The Children's Class

Unlike many of BuildaBridge service trips where we do direct service with children, this was a training mission. We prepare thoroughly.  During an initial team meeting on site, our team was asked to provide an art class for the children of Proyectos Esperanza while their parents attended the other three trainings. Though unprepared for this request, our team along with the staff of Proyectos Esperanza took the challenge and applied the principles of the BuildaBridge Classroom model (Safe Spaces model).

Sea Creature Mural, created by the children's class

The Context

Over the course of five nights, eight children, ranging in age from eight months to six years, attended the class, which included a variety of visual art, music, and dance activities. The teachers included art therapist Celeste Wade and Eastern University students Gina Valenziano and Callie Dean.

The children's class took place in the same house as the adult trainings. Depending on the day or event the four-story organizational headquarters of House of Hope is a multi-purpose center that functions as:
  • living quarters, 
  • meeting rooms, 
  • office space, 
  • classrooms, 
  • a guesthouse, and 
  • a community worship center. 

Two of the children our class lived in the house, and others were familiar enough with the place that they felt free to roam wherever they pleased. In addition, the children were not used to being separated from their parents, and knowing that their parents were next door only exacerbated their anxiety.

There were also a few additional challenges: none of the three facilitators spoke Spanish, only one had extensive experience working with young children, and our supplies were limited. It took careful planning and constant tweaking to transform the living room into a safe, productive classroom environment for the students.  Here is the progressive story.

Our first night of class took place in the basement. Being secluded from the rest of the house, the basement both contained the students and limited the number of interruptions. However, it was long and narrow with a long table in the middle, which made it seem more like an obstacle course than an ideal space for organized play. During our visual art project, the students worked diligently around the tables; however, when we transitioned into more active play, the children simply ran around the tables. One hour into the class, we had run through all the activities on our lesson plan...and we still had another hour to go.  One of the parents, who came to be with his crying child, helped by singing songs. Following each evening we would hold a debriefing that included the staff of the House of Hope and our BuildaBridge team.  On this night we decided to;

  • Find some Spanish Children's songs
  • Learn some basic Spanish commands
  • Move to a more conducive location in the house
  • Prepare more art-making experiences; and,
  • Discuss ways of dealing with difficult behaviors of crying infants and rambunctious children. Separating the age groups was not an option.
  • Maintain the ritual and designated safe space.

Making percussion instruments from recycled water bottles
With a better idea of the challenges and flow of the evening, we spent several hours devising activities and creating a schedule for the class (which included new activities every 10 minutes and alternated visual arts and music). We began noticing the phrases that we wanted to use most often, and we looked them up in Spanish ahead of time. We even were able to make a run to the store for some basic art supplies! In addition, we decided to move to the living room, which was more open and thus better suited for our music and dance experiences. The evening went smoothly, and the children stayed engaged throughout most of the class. However, the living room was right near the house's main entrance, so people (including the children's parents) were constantly coming and going, disrupting the flow of the classroom.  In our debriefing we concluded:

  • Add more structure in transitions in other parts of the house
  • Use more Spanish children's songs
  • Adhere to the ritual and created safe space
  • Include the parents and adult participants in an opening ceremony

Dancing together
We attempted to bring all four classes together in the kitchen for an opening ritual at the start of the evening. However, students arrived at different times, and we got started later than expected, and with only about half the group. In the interim time between arrival times and the opening ritual, the children were playing in the front yard unsupervised, and it was difficult to corral them for their class. Once we started class, though, things seemed to go smoothly. During our planning, we had paid careful attention to our transitions between activities. If we needed to move to a different space, we had the students get in a line and hold onto a banner we had created the nigh before. This strategy worked well until we moved the class to the backyard. The students did not stay in our designated "art area" and instead wanted to explore around the house. We eventually corralled them back inside, but the transition was rough and required each of the facilitators to pair up with the students, rather than moving as a big group.  Following this evening the House of Hope and BuildaBridge staff met again and concluded:

  • The entire house needed to be structured for teaching and children's activities.
  • The adults as well as the children needed some guidance in maintaining a safe place for the kids
  • Parents could assist in setting their children at ease
  • A school ritual (adults and children) should be established to provide order to the opening and closing.

Painting Rocks Outside
For the last two nights, we hit upon a solution that seemed to work well for all four classes. All of the students - children and adults - gathered outside in the driveway until the classes began. We shared an opening ritual together, which consisted of the Hydroponics Song and the BuildaBridge motto, before dismissing first the children and then the adults to their three separate classes. We moved furniture around and created signs to direct traffic so that parents and students could find their classes easily without accidentally stumbling into the other rooms. We created a contained space in the backyard so that we could complete outdoor activities without losing control of the class. Our hope is that House of Hope will be able to use this organizational layout as a template for the future as they continue offering a variety of classes, trainings, and activities simultaneously.

Opening Ritual
People enjoyed coffee and live music as they gathered before class.
To create our safe space, we blocked certain doorways with furniture.
By the last night, it was obvious that the children had become used to our routine. They crossed the threshold confidently, participated in the opening ritual, and remembered the words and dance moves to some of the Spanish children's songs. Even though the art projects were different each night, we kept a measure of repetition so that the process was familiar (i.e. each night we created some sort of collaborative art project, in which the children created or decorated elements of a scene and then decided where each would go). Even on Friday, some of the children still demonstrated separation anxiety when they had to leave their parents; however, others participated more readily than in previous nights. We closed with the rest of the classes for a Celebration, in which we set out a gallery of the children's work and led a dance for the adults, who had just received their certificates. The celebration, and the children's class in general, provided a tangible expression of the concepts that the adults had learned all week: creating safe spaces, using the arts for education and spiritual development, and facilitating healthy development through the arts.

Going fishing!
Friday night celebration

Best Practices and Lessons Learned
  • Create a threshold. We learned, as recommended by the BuildaBridge Classroom model, that it was extremely important to ensure that there is just one entrance and exit to the classroom. We blocked all of the other potential exits using furniture, locks, etc. This made our space safer and cut down on potential distractions.
  • Plan for traffic flow. When multiple events are going on simultaneously, it is important to think ahead of time about the logistics of your space. What happens if people enter late? How will they know where to go? If one group needs to travel during the middle of the event, how will they get there?
  • Use non-verbal cues as much as possible. Although this principle is important in all contexts, it is especially helpful in cross-cultural experiences. We were initially extremely worried about our lack of Spanish skills and focused on the ways in which we were unable to communicate. However, we were actually able to give a lot of directions simply by modeling the behaviors, dances, or steps that we wanted the children to do. We planned our instructions ahead of time and simplified them by using basic commands that we already knew.
  • Institute rituals and repetition to cultivate familiarity. Recommended by the BuildaBridge Classroom modelRituals help create emotionally safe, child-friendly spaces by providing structure, helping children feel like a part of the community, and helping children get ready to learn. One such ritual would be a good-bye song to use with young children as they leave their parents, which can make the otherwise traumatic situation feel more safe and predictable.
  • Vary art-making experiences and plan for more than you need.  Though we spent time the first day preparing for the unknown of a children's class in which we knew very little about the families, we learned quickly that we needed many activities.  Some days we spent four hours preparing games and art-making experiences, learning Spanish children's songs and creating movements.  Building consistency in the experiences, building on what worked, we were able to see the interests and participation of the children rise.  Importantly, the separation anxiety was reduced considerably and the parents could participate in the training classes as they had hoped.

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