A partnership between Del Mar Elementary and the students in the Cal Poly Landscape Architecture Design Studio led to the design of a campus garden of tranquility — a healing and supportive place for students to find quiet when needed and promote mindfulness and social, emotional well-being. 

The elementary school was recently designated a trauma-responsive school — meaning that teachers and staff are working to find ways to lessen the stress that students bring to school with them to help them focus on their education.

“As a teacher, you have to be aware that many students arrive each day from really stressful situations,” said Patricia Nolan, a transitional kindergarten teacher. “And while we were always aware, these kids have so much more that was hidden and so we’ve taken that on. We want to create a place for kids to go and be still if they want to be quiet and have a calming place to be more mindful.”

The need for such a sanctuary on campus can be found in every classroom.

“We are constantly evolving and changing the mindset of how to look at student behavior,” said Nolan. “Walk into any classroom and you see these great kids with smiling faces, but what you might not know is that a few are homeless, others have parents who are going through big struggles that impact them such as mental illness, divorce, or simply making ends meet. All of these stressors affect these kids and their learning.”

Fifteen Cal Poly landscape architecture students spent the 10-week fall quarter working with staff at Del Mar Elementary to create the restorative garden envisioned by staff for the students. Their designs include elements of whimsy, meandering labyrinths, water elements, native plants and educational components. 

Cal Poly junior Kathleen Dempsey said that working on the project taught her to work within the client’s parameters and maximize each design element. 

“For an elementary school, their budget was very tight, and you want them to be able to have access to what they want,” she said. “In landscape architecture, there is a lot of emphasis for why you chose to do what you did in your design. I think this project really made me think about it in a way that I hadn’t before. It made each element need a larger purpose and nothing could just have the potential to do one thing.”

Dempsey said her favorite parts were the design elements that had the most potential functions, such as the painted asphalt, which mimicked the ocean. The edges were seafoam, the top waves were lighter blues and purples, and the deeper into the ocean you got, the darker blue the pavement became. The deepest point was surrounding a storm drain. This emphasized that water goes into the ocean. Additional elements were added to create a connection to the coastal location of the school, such as painted sea life depicting creatures from the Pacific Ocean – creating a sense of place. The design also demonstrated how deep specific sea life lived in the ocean and showed some of the creatures that would be affected by stormwater runoff. The painted pavement also served a higher purpose – to help brighten the area on foggy days and reduce heat on sunnier, hotter days. 

A garden labyrinth is meant to be a soothing place, allowing students to utilize an ancient tool found to create a calming space to bring people back to themselves from situations of stress and trauma. Places to sit and meditate or play a game of chess or checkers also provides a restful place for students to reflect and find calm before returning to class.

Cal Poly landscape architecture lecturer Aaron Liggett, who led the class, said that the ability for students to work with actual stakeholders, listen to client interviews and do onsite analysis provided a beneficial learning opportunity for the college students. 

“For all the students, this was the first time they had a real-life project,” he said. “They all enjoyed that change from theoretical, make-believe projects to creating a project that would be actually implemented.” 

Students presented their initial designs to Del Mar staff and then incorporated that feedback into their final designs, which were presented to students and the broader community in December. 

“I wish we use every one of their ideas so that kids could just walk onto campus and be swept away with imagination and love and wanting to be in that space,” said Nolan. “It is such a cool thing to have the different ends of the educational spectrum, the elementary and the university students, working together. What we can learn from each other is just amazing.”

The student design plans were given to Del Mar, which is now working to raise the funding needed to hire a licensed architect to implement the new garden. Nolan said the school is seeking grant funding, as well as working local businesses to sponsor portions of the project. 

“The Garden of Tranquility idea was born a year ago and we are getting closer,” said Nolan. “We are so grateful that Cal Poly was willing to work with us — we are going in the right direction.”