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The Enhanced Learning Program’s outdoor-based learning boosts classroom lessons and time together.

As Milwaukee emerged from the worst of the pandemic, Katherine Keller and Kate McCartney, instructors in the childcare wing of St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care’s Bucyrus Campus, found themselves talking about how much the world had changed. And how so many of us adapted to being indoor-favoring homebodies, taking giant steps backward in our social skills.  

Mostly the pair talked about how children are now being raised, taught and cared for by adults who are also doing their best to navigate that claustrophobic new normal and their own resulting traumas. And according to the National Institutes of Health, senior citizens and people with disabilities are among those least likely to spend time outdoors, even though direct exposure to fresh air, nature and the seasons offer them proven health benefits, particularly for their mental health, improved sense of confidence, social connections and overall well-being.

St Ann Center Bucyrus Campus clients work together to harvest peas they planted earlier in the year

St Ann Center Bucyrus Campus clients work together to harvest peas they planted together earlier in the year

Realizing that they were like-minded about how time spent outdoors — and the creativity and imagination it inspires — could benefit all Bucyrus clients, Keller and McCartney put their heads together to create a dual-curriculum Enhanced Learning Program (ELP). Specifically, one that would allow the pair to get to know what makes clients of every age tick, enhance classroom lessons, give adult clients purpose and get everyone out in the fresh air whenever possible. 

A Fresh Perspective

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) lists multiple reasons that outdoor activity creates healthy minds and bodies in even the littlest kids. Examining the habits of bugs and backyard critters, or planting fast-growing seeds like corn or green beans and watching them grow, teaches children science and sharpens fine motor skills. Playing outside with pals or classmates encourages problem-solving, turn-taking, following the rules, and trying new things. Making mud pies or structures of sticks and stones sets the stage for STEM skills.  

And here’s the icing on the cake, parents and guardians: a study of children ages 2 to 5 published by the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine showed that those who regularly play outside sleep better at night. As they age, NAEYC reports, getting out in the fresh air during their school day creates kids that are more attentive and productive. School administrators are catching on, expanding playgrounds, creating green spaces and outdoor classrooms even in the most urban neighborhoods, offering nature-based fieldtrips, and using hydroponic growing systems like those offered by Green Bay-based Fork Farms (and in service at the Bucyrus campus) to grow fresh herbs and greens even in the harshest climates.

Learning — and Bonding — Naturally

adults planting seed cups

Clients prepare seedling cups in early spring to plant when the weather warms

“Because I grew up in rural Wisconsin and spent a lot of time walking out in the woods and being on the river and just learning about nature, I started researching,” Keller says of getting the ball rolling on the ELP. “I was seeing little drips and dribbles that ‘nature-based’ is becoming something that’s now taught in the schools.” 

Launched in 2022, St Ann Center’s natured-based program teaches two- and three-year-old children about the natural world, focusing on elements of nature found on the Bucyrus campus. The kids learn about flowers, apples, strawberries, vegetables, birds, insects, trees and leaves by going outside and observing the real deal.  

Keller and the Bucyrus clients tend more than 30 raised beds that produce vegetables and flowers right there on the campus. Children and adults work together to plant seeds, seedling cups and potato pieces. Kids learn which gardening tools are right for each task, and help mulch the beds with straw. “A favorite activity is watering the gardens,” Keller says with a “yes, it can get soggy” grin.  

little girl with watering can

Watering the raised beds

When the vegetables are ready, the kids help harvest them.  

The Bucyrus campus also has a Garden Club for the adults, who, Keller says, enjoy the same gardening activities as the kids, but also take on more complicated tasks such as wrapping seedling cups, harvesting mustard and collard greens, then cleaning and bagging them to be distributed in the campus kitchens and among the children’s parents and guardians and the adult clients.   

Come fall, the kids learn to rake leaves, balance the wheelbarrow and place fallen leaves in compost bins. And on rainy days and in the winter, their nature-based education is rounded out with hands-on cooking and baking projects that sometimes use their raised-bed bounty, including carrot cake muffins, pickles, and fruit juice popsicles, plus bread, cookies, cupcakes and homemade pasta. 

Keller even uses gardening themes to illustrate a shared benefit she and McCartney have experienced as their programming expands. 

“One of the things that I find most enjoyable about what I’m doing — and Kate and I have talked a lot about this — is getting to know each client,” Keller explains. “The analogy I use is, you get a whole bunch of seeds, you plant them, you don’t know what the seeds are, and all these different flowers come up. So, you get to know the water and the air and the sunlight that each needs. With even the little kids, there are all these different personalities, and it’s just so interesting to learn what their talents are and what their interests are.” 

Teaching Social Skills Via Imagination

McCartney began her career at St. Ann Center as a childcare teacher and now serves as the Bucyrus Intergenerational PlayGarden Coordinator. This garden differs from Keller’s raised beds in both size and intent. And it’s a jaw-dropper — one that you may not even realize is there as you drive past the sprawling Bucyrus Campus in the 2400 block of North Ave.  

