Getting smarter,bringing joy: Young Child Academy students reach out to elder neighbors

When he visits old people at Merrill Gardens, Nathan Burke feels happy. "I feel like I'm having fun with my friends," he says.

Tia Owen concurs. "I'm happy to see people I don't know. I can make new friends."

"There are friends all over the place!" says Alex Astort.

Nathan, Tia and Alex are students at Young Child Academy (YCA), located in Lower Queen Anne. Founded in 2001 by Tracy White, the school's director, YCA now enrolls more than 100 children ranging in age from 6 months to 6 or 7 years old (through first grade). There are eight classrooms and 20 teachers. Once a week, the classes of older children take turns visiting Merrill Gardens, a retirement community opened last May and located just a few blocks from the school.

The idea was the brainchild of Megan Bradsher, preschool teacher and Community Outreach Coordinator at YCA. Last fall, she arranged with Debra O'-Neill, Active Living director at Merrill Gardens, for YCA students to visit residents at the retirement facility. "I wanted the children to reach outside of themselves," says Bradsher.

Intergenerational activities are a component of life at Merrill Gardens, set clearly as a standard. "It's an aspect of my job that I love," says O'Neill.

On Feb. 28, YCA held a well-attended Art Gala at Merrill Gardens to showcase student art, with color as the theme. "I wanted to elevate the importance of children's art," says Bradsher, "to display it in public." O'Neill was supportive and offered Merrill Gardens as the venue.

At YCA, even the youngest children create art. "For infants," says White, "art is a sensory, tactile experience." While fingerpainting, infants sit in high chairs and teachers watch them closely, to keep paint-covered hands out of mouths. The paint is nontoxic, but teachers try to keep the mess at a minimum.

Art is at the core of YCA's curriculum. Besides visual art, drama and music are also offered to students of all ages. "We realize the significant role the arts play in brain development and the nurturing of creativity," says White.

YCA also promotes emergent literacy by incorporating a literature-based program with a phonetic basis. "We believe strongly in immersing a child's environment in literature-rich material," she says. "Exposing young children to reading material of all kinds is a precursor to reading."

In addition, all students, even the youngest, have daily interactive Spanish classes to expose them to a foreign language at a time when they are most receptive.

The Art Gala celebrated not only the children's creativity, but also their connection to an older generation, outside of their families. "At YCA," says White, "we focus on community involvement. We want to help the children realize that we are part of something bigger."

But the kids aren't the only ones who benefit from this connection - so do the seniors, who are given an opportunity to tell stories and sing songs to an appreciative audience. "It affects our residents' well-being in a positive way," says O'Neill. "It brings them joy. Everyone is smiling when the kids are here. They're cute and uncensored. Their antics are entertaining."

"They tell you things that make you laugh!" says Merrill Gardens resident Jan Patrick.

"It's really a pleasure," adds Flora De Grande, another resident. "We cherish those little kids. It takes me back to when my own children were young."

"Without even trying," says White, "kids erase loneliness, and they do not judge. That's what se- nior citizens deserve."

YCA student Cole Dubicki confirms this. "I can make them happy," he says.

Young Child Academy is located at 557 Roy St. For more information, go to or call 282-7132. Their primary program (kindergarten and first grade), called Queen Anne Community School, received private elementary school approval from the state of Washington last year.

[[In-content Ad]]