Reach Dane's Healing Space for Kids and Families

Rolling hills of turf and adventure play offer the kids sensory experience, as well as much-needed occupational therapy outlets.
Photograph by Chad Renly: C|R Prints & Photography LLC

Feeling safe and secure in our homes and workplaces is of utmost importance. And when an organization’s clientele are infants and children—some of which are experiencing homelessness or trauma—it’s even more crucial to design calming, protective spaces.

In 2019, Reach Dane, a Madison-based nonprofit that provides childcare and family supportive services to over 1,000 underserved children in Dane and Green County, approached Middleton-based Sketchworks Architecture to design a high-quality early childcare facility. The organization, which already has 17 locations throughout Dane and Green County, had purchased a building on the city’s south side to open another location, which enables them to provide full school-day programming to all of the preschool children.

Besides childcare for kids up to five years old, the 30,000-square-foot facility also needed to provide a variety of other services for parents, families, and community engagement, including adult education, housing, employment, parent education, and more. With these requirements in mind, it was important that Sketchworks’ staff, including interior designer Michelle Schildgen, architect Steve Shulfer, and architectural designer Claire Brunner, collaborated with Reach Dane’s staff to execute Reach Dane’s vision.

“[Staff] intentionally wanted the new facility to be nothing like their other locations,” says Michelle. “They wanted a new, cutting-edge design. Given the children they serve, we came up with a design concept centered around nature as a healing, restorative, joyful environment. Reach Dane thought this was perfect because the kids need contact with nature, and we could incorporate so many nature-themed occupational therapy opportunities for sensory play and therapy purposes.”

Utilizing input from Reach Dane’s executive director Jen Bailey, operations services director Patty Lofquist, child and family programming director Luann Williams, and occupational therapist (OT) Gretchen Becker-Crabb, Sketchworks was able to gain insight on how the facility would operate; what children’s and teachers’ needs were; and, most importantly, how spaces could serve children for therapeutic purposes. Using this wish list from staff, Sketchworks also incorporated hot-desking areas for collaboration and storage areas for the roughly 30 staffers that work in the facility.

The finished product is an exuberant, restorative building that opened in August. According to Michelle, using a palette that reflects the “sunshine and joy” of grass green, pink, yellow, sky blue, and warm neutrals infuses the interiors with lightness and brightness. And because it’s a place of learning, unique, kid-friendly, and OT-approved design touches abound throughout Reach Dane, including:

• Vinyl wall graphics in the hallways that provide sensory experiences and guide kids to walk single file.
• A multipurpose room with turf hills, a tunnel, real trees, acoustical tree canopies, a rock climbing wall, and a garden with handmade vegetables recessed into golf holes.
• Magnetic walls concealed within painted classroom walls, serving as a way for kids to learn through touch.
• Lockers that match accent walls in each classroom for kids to easily identify which lockers are theirs.

While these design touches look good, they also serve the greater purpose of actually helping kids. Michelle points out that low-stimulus environments are ideal for calming children, while the overall nature theme and plethora of windows and natural light serve to uplift and have subtle healing properties.

“We created a design that not only uses natural elements and colors, but blurs the lines between indoor and outdoor spaces,” says Claire. “In order to maximize light to the occupied spaces, we moved all of the utilitarian spaces toward the center of the building. We also strategically added exterior windows to the existing building.”

For kids and families who are sometimes going through what Jen calls “sad, heart-wrenching moments,” Reach Dane’s new facility will continue their mission to provide this much-needed resource for families. And with so many wonderfully designed spaces, the facility will inspire smiles during those tough times.

“I can’t help but be most excited about the fact that we are helping underserved children in our community,” says Michelle. “[We got to] look at a variety of ways to help kids who have been through trauma or who don’t have a home. Incorporating things throughout the space that would feel joyful, exciting, fun, and positive makes me proud of the work we did.”

Sketchworks Architecture is a local architectural and interior design firm specializing in living, working, and entertaining environments. Our award-winning portfolio spans corporate, hospitality + retail, multifamily, government, and brewery + distillery projects.

Photographs by Chad Renly: C|R Prints & Photography LLC.

Sketchworks Architecture
7780 Elmwood Avenue
Suite #208
Middleton, WI 53562