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When the Jewish Child Care (JCC) started a garden 18 years ago, nobody knew how much of an impact it would make on young minds in the years to come. Starting with a small plot on Vaughn Street, Jodie Raffensperger, The Brenner Family Early Learning Center’s Art & Garden Specialist slowly incorporated Jewish lessons into the crops she grew with the students. Like the vegetables, fruits, and herbs in the garden, the small patch expanded into the organic-growing and Jewish learning center that covers a large part of the green space of the JCC campus today.

The garden is just one component of the Discover: Catch program that guides much of the everyday curriculum and therefore the lives of the students. Discover Catch was created in the early 2010s as a partnership of the Jewish Community Center Association (the overseeing organization of all member JCCs) and the University of Texas School of Public Health, and focuses on creating good health habits early on in life.

The Brenner Family Early Learning Center’s Discover: Catch program ties together exercise, healthy eating, and nature. Children have a similar exercise schedule as older students, receiving time for gross motor (recess) every day, as well as weekly gym and swim time. With a curriculum that includes daily outdoors time, the children grow up with an appreciation for getting out in the fresh air.

Jeremy Kreiser, JCC Sports & Fitness Coordinator, praises the variety and creativity of the Discover: Catch program, which he incorporates into weekly sessions for students in the Turning 3’s through Pre-K classes. “They’re really good at incorporating a lot of different pieces. They provide a box of like 500 cards, organized into warm up activities, group activities, and cool-down activities. So, it’s really easy for me to piece together a gym class that covers a lot of areas.” Jeremy, who has been using Discover: Catch in his classes for 3 years, finds that the program makes exercising fun for the kids. “When we do bear crawls or crab crawls, we’ll have a picture of a crab or a bear for the students to chase after. It makes it easy because the kids learn with that visual and they have fun with it. I incorporate as much of the Discover: Catch program as possible.”

 With the goal of lifelong fitness in mind, Jeremy sees the benefits of Discover: Catch around the J. “Even years later, I’ll see the kids in the gym doing the same things we did in gym class.” The program even incorporates yoga into the sessions, which Jeremy notes is unusual, but beneficial, for children of that age.

The swim lessons that ELC students receive have many benefits, corresponding with safety and lifelong appreciation of the water. “By incorporating swimming lessons into the Discover: Catch program, we are furthering the program’s focus on good health and exercise while creating a sense of comfort in the water for the children,” says Teri Berman, JCC Swim Instructor. “A child who has learned to put his or her face under water and float will be safer around pools and other water locales. Water safety will save lives. In addition, swimming is a lifelong skill attainable by all children, even those not athletically inclined.”

As anyone who has struggled to get in shape can attest to, proper nutrition is just as important as exercise in leading a healthy lifestyle. The Discover: Catch’s original ethos, according to a story in Healthy Americans, is: It’s much easier to create good health habits than it is to change bad ones.

At the Brenner Family ELC, children of all backgrounds and means are able to start their lives off in the right direction with healthy nutrition. The ELC menu includes no red meat, nor fried or processed food. Much of the food comes from the garden, giving students ownership over their lunches and snacks. Of course, there is always room for negotiation and moderation. The occasional cupcake for a birthday is perfectly fine.

The Discover: Catch program is all about helping students develop a healthy lifestyle and continuously make good choices when it comes to nutrition and exercise. It helps encourage a happy and positive outlook that will follow students throughout their lifespan.

Note: The JCC Early Childhood Department is a Keystone STAR 3 participant.

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