“They’re brilliant,” says Winifred, “look how determined they are.” She’s talking about the preschool students who have come to build Lego towers with her and the other seniors at Three Links Care Centre. This is their fourth visit and Winifred hasn’t missed one. Just the mention of kids brings a smile to her face.

The children are part of Muddy Boot Prints preschool, a unique early learning program that connects children with nature and the wider community. The program is based in the Forest School Philosophy but with an urban twist that involves building a vibrant community in the city.

Muddy Boot Prints founder Belva Stone partnered with Three Links with the hope of broadening the children’s community. She wanted the children to visit regularly enough for real friendships to be born with “the grandmas and the grandpas”. Charley, age 3, says, “I think it’s great there. I like playing with the cats, the playdough, and the balloons.” The balloon activity is a big hit – the children toss balloons to the seniors who lob them back by hitting them with pool noodles. The whole thing is accompanied by riotous laughter. Benjamin, age 3 and usually quite shy, comes alive when he’s tossing balloons.

The joy and laughter the kids bring to Three Links are a real tonic for seniors who are living with memory loss and disabilities. Making the move from home to long-term care can be tough. It’s a change that often means losing connections with neighbours and acquaintances. The gleeful chaos of a busy group of kids makes living in the care home feel like being part of a neighbourhood again.

“It’s a lot of fun,” says Kay, who has lived at Three Links for three years. Having kids around reminds her of growing up on a farm in England, where she and her siblings would beg their parents to let them ride the horses. Kay smiles as she talks and pauses to ask one of the kids what her name is. The kids aren’t bothered by being asked the same question twice by a forgetful senior – it’s just great to be around people who break into a wide grin every time they see you.