Le Ballon Rouge is a gemme cachee in West Brant.

“People are always saying they didn’t know we were here,” said Marie-Josee Baril, director of the city’s only core French language daycare. “We are a hidden gem.”

In the brilliant sunshine on a just-about-autumn day, a group of children up to age four ride tricycles and mill about in a newly created playground, paid for with funding from the Ministry of Education and the City of Brantford. One of the highlights is a “log jam structure” they are encouraged to climb and explore. A shed full of clean cut wood, which Baril calls loose parts, is there if the kids have a notion to construct something.

“It builds their imagination,” she said. “We all played in the woods growing up.”

Located beside the Grand River on Clench Avenue, the daycare is attached to Ecole Elementaire Catholique Sainte-Marguerite-Bourgeoys, a French Catholic elementary school. In the mornings, said Baril, the field next to the daycare often is filled with Canada geese and toads the children like to chase.

Inside, staff have made an effort to create a homey environment with lots of areas for play. Meals are eaten family-style, with staff joining the children at their tiny tables and chairs.

“Our goal is to make them feel at home,” said Baril. “We don’t ever want them to feel like they’ve been at school for three or four years before they even start school.”

In 1986, with a mission to create a quality French daycare, a group of parents incorporated Garderie Francaise of Hamilton Inc. and opened the Le Ballon Rouge daycare centre in downtown Hamilton.

In 2011, they opened the Brantford location.

The facility offers 31 child-care spaces, 15 for toddlers, aged 18 to 30 months, and pre-school for children, aged 30 months to age four. They also offer before- and after-school care for students at Sainte-Marguerite-Bougeoys, which connects to Le Ballon Rouge.

“There’s often a progression,” said Baril. “Parents send their children here where they pick up French before they start school.”

Like Baril, the daycare’s site supervisor Cindy Verreault’s first language is French. Baril was born and raised in Quebec and moved to Ontario about 10 years ago. Verreault grew up in Hamilton but attended French elementary and high schools.

Staff at Le Ballon Rouge speak only French to their young charges, many of whom have at least one French-speaking parent.

“It’s core French all day,” said Verreault. “The kids speak English at first so we use a lot of hand signals. But we don’t translate. We only communicate with them in French.”

Often, what the kids first pick up are French songs.

“It varies on attendance, said Baril. “But by Christmas they understand basic commands and can sing along.”

And, in what seems like only a matter of weeks once they transfer to Sainte-Marguerite-Bougeoys – where the majority of youngsters go – “they are fully talking in French,” said Baril. “It’s amazing.”

Baril said most parents who enrol their children at Le Ballon Rouge are hoping their bilingualism will give them an edge in the competitive job market. Some, said Verreault, regret they didn’t pay a little more attention in high school French class.

There are also the benefits of retaining the family’s language and culture and some studies indicating people who speak more than one language have improved memory, problem-solving and critical thinking skills, and enhanced concentration.

But Baril said Brantford has a small francophone population, which creates challenges finding French-speaking staff. Some commute from Hamilton where there is a larger French community.

“Our goal is to grow Brantford’s francophone population.”

This content was originally published here.

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