Facilities (Learing Spaces)

Vibrant Opportunities for Learning

Fullerton community celebrates the opening of the new Sensory Garden at Commonwealth Elementary School.

It takes a great deal to make a garden grow, especially a sensory garden on an elementary school campus for special education preschool students.

Sensory Garden


It began as a vision of Commonwealth Special Education Teacher, Sue Pettinichio, over three years ago. Her vision grew into a vibrant sensory garden, filled with “multimodal” learning opportunities. With her planning, the support and collaboration of the school district administrators and leadership, and an estimated 200 hours of labor by 30 volunteers, including members of Fullerton Cares Autism Foundation, Allianz Asset Management, and teachers and staff of Commonwealth Elementary School, the sensory garden was officially opened on Oct.10, 2013.

As the garden came to life, so did the celebration of this garden within the California community. At the opening celebration, more than 100 members of the community, including Fullerton Mayor Bruce Whitaker, Fullerton School District Superintendent Dr. Bob Pletka, President of the Fullerton School District Board of Trustees Beverly Berryman, Assembly Member Sharon Quirk-Silva, and President of the Fullerton Chamber of Commerce Theresa Harvey lauded the culmination of the project. The garden was celebrated by local TV news affiliates, international autism organizations, and in local and regional press.

The garden took a small strip of grass alongside the special education corridor of the school and turned it into something vibrant. Every inch is filled with opportunities for learning. Features include a “discovery house” structure for hands-on garden lessons, a bird sanctuary for observations of wildlife, a pebble pit area for tactile experiences, a two-person water pump to promote cooperation, a pebble “harp,” raisedbed gardens for each of the four special education classrooms, split log seating, a stepping-stone pathway for motor planning, and herbs for taste and smell experiences.

Encompassing about 1500 square feet of meticulously thoughtful and engaging elements, the garden delights at every turn. The regional newspaper, the Orange County Register, describes the garden as a place that will “stimulate the senses and water the mind. Most important, it’s the children who will grow.”

Multi-modal Learning Opportunities. The new Sensory Garden at Commonwealth Elementary School in Fullerton, Calif., is unique because of its setting and ability to provide inclusion opportunities for students of all abilities. The garden was made possible through community grants, individual donations and volunteer support. Among the many features are a “discovery house” structure for hands-on garden lessons, a bird sanctuary, a pebble pit area for tactile experiences, a two-person water pump to promote cooperation, a pebble “harp,” raised-bed gardens for each of the four special education classrooms and herbs for taste and smell experiences.

The First Seed

But the story really begins long before the elements of the garden were in place, with parent Larry Houser, and his son, Boyd, with autism, a 5-year-old student at Commonwealth Elementary School. After learning of his son’s diagnosis, Houser rallied support of his family, friends and educational community, helping to form alliances in his community and at his local schools. He created an autism coalition designed exclusively to give back to the local autism community, leveraging his coownership of a popular restaurant as a way to drive funds and awareness of autism education initiatives to the schools.

With Houser’s relentless drive, passion and enthusiasm, it became easy to help and to see his vision as a vision for all children, not just his son. Classmates’ parents began to get involved through volunteering and through employer grants, helping to make this project possible without requiring a dime of the school’s money. Houser’s nonprofit, Fullerton Cares Autism Foundation, is built on the pillars of autism awareness, acceptance and action, with all events celebrating inclusive opportunities for all children, and the sensory garden is a manifestation of that mission. Houser’s approach is to bring together elements of the business world and the education world with a bridge into the public and community into joint endeavors and his passion becomes the passion of all he meets.

Says Superintendent of Fullerton School District Dr. Bob Pletka, “The Fullerton School District is very fortunate to have people from Fullerton Cares who are making a difference in the lives of our students. The board of trustees and the district is very grateful for the ongoing support of such caring and dedicated individuals.”

Special, but Not Specialized

This sensory garden is unique because of its setting in general education campus at Commonwealth Elementary, providing inclusion opportunities for students of all abilities. On one visit to the Sensory Garden, in a touching moment, three general education students gave up their recess time to eagerly help Pettinicchio plant and weed in the garden, an activity described by Fullerton School District Principal and Fullerton Cares board member Sherry Hoyt as an opportunity rich for side-by-side inclusive activities for all students of all abilities.

Says teacher and designer Sue Pettinicchio of the garden and its curriculum, “Experiences in the garden are documented through photographs, which are made into books, for frequent exposure to and recall of learning that occurred. The books are then put out where students can access them easily, reinforcing the knowledge and experience gained. This serves to infuse the benefits of the garden throughout the day both in and outside of the classroom. Many of the planting experiences begin and end within the classroom environment. One such experience was carving a pumpkin and taking the seeds from it. The seeds were planted in a plastic baggie with cotton balls and water. The students were able to observe the roots and sprouts emerging, as we read a variety of books about pumpkins. The seeds were then able to be planted into the garden. It is the plan that this experience will be repeated with a wide variety of plants, allowing students to see the differences and similarities in the growing process. One of the best parts is bringing the final product back into the classroom, especially if it’s yummy!”

Many “Gardeners”

The garden was able to grow because of the collaborative model across so many diverse elements of the community. Hoyt, in an interview with the Orange County Register, says, “The garden is unique because we had all this support. We were able to listen to parents and teachers and the community and work together.” And this brings hope and encouragement to all involved. Parents and educators hear all too many litigious and adversarial stories, and the garden is a living, breathing, growing, thriving example of collaboration and partnership, benefitting those who stand to have a brighter future because of it. Each day, now, as the special education preschoolers and kindergarteners leave and enter their classrooms, they will have new opportunities to experience, “feelings for our fingers,” as Pettinichio puts it.

Says Sensory Garden Designer and Commonwealth Elementary Kindergarten Special Day Class Teacher Sue Pettinicchio, “I really believe our kids can learn anything other kids can learn, it’s just finding the right way to teach them.” As an example, children will be reading gardenthemed literature, including “Growing Vegetable Soup” and “Planting a Rainbow.”

Says Fullerton Cares Founder Larry Houser, “I am moved to see how much the Fullerton community and Fullerton School District care about helping our families. Most of all, I thank my dad, Mike Houser, who was deeply involved in getting the discovery house built and deserves a lot of credit for helping to bring to life this new learning environment for his grandson and all the students.”

Future plans include an exterior wall, seating, a reading gazebo, garden instruments, and volunteer hours, murals, a reading gazebo and more. Those interested in lending support are encouraged to visit the Fullerton Cares Facebook page or donate to Fullerton Cares at www.facebook.com/FullertonCaresAutismFoundation or fullertoncares.com.

There is hope that future grants from autism organizations will help provide for this second phase of the garden. Future plans also include a possible expansion of the garden to incorporate additional areas of school grounds at Commonwealth Elementary.

The garden was made possible through community grants, individual donations, and volunteer support, with donations totaling over $20,000 from organizations including Fullerton Cares Autism Foundation, Allianz Asset Management, Autism Speaks, Mike Houser, C.R. Young and Sons Inc., Swipe4TheKids, Bob Weeks, Al Rodrigues, and Service Roofing Company.

A little background about Fullerton cares — Awareness, acceptance and action are the pillars of Fullerton Cares, which spreads autism awareness throughout North O.C. and was founded by Lawrence Houser, after being inspired by his son, Boyd, with autism. Raising funds for autism charities and programs in Fullerton schools through organized events, Fullerton Cares was founded in 2010 and has raised over $53,000 for autism initiatives.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .