Renee Brown, principal of Martinsville's Albert Harris Elementary School, stands with students as the school's new sensory garden is unveiled Wednesday. Photo by Dean-Paul Stephens.

Teachers and administrators at Martinsville’s Albert Harris Elementary School are pioneering a new approach to student wellness and engagement. 

On Wednesday, officials invited the community to take part in the official unveiling of the school’s new sensory garden. 

“The sensory garden was created to provide a unique learning environment,” said STEM teacher Laurie Witt. 

The new sensory garden at Martinsville’s Albert Harris Elementary School includes an herb patch, chimes, flowers and a sand pit, designed to engage all of a visitor’s senses. Photo by Dean-Paul Stephens.

A sensory garden is a space designed to engage all of a visitor’s senses. From an herb patch to stimulate the sense of taste, to chimes, flowers and a sand pit to stimulate sound, sight, smell and touch, the garden will be used as a tool to help foster engagement among students. This is according to Brown, who believes diversifying how students are instructed is a net benefit. 

“It has been proven that if we have hands-on practical learning, children tend to retain more,” Brown said.  

Located behind the school, adjacent to its greenhouse, the sensory garden is the most recent addition to a number of projects that helps Albert Harris Elementary stand out from other Martinsville schools. 

“We dedicated our butterfly garden about three years ago,” Brown said, mentioning some of the school’s other facilities, such as a traditional garden and a greenhouse. “We also have [other] gardens here as well. We have our rain barrels and our wellness center. We have a bee center as well.” 

These projects, according to officials, came about thanks to a partnership between the school and the Dan River Basin Association, in which the latter helped the former secure grant funding. The sensory garden was paid for via $2,250 in grants from the Community Foundation Serving Western Virginia. 

“Anything that we can support what they are doing here in the community, we want to help,” said the foundation’s April Haynes. 

The sensory garden is the first of its kind in the school system, according to Superintendent Zebedee Talley. 

Martinsville Superintendent Zebedee Talley cuts the ribbon for Albert Harris Elementary School’s new sensory garden at Wednesday’s ceremony. Photo by Dean-Paul Stephens.

“A lot of young people … need sensory [stimulation],” Talley said. “It’s just a beautiful idea that students will gravitate to.”  

Both Brown and Witt said that while the sensory garden might be a unique approach to education, it does adhere to all state standards of education. Talley said he is confident the new addition will make a significant impact. 

“Anytime we can enable our students to be in touch with their feelings and emotions it’s a good day,” Talley said. “I’m really excited about this.”

Dean-Paul Stephens is a reporter for Cardinal News. He is based in Martinsville. Reach him at