Supported gardening: What’s happening in the Community Sensory Garden & activities for kids

By Children’s Librarian Shelley Harris

Did you know that 70% of disabled adults do not engage in community activities?

This statistic, from a 2005 paper, gave me pause the first time I heard it at a conference. I see it with my disabled brother and his friends, but it’s hard to see it widely confirmed. Communities are so much richer when everyone is involved, and so much is lost without this vibrant and vital group.

I love creating Supported programming for kids with disabilities. I think it’s one of the most important parts of my job. My programming philosophy is that everyone deserves ways to engage with and be part of their community. Besides storytimes, we have offered musical theater, yoga, and cooking. In the past year, we’ve offered cooking, nature hunts, and storytimes on YouTube and Zoom.

Gardening at Maze Branch

After hearing the above statistic, we developed a Supported Gardening class in 2019, which met in the Community Sensory Garden at the Maze Branch Library (see Miss Eileen planting in the garden in the above picture). 

Have you visited the garden? We grow flowers, ornamental plants, and herbs for the community to enjoy and harvest.

Gardening is age-appropriate for kids, teens, and adults, and gives disabled gardeners a leadership role in a community space. Before the pandemic, Oak Park and River Forest High School students in special education tracks visited to plant the garden in April and put it to bed in October. Then, preschool and elementary-aged kids with disabilities tended it during the summer.

We’ve missed this during the pandemic! This summer, staff will plant the herbs, but community members are welcome to come after June 1 to harvest small amounts of any herbs they like for their own use at home.

We hope to be back to gardening together in summer 2022, but waiting is hard.

Coming soon: Supported Gardening Kit

So, staff members Jenny, Ginger, Nora, and I have been working this year to create a brand new kit. The Supported Gardening Kit will include the same accessible garden tools that we use in class, a copy of the book we read to begin every Supported gardening class, and tools like gloves and kneeling pads. There is also a caregiver guide for having social-emotional learning-based conversations using the included book, Errol’s Garden

Conversations and communication can be hard for some disabled kids. That’s why we’ve included resources for caregivers to learn more about being a supportive communication partner: articles on pauses and waiting time, scaffolding communication supports to build independence, and more. All children have something to share, and we hope to help start some fun conversations through this experience.

We’re also excited to work with Empowering Gardens in Forest Park, a local gardening shop that only hires disabled adults to work for them. We hired one of their staff members for an afternoon: when you check out the kit, you’ll see him in videos demonstrating how to use the tools. 

What can you do while you wait for the kits to launch this summer? Check out these great resources!

Read these books

Explore these websites

Keep an eye out for our Supported Gardening Kit this summer, as well as summer reading program activities in the Maze garden!


Wagner, M., Newman, L., Cameto, R., Garza, N., & Levine, P. (2005). After high school: A first look at the postschool experiences of youth with disabilities. A report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

Shelley Harris

About Shelley

Shelley is a children’s librarian with a passion for early literacy, serving and celebrating the disability community, and exploring technology. She can often be found practicing storytime songs with her black lab, Bingo.