It might be disconcerting to witness the sight of dozens of preschool-aged children armed with barbecue tongs and roaming around an unsuspecting neighbourhood in Sturgeon Heights. One might think a picnic had gone seriously awry or that it was some kind of scavenger hunt, practical joke or even a student film project.
It's actually none of the above. The group, originating from the St. Albert Day Care Society's main location next to Fountain Park Recreation Centre, is just doing its civic duty by cleaning up nearby accumulated litter, dropped by residents old enough to know better. The youngsters are part of a larger initiative of learning through doing. They're learning about leaving this world a better place than they found it, and they're learning it early.
The society's executive director, Michelle Radey said the children aren't being forced into this activity. They were shown how to pick up the litter and told it makes them better people. All of a sudden, they wanted to do it on their own.
"They have fun doing it," she said, beaming at the success. "I just think it's so fantastic."
Judging by the smiles on the kids' faces and the general atmosphere of amusement, her comments ring pretty true.
The big give
Neighbourhood cleanup isn't the only thing the group is involved in. For the last few months staffers and kids from one area of the facility have collected stuffed animals to give to the Edmonton Humane Society as a way of bringing awareness to the growing problem of stray and abandoned animals.
"The blue room took on the project of giving stuffies for puppies because they're the little guys. They have, for two or three years, shown an interest in animals and dogs in particular. The staff thought, 'we'll just keep that interest going.'"
The event has already seen the children amass a roomful of toys. Considering they are at the age where they might easily prefer to keep the toys, it's impressive that they are so eager to give them away. At the end of the month they will deliver the goods to the animal shelter for use as comfort aids to the dogs.
This is just one part of 'the big give,' Radey's effort to have the children do different things to give back to the community this summer.
"I said to the staff that we have an opportunity for our kids to learn about the community and give back, and let the community know that the kids are here," she said. "[It's about] building assets at the same time.
"We're teaching our staff that all the time so that they can carry that into their classrooms."
The beginning of giving
It started last summer when the kids collected several kilograms of litter using barbecue tongs. That progressed into the stuffed toy drive and the kids are also giving out potted flowers to various people like bus drivers, police officers or pool staff members.
"They've also just gone out to homes in the community that have beautiful flowers already and said, 'Thanks for keeping the St. Albert community so nice. Here's an extra flower for your garden.' They've just been spontaneously handing out these flowers all summer long just to say thanks to people."
Another group has connected with residents at Chateau Mission Court by composing and performing a play, followed by cookies and juice.
"That was in July. In August they went down and had a talent show. Even just in the couple of visits that they've had [they've] created a relationship."
The seniors were so pleased they asked if their young visitors could learn how to play crib.
"Now they've been teaching them card games so they can keep that relationship throughout the whole year," Radey said.
Then there's 'love for St. Albert,' in which 30 of the kids spent a day cleaning, weeding, washing cars and filling birdbaths for those needing help in Braeside.
"There was just this huge sea of blue T-shirts cleaning people's yards. It was fantastic how the kids just worked together and the people who we could help out were just so grateful."
Of course, they still collect litter. As a matter of fact, they can't be stopped.
"They're picking up garbage everywhere! Every time they go on a field trip they ask their teachers for the tongs."
It's no surprise that the response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive, too. There are still occasional detractors though.
"I've only had one parent really upset that he pays a fee and now we're asking his child to pick up garbage. We tried to explain the value of the program. One parent out of 350 I thought was reasonable."
The early bird getting to learn
According to Radey, there's no time like the present to get children started on the right path. That's why she has taken it upon herself to implement the ideals of the Search Institute's 40 Developmental Assets program that the city has been promoting for a few years now.
"I realize that [the 40-Assets program is] targeted for school-aged kids, but I'm a firm believer that we can start that at the age of one," she said.
This is exactly what the St. Albert Youth Community Centre is trying to achieve, too. The organization has been engaged in the assets program from the very beginning.
Brenda O'Neill, the centre's executive director, said it makes a world of difference to the teens that attend the Grandin mall facility. The youth centre is about building up the world by creating strong people first. She loves that the children at the daycare are so enthusiastic.
"It's wonderful that they're taking the initiative and taking advantage of the model that the 40 Developmental Assets represents. It only makes sense that we start introducing it at a much younger age. It's fabulous. Just as a citizen of St. Albert and someone who works with the [program], I think it's wonderful. The younger, the better."
O'Neill said the Search Institute's website has a treasure trove of ideas for people of all ages to engage in and grow from.
"It's the first model that's being used that comes from a positive standpoint. Here the positive is rewarded and it isn't monetary."
The trick, she has found, is that the real learning doesn't come in the form of direct teaching but through the process of doing things, as the daycare has proved.
"If they can learn by the activities that we have — and we weave in those assets — that's what has been the most successful here."