The Castle House

Good manners and good times reign in the Castle

Go around back, however, and a whimsical sight awaits you. A blush-colored castle with blue turrets stands guard over a colorful, playhouse-sized dinosaur who stands watch over the railed, wheelchair accessible walkway. Neighboring the castle stands a teapot large enough to house a tea party for multiple pint-sized guests and a caregiver or adult client. There’s also a “Fairy House” where clients can indulge their artistic streak with dress-up items, musical instruments, art supplies and more. 

But this nearly 12,000-square-foot wonderland, opened in 2021, does more than offer children enrolled in the campus’ childcare program a place to play. It’s a place where McCartney, a certified recreational therapist, can start to shape little ones’ social skills via lessons disguised as imaginative play, and invite adult clients to share life lessons in the cheeriest of settings.

In the castle, McCartney coaches kids to embrace noble skills such as bravery, leadership and self-confidence by encouraging the tots to admire a bug, invite a friend to play or use a puppet to tell a story. 

In the Teapot House, the kids learn to use kind and respectful words, to be a good friend, take turns and make healthy eating choices. 

dino house

Little people learn big lessons in the Dino House

And Dinosaur House is the spot where children learn to be as self-assured and determined as a dinosaur, knowing their worth, believing that they can learn a new skill or complete a game or puzzle, and be a good buddy to a pal who might be struggling.

The garden also features a wheelchair accessible “musical kitchen” for impromptu concerts — or just the opportunity to make some good ol’ fashioned noise.

Keller and McCartney also love the times when their lessons blend. 

Keller recalls finding a grass-green mantis hanging out on a wall outside of her classroom. A few days later, the elegant fellow took up residence in one of the raised vegetable beds, offering Keller the chance to share her own lesson in friendship, teaching her students that most bugs are harmless and only scary if you believe they are. She applied the same idea to the bees that hovered over the growing plants. 

little boy inspecting bugs

Learning that bugs can be our friends

“I just tell them, ‘Pretend you’re a flower, because bees like flowers. Don’t go like this [imitates flailing and fleeing], because then they’re afraid and they think you’re a big monster who’s trying to hurt them.’” 

“We’re hoping to teach kids things outside of classroom learning that will help enrich their lives and help mold them into the best people we can help them be,” McCartney adds, adding that she’s looking forward to expanding her efforts to school-age kids when St. Ann Center’s summer camp begins. “Through these themes that are taught in the playhouses, hopefully our PlayGarden curriculum can do that — just offering them tools to aid them in their journey of life.” 

Take it Outside: Tips for Raising Outdoorsy Kids

Start young.
Taking children safely outside to play encourages an active imagination and teaches them different colors, sensations and textures than they experience inside: the feel of grass on bare feet, the different colors and textures of stones, the different patterns and size of bugs and insects, the feel of sand and dipping their toes in the water at the beach. 

All Together Now 

Make sure outdoor activity is part of the family plan. Go for family bike rides. Put up a trampoline, volleyball or badminton net in the backyard. Ice skate or hike together. You’ll all be healthier, memories will be made, and family bonds strengthened.  

William harvests tomatoes

William inspects the last of the tomatoes

There You Grow
If you’re put off by images of expansive, weed-free vegetable patches growing in neatly tilled rows, let them go, says the American Montessori Society. Family gardening can happen anywhere you have a patch of soil: the front yard, backyard, in pots on the porch, raised garden beds or window boxes. Flower and vegetable seeds can be had for just a few dollars at your local garden center, big-box store or grocery store, and kids will be thrilled to watch seeds become sprouts, then plants, and then blooms or vegetables. 

Plus, it’s not just a myth that growing their own cukes and carrots can get your kids to eat their veggies. Studies show that when parents involve their kids in the process of growing food and preparing what they grew, children have a significantly more positive reaction to trying and regularly eating fresher, more nutritious food. And puttering with their parents in the garden — whatever it looks like — helps develop fine motor skills and works almost every muscle in their growing bodies. 

State Your Case
Visit your local garden center or shop online for seeds or plants that are native to Wisconsin. Check out the Wisconsin DNR website for tree seeds and seedlings that thrive in our state. 

For a tour, more information or to enroll your child now please visit: 

St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care
2450 W. North Ave.
(414) 210-2450 

Or see us online at or on TikTok, Facebook and Instagram 

fall crafting

Leaves make great fall crafts

discovering cucumbers

Checking for budding cucumbers – and maybe a bug or two

little boy inspecting bugs

Learning that bugs can be our friends

harvesting carrots

Harvesting the carrots with a helping hand.

"Homemade" fruit pops

“Homemade” fruit pops

Kate McCartney Intergenerational PlayGarden Coordinator.

Intergenerational PlayGarden Coordinator Kate McCartney ensures clients of all ages are free to indulge their imaginations.

Someone's feeling silly

Someone’s feeling silly

It's "pinkies up" in the teapot house!

It’s “pinkies up” in the teapot house!

Castle Bucyrus

Good manners and good times reign in the Castle

Bucyrus Musical Kitchen

Pots and pans make a band in the musical kitchen

intergenerational playgarden

Taking turns while a dinosaur watches

adults in the raised beds

Staff and adult clients tend raised beds

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