Sensory Courtyard taking shape

2014-01-18T04:00:00Z Sensory Courtyard taking shapeBy Stephen Rickerl/Fremont Tribune Fremont Tribune
January 18, 2014 4:00 am  • 

The completion of the latest component of the Sensory Courtyard moves the first of its kind project another step closer to completion, and providing an educational experience to children with special needs.

Mary Robinson, teacher of the blind and visually impaired at Fremont Public Schools, said the basalt water fountain, which will stimulate students’ sense of hearing and touch is nearing completion.

Located on the second floor of the Main Street Education and Administration Center, the Sensory Courtyard is a project funded in part through a $75,000 matching grant from Lions Club International. The roughly 2,400 square foot courtyard will benefit visually impaired students, as well as students with autism, behavior problems or other impairments by stimulating all five senses with hands-on educational experiences.

“It’s things like this you can’t have in the regular classroom,” Robinson said. “They don’t have those types of experiences. But if we can expose them to these unique opportunities daily, or at least once a week, then that’s going to hopefully follow through into the classroom and they’re going to end up doing more for the teacher – being more productive.

“For those students who are tactile defense, who don’t want to touch, there are a lot of different textures in the area that they’re exposed to,” she added. “The more they do these type of things, the less affected they are by it and it’s going to hopefully help them overcome their defensiveness. I really think this is going to be a nice calming environment, too.”

The initial design was created by Omaha architect Doug Halvorson and added onto by design artist Michael Torres of de la Torre Art Design in Omaha.

Torres also worked on high profile projects at the Henry Doorly Zoo, Lincoln Children’s Zoo and Barker Building in downtown Omaha, but Torres said working on his own – especially on a project like the Sensory Courtyard -- takes on a different meaning.

“It’s different working on my own for me because I’m able to give more attention to detail,” he said. “I have a different approach working on my own, I like to spend the time and go the extra mile if I can. I want to get it closer to museum quality because this (project) is a little more personal I guess.”

Aside from the basalt fountain, Torres’ vision of the courtyard includes two trees, an open-air walk-in rock cave, toadstools and two other sense-stimulating activity areas. The courtyard will include a programmable interactive projector similar to that in the Henry Doorly Zoo aquarium.

On Friday Torres was, with a fine-point brush, busy hand-painting the pillars of the basalt water fountain. The fountain was completed with the help of a grant through the Nebraska Education Association.

Native to the Pacific Northwest, Torres said the basalt formation is elegant and better suited for an indoor learning environment than is a traditional waterfall. Once the fine details are painted in, Torres said he will add foliage and moss into the cracks of the rock not only to make it more natural, but to provide additional stimuli. Students will be able to sit on the fountain, listen to the calming trickle of water, put their hands in the bubbling fountain and experience the scent of plants and soil.

“Every area in here really has its own uniqueness to it,” Torres said. “It’s definitely set up for multiple activities and student needs.”

Robinson said the courtyard is expected to be complete by May 8, and an open house will be held. Contributions to the project are still being accepted through the Fremont Public School Foundation,, or 130 E. Ninth St., Fremont. For more information visit the sensory courtyard’s website:

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