.

“It was a lot of work, but it brings me so much joy seeing the community and surrounding areas utilize the courtyard and I know this is helping those in need,” Robinson said. “It is really neat to see this area change lives. It had nothing to do with me and everything to do with helping others reach their full potential by exposing them to new and unique ways of learning.”

At the Sensory Courtyard, an educational Utopia, every smile is priceless and every laugh treasured.

Mary Robinson’s vision, though not totally complete (there is another construction phase in the works), has become a reality.

For her students, adventure awaits.


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