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Photo courtesy of Councilman Robert Holden's office
Councilman Robert Holden speaks at the unveiling of the sensory garden at P.S./I.S. 49 with school nurse Cindy Ciulla (left) and employees of Home Depot on June 14.

A unique new teaching tool designed to get students to learn outside the classroom is now on display at a Middle Village school thanks to a group effort from the local community.

The sensory garden at P.S./I.S 49 opened on June 14 when school nurse Cindy Ciulla cut a ceremonial red ribbon alongside Councilman Robert Holden and local employees of Home Depot. With a self-professed interest in horticultural therapy, Ciulla came up with the idea more than a year ago as a way to engage students’ senses as they learn about nature, and Holden helped connect her with the means to get it done.

“I think for the students, it’s not to be so much books in the classroom, they need to get outside and interact with the environment,” Ciulla said. “And teachers can add it to the curriculum however they want to use it. I was so humbled, it was a wonderful collaboration.” 

The main feature is a wooden garden arbor adorned with items that appeal to each of the five senses. There is a tambourine hanging from a chain, a wind chime, a weather vane, a thermometer, a barometer, berries and herbs, birdhouses and hanging plants. A butterfly garden is close by, as well as an easel for teachers to use and tree stumps for students to sit on.

Holden knew about Ciulla’s idea dating back to 2017 when she first presented it to the Juniper Park Civic Association as a possible feature to be built at Juniper Valley Park, the councilman said. When Ciulla reached out to Holden again in 2018, the newly elected councilman was able to connect Ciulla with the Home Depot contacts he made in speaking with the company about its plans to open a store in Maspeth.

Home Depot then donated “every supply under the sun” to make the garden a reality, Ciulla said, and employees of the Glendale store joined in commemorating it. While the plan to build it at Juniper Valley Park fell through, the unused space along the side of P.S./I.S. 49 proved to be a great spot for it, Holden said.

Photo courtesy of Councilman Robert Holden's office

Photo courtesy of Councilman Robert Holden’s office

At the unveiling, Holden said he admired the design of the garden and thought “it’s just a really nice educational display.”

A colleague of Ciulla’s at the school also connected her with Christina Kostaris from Harry’s Hardware, adding another layer of community generosity. Kostaris said that Harry’s donated plants, potting soil and paint to the project, and the decision to get involved was an easy one.

We like to help out, and for the kindergarten class it’s so sweet of them to be able to take care of this garden, so how do you say no?” Kostaris said. “So we’re just happy to help, it brightens up the neighborhood so we’re happy to do it.”

Ciulla added that one of the main benefits of the garden is that all of the kids who use it will be given responsibilities to help maintain the plants, and they have already come up with ideas for how to make the space even better.

“They’re excited. They’ve come up to me and thanked me and they’re coming up with different ideas as well to use for the garden, so hopefully we can expand it too,” Ciulla said.

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