The Power of Amor: The Gift of Language at Mi Casita Preschool
The mission of Mi Casita: to develop a generation of multicultural students who are curious, passionate, confident lifelong learners.
“You can never understand one language until you understand at least two.”
-Geoffrey Willans, author and journalist
Did you know that, through focus on the element of language, we can multiply the world’s opportunities for our children from infancy? Did you know that it is possible, through bilingualism, to instill a finely developed, multi-layered worldview in a toddler? Welcome to the Spanish-immersion experience of Melissa Peter’s Mi Casita Preschool, where a child’s perspective and cognitive growth can be expanded in every direction, even before she can walk.
In the first twelve months of life, children change and develop more than they ever will again in a single year. Birth to age five represents a period of brain growth that won’t be repeated in a lifetime. And because bilingualism has widespread effects on function and structure in the brain, these years provide the best opportunity to create the neural pathways that can determine how a child thinks, feels, and performs for the rest of her life. A child’s first word, and all those to follow, is key to her ability to express need, opinion, and emotion. With more words, with varied spelling, phraseology, and construction, for a developing brain, two tongues are far better than one.
With this in mind, understanding the need for enrichment of the early education experience, Melissa Peter left her post as a teacher in the Philadelphia school system for a true labor of love: opening her first Mi Casita Preschool in Philadelphia’s Art Museum district in 2015.
For Melissa, growing her own family after welcoming her second child this past year, Mi Casita’s growth has been a welcome parallel. The addition of full-day kindergarten this coming fall will be a fulfillment of her goals when she set her sights on the space in 2019. Children who began as babies can begin the next step of their education in a familiar and loving space for one more year, and retain the small class size and warmth that guided them through their early days.
“In Philadelphia, language starts in high school,” says Melissa, a polyglot with a deep love of language. “With no previous exposure, I saw that kids were frustrated in language classes. There’s a need for a bilingual city. I wanted to make sure that kids had access to language.”
Knowing there was a richer way to educate outside the system, with multicultural exposure and a diverse student body, Melissa launched her school, ensuring a safe, nurturing space for children, as well as for staff.
“I wanted to create a positive environment for teachers,” Melissa states. “A place where they can feel secure. I focus on staff development and empowering teachers in their chosen field.”
With a strong, educated, and experienced staff in place, and ever-growing community roots, Mi Casita Philadelphia soon sprouted a sister school in Melissa’s hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. In November 2020, the Main Line became the newest member of Mi Casita’s familia, with an eight-classroom location on Cricket Avenue in the heart of Ardmore that educates children from infancy through kindergarten.
Harry comes home every day talking about his newest school adventure of making hot chocolate, playing soccer, [and] going on walks. He’s loving the garden and wants us to buy him a farm hat for working on the farm. He’s always telling [us] the Spanish word for things at home…like when I say ‘popcorn’… ‘no, no at school we call this palomitas.’
At Mi Casita, a preschool that also functions as a daycare, Spanish is learned via total immersion, with native Spanish speakers from around the world, through a project-based approach. Classes study subjects such as art, the ocean, and space travel. They recently began developing a nature-based playground to facilitate a gardening and ecology curriculum, as well. No worksheets are used in teaching, encouraging each student’s unique experience and authenticity of expression. Thus, teachers are able to assess what a child is learning without restriction or a need to ‘color inside the lines.’
Graduates of Mi Casita have the potential to emerge from the program with full fluency in Spanish. For a child from a family of English-speakers (or another original language), how does it work?
“They’re navigating language for the first time. Developing love and trust is the first step,” says Melissa. “Developing that connection with the child, with play throughout the day and a routine like circle time, that helps develop their confidence. It’s that repetition and consistency over time. It’s fascinating to watch them organize sound patterns, how they’ll naturally start to speak Spanish to Spanish speakers. Without even knowing it, they’re taking statistics of sound patterns and catching on to that.”
Families of Mi Casita students can support their immersion experience by promoting bilingualism at home and out in the world through use of flash cards, Spanish language television programming, Spanish youtube storytimes, and most importantly, building community by spending time with Spanish speakers, including those in the Mi Casita familia.
Now enrolling! Inquire by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Photographs courtesy of Mi Casita. Mi Casita supports the Main Line Parent Community.