A baby sits on a purple blanket surrounded on all sides by three- and four-year-olds and a few adults. They cheer as she crawls after a plastic ball.
The baby is Mackenna Fraser, and she’s the star of the show at eight months old.
Mackenna and her mom, Kirsten Petz Fraser, have visited the children and staff at Oak Bluff Early Years, a preschool in Oak Bluff Community School, once a month since last September.
Back then, Mackenna was just three months old and could only lie on the blanket. The children have watched her grow and develop new motor and social skills as each month passes.
Mackenna and the preschoolers are participants in the first Seeds of Empathy program offered through Macdonald Healthy Child. While Oak Bluff school and others within the Red River Valley School Division have run the Roots of Empathy program for a number of years, Macdonald Healthy Child chairperson Shauna Hewitt said her group wanted to deliver the Seeds program.
"The best opportunity for that was in Oak Bluff because they have a preschool," she said. "It’s been a super success."
Oak Bluff Early Years director Leanne Derlago agrees, adding that some parents asked if their children could attend the preschool on the weekdays when the Seeds material is included in the daily schedule.
As well as the monthly visit by Mackenna and her mom, the children participate in a weekly literacy circle based on a specific theme. Derlago said one week’s theme was feelings, and after reading a book, one of the youngsters suggested that she and her classmates make their own book. The book includes a drawing by each child depicting one of their feelings.
Derlago added there are times when Mackenna cries, and when that happens, the children are asked to help figure out what the baby wants instead of labelling the crying as bad behaviour.
Manitoba Health offers formal training for those delivering the Seeds of Empathy program. Jenn Siemens and Sherri Yaremkewich take the lead at Oak Bluff Early Years.
The preschoolers’ interest in watching Mackenna’s every move was evident. Parent Carrie Wilson said her daughter really looks forward to each Wednesday when staff members focus on the Seeds material. Having the chance to see Mackenna again is a monthly highlight.
"She comes home and is very excited about what the baby has done," said Wilson.
Derlago said some of the students don’t have a younger sibling and in fact, one commented that he hadn’t seen a baby up close before.
Petz Fraser said she’s happy to be able to celebrate her daughter’s growth and achievements with the Early Years students and staff.
"I know how good it is for the kids."
Derlago said they will continue offering the Seeds program in the fall. Coincidentally, literacy coach Siemens will have her baby in September and has volunteered to become next school year’s mom and baby pair.
Some of the Early Years students will go on to attend Oak Bluff Community School and will likely be able to participate in the Roots of Empathy program that’s now being offered to Grade 4 to 6 students.