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'A place of respite': New garden at Avery Point invites children to learn from nature

Groton — At the University of Connecticut-Avery Point, a new garden offers colors, textures and fragrances for children to explore.

A labyrinth, with brightly colored mosaics, in ocean themes of lighthouses, seahorses and sailboats, and lemon balm, mint and lavender, forms the shape of a crab climbing up the hill.

Pathways lead to a meadow, pollinator garden and a three-tiered waterfall made of stones, among other features.

The area was designed as a "cognitive garden" so children can immerse themselves in nature and have new experiences that help develop their brains.

"You can have some rich sensory experiences inside, but nothing like nature," said Annette Montoya, a UConn student who is spearheading the project. "It's just the plethora of opportunities from the wind blowing and all the textures and smells and colors and the birds and the bugs."

Montoya, a Waterford resident who is a retired government worker and combat veteran studying at the University of Connecticut, had read a book about gardens and children that sparked her realization of how important experiential learning is to youth. She read that the more sensory experiences children are exposed to from birth to age 7 — and the more rich those sensory experiences are — the more complex the children's brain structure becomes.

Intrigued, Montoya started reading more and taking classes on sensory processing and perception, developmental psychology and cognitive psychology, and she designed an individualized major on horticulture, landscape architecture and cognitive psychology.

Montoya, whose love of nature goes back to her youth in Minnesota, where she always was outdoors in the woods, meadows or on the water sailing, came up with the idea of creating a cognitive garden, where children can explore nature using their senses and brain. She received a $4,000 IDEA grant for the project from UConn. The university also allowed her to use a grassy area on campus to install the garden, which she broke ground on in March.

Montoya teamed up with Mary Ballachino of Old Lyme, a graphic designer and UConn alum who started out as a mosaic artist but soon became a co-designer of the garden. In addition to the garden project, Montoya also wrote a children's book, which Ballachino submitted to the publisher she freelances with. In the book, a teacher takes children out to discover nature in the woods behind their school and they start to bring nature back to their playground.

Montoya said many children today are indoors and plugged into electronic devices.

"There’s just not a lot of accessible nature, so we thought, 'Let’s bring the nature to the kids,'" she said.

A goal of the garden is for caregivers and parents, who will have benches to sit on, to bring their kids and let them explore so they can grow and build confidence.

The labyrinth is designed so young children can walk along and touch the mosaics, handmade by student artists from Waterford High School, and plants, she said, and children can walk along the garden's slope to work on their balance.

A natural amphitheater, set up for children to climb on or perform dances and sing, is surrounded by a color wheel of mosaics, created by Nathan Hale Arts Magnet School students, to expose children to color theory. The garden's other features include a sand pit, "Scout the Berm Whale," and a waterfall with about a quarter inch of water and a bio creek, 4-foot-wide pathways, and a meadow path with mosaics, some of which Norwich Free Academy students created.

Grasses, which have been planted on the perimeter of the garden, will grow higher and provide a sense of enclosure and natural screening, so people can look out and just see vistas of the bay.

The garden ties in concepts of imaginative play and Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics (STEAM), Montoya said.

The garden also is organic and low-maintenance, and she said it's crucial to teach kids to love nature and teach them about protecting the environment and being stewards.

The community pitched in to create the garden, from local businesses donating supplies and materials, to people volunteering from the Navy, Coast Guard, Boy Scouts, UConn and businesses.

Students from local schools, including Robert E. Fitch High School, Ella T. Grasso Technical School, Waterford High School, Nathan Hale Arts Magnet School, Norwich Free Academy, and Dual Language & Arts Magnet Middle School also contributed.

"As soon as people heard it was for kids, everyone jumped on board," Ballachino said. "The community just rallied."

Peter Miniutti, associate professor and director of the landscape architecture program at UConn, Petie Reed, owner of Perennial Harmony Garden and Landscape in East Lyme, and Dr. Jamie Kleinman, associate professor in residence in UConn's department of psychological sciences, mentored Montoya, while UConn graduate student Tao Wu also has been instrumental, Montoya said.

Montoya said that while the garden specifically was designed for children ages 1 to 7, labyrinths are known for their soothing properties and the garden is for everybody. College students and community members already are stopping by.

"It's a place of respite, a place to gather," she said.

Montoya said the garden is focused on fostering connections: neural connections, nature connections and community connections. She and Ballachino have started a company called Pieceful Connections and would like to design and build children's gardens throughout the community.

"We hope to use the UConn garden as a model, showing how a children's garden can be a place of beauty, of learning, of peace and healing," Montoya said.

She said she hopes to bring in even more art, color and science and wants the community to continue to be involved.

"I just think that so many people in the community have helped, that they’re pretty proud of it," Montoya said.

Helping hands

Montoya recognized the following people for their volunteer work, as well as her friends and family, on the project's blog,

Waterford High School, Nathan Hale Arts Magnet School, Norwich Free Academy students: made mosaics

Gwen Basilica, artist; Jeffrey Wolfson, NHAMS art teacher; Shelly Concascia, Waterford High School art teacher: assisted students in making mosaics

Ella T. Grasso Technical High School students: assisted with constructing the waterfall and installing plants

Boy Scouts: Made "Scout the Berm Whale" and assisted with labyrinth base

UConn students: took out sod, helped with pathways

Dual Language & Arts Magnet Middle School students: translated children’s book into Spanish and made coloring book

Coast Guard Academy: helped with pathways.

Pfizer employees: planted grasses, helped with pavers and stones for the waterfall

Naval Submarine Base New London: moved concrete, stone, sand and dirt, among other tasks

Waterford High School Transitional Students: worked on sandpit and took out sod

Waterford High School carpentry students, Robert E. Fitch High School Manufacturing Class: built benches

BrandTech Scientific Inc.: helped with mosaics and planting

Steve Colgan, Master Gardener and moss expert: building a moss/shade/fairy garden

A list of businesses that donated is available at


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