Immersed in Spanish

Spanish is the second-most-spoken language in the United States, and educators are taking note.

Studies have shown that learning a second language is easier for children ages 5 and younger, and Spanish-immersion primary schools — as well as preschools — have been sprouting up all over the country, including in Minnesota.

But what about grade-school kids who want an immersion experience just for the summer?

Meet Casa de Corazón.

This Spanish-immersion preschool offers early childhood education all year long at its locations in Minneapolis, Edina and Maple Grove, catering to infants, toddlers and preschoolers.

But it also offers summer programming — exclusively at its Maple Grove location — for about 30 school-age kids (in grades 1–6 grade), who learn about different cultures, nutrition, health and environmental stewardship, all while learning Spanish.

Filling a need

Natalie Standridge, a mother of two, founded Casa de Corazón in 2002 to provide Twin Cities families the opportunity for their children to learn Spanish as well as valuable lessons in cultural competency and health.

“It was basically to create what I was looking for as a fi rst-time mom, wanting to raise my own kids bilingual and in a healthy way,” Standridge said.

Campers usually come to camp with varying levels of Spanish and Latin culture knowledge, including kids with no experience to children who have been in immersion programs since birth.

Casa de Corazón’s summer camp curriculum is adapted from the school’s early childhood immersion curriculum to fit elementary-aged children and combined with the AMAZE curriculum, which encourages discussion about diversity and acceptance across races, genders, sexual orientations and more.

Camp instructors, who are required to be fluent in Spanish, often come from existing Casa de Corazón faculty (including many from various countries in Latin America) as well as other bilingual educators from around the metro area.

For example, Amparo Sabogal, who is native to Colombia and teaches at Casa de Corazón throughout the school year, co-led a 2017 camp with Stacey Kinsella, a middle-school teacher from Robbinsdale.

¡En Español por favor!

To create a true immersion experience, all staff members speak only Spanish and encourage the campers to speak only Spanish as well.

The expansive classroom that hosts the grade-school campers each summer is splattered with Spanish-language posters that highlight key vocabulary terms for campers to review, such as weather and days of the week.

Children can also find lyrics for popular Spanish nursery rhymes, such as La Lechuza (The Owl) and ¿Estrellita Dónde Estás? (Little Star, Where Are You?), which the campers sing every day, Kinsella said.

“I really like music because it is a great way to incorporate language learning,” Kinsella said. “We practice them each week.”

Campers also learn about different Latin countries with Country of the Month activities.

Guest speakers, who were native of Peru, came to a Casa de Corazón camp in 2017 to teach the campers about Peru and its independence day on July 28.

Students celebrated by creating framed photos of the country.

“We’re making a picture of Peru!” an 8-year-old camper named Fritz proclaimed excitedly.

Fritz, who had been picking up his Spanish-speaking skills rather quickly, often helped guide other campers.

“Even the ones who don’t understand most of Spanish are going to be following what the other ones are doing,” said Casa de Corazón’s 2017 camp director Alex Letran. “And the ones who do understand help the other ones.”

Healthy habits

Casa de Corazón strives not only to improve campers’ proficiency in Spanish, but also their understanding of what it means to live a healthy life.

Each nutritionally balanced breakfast, lunch and snack served is made fresh daily using organic or locally sourced foods including modifications for campers with dietary restrictions.

Letran said the meals that come together in the modest, yet fully stocked kitchen reflect the wide array of cultures at the camp.

“Over here is where the magic happens with the food. You can smell it,” Letran said with a smile. “The cuisine that we have is going to be varied. Today, we have picadillo, which is Mexican, and we have spaghetti and other things. Everything is going to include vegetables and protein.”

Campers visit the Maple Grove farmer’s market every week to purchase fresh produce to take home or bring back to the center to be used in meals as part of the Power of Produce, a local program that gives tokens to kids to buy produce and learn about healthy eating from local farmers.

One of the daily activities for campers is tending to the garden outside the building by planting and watering seedlings bought at the farmer’s market.

“It’s pretty cool that they can sign up for that program and go out and pick whatever they want,” Letran said. “It was really cool to see the kids there, especially the first day when they get their shopping bags. They feel pretty proud when they come back with their fresh produce to share with their mom and dad at the end of the day.”

A focus on healthy diet goes hand in hand with Casa de Corazón’s commitment to providing ample exercise and sports time for the campers.

When not playing on one of the three outdoor playgrounds (separated by fences for individualized playtime between the different age groups) or in the indoor gym on rainy days, campers take field trips to local fields and parks for different athletic activities.

“Basically every day of the week is going to be a field trip or an activity,” Letran said. “Two times a week, the kids will go up to a field near our school and they will participate in structured physical activities.”

Campers also learn soccer skills, sportsmanship and fitness from local professional soccer coaches while enjoying playtime outside at local parks.

An 11-year-old camper named Sheyla said she liked the chance to go on many field trips each week and loved the brand new play structures at Central Park on Maple Grove.

The park was her favorite place — only “for now, because in August, we’re going to the Maple Maze and that’s going to be my favorite.”

Cultural competence

Having fun is an important prerequisite for any summer camp, of course. But Standridge said students walk away from Casa de Corazón camps with important skills as well.

“I love to see them all having fun and going on all those field trips. But for me the most awesome part is always hearing them speak Spanish,” she said. “I think it’s just amazing to see these kids come back and remember their Spanish, use it with these teachers and use it with each other.”

Using the Spanish language as a stepping-stone, Kinsella said students come together in the camps and learn more about each other and themselves.

“We also work on social and emotional health,” Kinsella said. “We do a lot of community building and games together to build our own community within the classroom.”

By combining Spanish immersion, health education and sustainable living lessons, Standridge said she hopes the camp can help the next generation become more culturally competent and aware of their environment.

“I would hope that they would gain a healthy attitude towards life in general,” Standridge said. “Our program is all encompassing of health and environmentalism, friendship, understanding other cultures and interacting with people from other cultures. All of that understanding — I would hope — would help them become more well-rounded human beings.”

Olivia Volkman-Johnson is a local freelance writer and a recent graduate of Winona State University.