By Ron Wilson, director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University
Kansas- Do children have superpowers?
Other than in the movies, they may not be able to fly or use X-ray vision. But in the case of one innovative Kansas project, these children have learned that they do have smile-power. This is part of a remarkable intergenerational childcare program found in rural Kansas.
Last week we learned about Allen Schmidt and Resurrection Vineyard in Hays. Allen’s son, Brett, was born in Hays. The family moved around due to Allen’s military career.
Later, Brett Schmidt earned a degree in early childhood development and master’s degree in brain-based teaching and learning. He went on to teach kindergarten in Independence, Kan. where he met – and later married – Ashley.
When Brett’s folks returned to Hays, Brett and Ashley moved back as well. Brett took a teaching position at the rural community of Stockton, population 1,480 people. Now, that’s rural.
He went on to work for Child Care Aware, training and coaching childcare providers.
While in southern Kansas, Brett observed an intergenerational day care program in a nursing home. “I thought it was cutting edge,” he said. He wanted to establish such a program in northwest Kansas.
After years of planning and development, he founded the Learning Cross Child Care Center in Hays in 2015. With the approval of the senior residents’ council, the center was housed in the assisted living area of the Ascension Living Via Christi Village retirement community. Being located within a senior living facility made it possible to create healthy interaction between younger and older generations.
The program was named Learning Cross for two reasons: One, it was a faith-based program. And secondly, it represented a place where multiple generations could cross paths.
The program began as a half-day preschool and then expanded to a full-time day care center for 2 ½ to 5 year olds. It grew to include a second facility two blocks away from Via Christi Village.
How does this work?
Parents bring children to the childcare center at the beginning of the workday. During the morning, the kids bring their pedal carts and toys and enter the assisted living area where they go through the halls and meet the residents. A similar time for interaction is scheduled for the afternoon. Depending on the weather, the kids and residents might go in the outdoor courtyard to play.
Some seniors engage with the children at an even higher level, sharing stories or teaching the kids about their interests. Those topics range from raising flowers to learning sign language.
“The three pillars of our program are recognition for doing good things, having a sense of purpose, and acceptance within a community,” Schmidt said. A fundamental practice is teaching the children that they had the power to brighten someone’s day.
“We told the kids, `Sometimes people are hurting. Sometimes people are sad. But if you smile at them, you can get them to smile back. You guys have the power to make them feel better,’” Schmidt said.
It worked. Some kids and seniors were more reluctant than others, but the children were able to generate smiles and joy from the seniors. “The former director of the facility said, `My goal is to fill these hallways with life,’” Schmidt said. “When there was laughter and giggles and kid voices in the building, it was magical.”
One senior resident had been non-verbal, but when the kids showed up, she started making sounds and eventually to speak. At Christmastime, each family would adopt one or two ‘grandfriends’ to share gifts and stories. “The interactions can be miraculous,” Schmidt said.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the intergenerational interaction had to stop, although the day care center continued within limits. “We hope to relaunch the senior interaction this fall,” Schmidt said.
For more information, see www.learningcross.com.
Do children have superpowers? Maybe not in real life, but they do have smile-power. We commend Brett Schmidt and all those involved with Learning Cross Day Care Center for making a difference with this innovative approach to learning and multigenerational interaction.
I think these smiles are super.
Audio and text files of Kansas Profiles are available at http://www.kansasprofile.com. For more information about the Huck Boyd Institute, interested persons can visit http://www.huckboydinstitute.org.