As a crowd of excited preschoolers gathered around him, Keith Richards taught them the Spanish names of a menagerie of plastic animals Wednesday.
Richards, senior history and Spanish double major, is just one of 12 students currently involved in the Spanish 4 Children’s Wellness program. The program teaches Spanish to preschoolers and pre-kindergartners at UCF’s Creative School for Children for one hour each week.
The volunteering experience has not only brought Richards his own journey of Spanish learning at UCF full circle, but he also said it has taught him valuable lessons on how to interact with young children beyond his cousins’ kids.
“You have to kind of learn how to discipline, how to keep their attention, everything,” Richards said. “I think I as an individual, it’s made me more attentive and able to kind of be patient with children, which is something that I definitely would say I didn’t necessarily have down yet prior to doing this.”
The Spanish 4 Children’s Wellness program was made possible through a $3,500 Quality Enhancement Plan grant awarded in the fall of 2018. The money went toward acquiring educational toys and teaching aids such as blocks and magnetic tiles.
The goal of the program is for the children to learn Spanish through immersive play and thus associate it with fun.
The desire to create a positive environment for children to engage with a foreign language is one reason why professor Esmeralda Duarte, along with professor Maria Redmon, professor Dina Fabery, professor Maria Monica Montalvo and professor Alice Korosy of the department of modern languages and literatures, first proposed the program.
“It is important because it helps them be more tolerant, more open and it’s kind of like a door to explore other cultures. When they learn a language, you know, they can talk to more people,” Duarte said.
After the great success of the pilot program that began in the spring and summer semesters, The Creative School for Children decided to expand the partnership this fall semester to include three classes ranging from preschool to Voluntary Pre-kindergarten.
“When the professor brought it to us, that was just a great thing because we knew our families were already interested and the parents are just enjoying having their children have the exposure and opportunity to get formal training,” Associate Director of the Creative School for Children Kimberly Nassoiy said.
According to a 2018 study published in the international cognitive science journal “Cognition”, an individual’s ability to learn grammar begins to decline after the age of 17.4 years. The study also demonstrated the need for exposure to second languages before the cut-off is reached in order to acquire "native proficiency" in them.
Children’s exposure to Spanish at the Creative School for Children is further reinforced by teachers such as Julymar Rodriguez who began incorporating small amounts of Spanish into her classroom before the partnership with Spanish 4 Children’s Wellness began.
Since her students began receiving additional Spanish exposure from the student volunteers, she has noticed a change in their response.
“I’ve noticed there’s definitely been an excitement level there, especially for the kids that might not be here later in the afternoon that I practice some Spanish with," Rodriguez said. "Now it’s like the whole class gets really interested and they seem to notice the difference now when I say something in Spanish. They’ll look at me like, ‘That’s Spanish!’."
That same excitement for Spanish is shared by senior Spanish major Molly Mae Bailey.
After first listening to Spanish music in depth at age 17, she fell hard for the language and made it her life goal to be able to communicate with others in it. Now, she uses her Spanish skills to break down barriers of many kinds among the children she teaches.
“I had one little girl, I was trying to teach them the word for bear. I lifted up the plastic animal for the bear and I was like ‘Okay class, can everyone say oso?’ and she looked at me. She was like ‘I can teach you how to say it in Mandarin,’” Bailey said. “She was excited to teach me and of course I gave her the opportunity.”
The partnership between the Spanish 4 Children’s Wellness program and the Creative School for Children will continue onto next spring with the goal of securing more funding next semester by applying for a second QEP grant.
Further down the road, the program hopes to expand its language offerings beyond Spanish to include languages such as Portuguese, Japanese and French.
Richards shared Bailey’s awe of the children they teach.
He said, “Having the opportunity to kind of like see these kids in a very pivotal moment in their development is really cool and really exciting and I enjoy it a lot."