Classroom

Friends create a dynamic connection between Hort Woods and Swaziland, Africa

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A child's early years lay the foundation for a developmental and experiential journey that remains with them through adulthood. One of the guiding principles of human development is that the first five years of life are critical to brain development and healthy neurological growth. Children are naturally curious as they notice similarities and differences among people and things within their environments and cultures.

Early childhood educators play a vital role in helping young children learn how to think about these similarities and differences and help guide them to better understand their world. This process of guiding children through experiences is exactly what educators at Penn State's Child Care Center at Hort Woods are facilitating. Teachers play an active role in assisting connectedness among the children in their direct care through relationship-building. These relationships foster children's cognitive development and assist them in learning skills such as empathy, respect and self-awareness.

To encourage such development, faculty and staff at Hort Woods are embracing a special friendship between one of their teachers and her former classmate that is bridging an 8,000-mile gap between central Pennsylvania and Swaziland, Africa.

For the past two years, Andrea Gardner, an infant/toddler teacher in Hort Woods' Nest of Wonder classroom, has been collaborating with close friend and fellow Bellwood-Antis High School classmate Rachel Albright, a youth development volunteer living and working in a school in the tiny kingdom of Swaziland in southern Africa.

Since 2014, Gardner, a Penn State graduate who interned at Hort Woods before being hired full time, has been exchanging teaching experiences, ideas, artwork and children's stories with Albright, who assists and provides resources to children from preschool to high school as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer working to provide food and water to the village of Msengeni.

"I feel extremely lucky to have made such a direct connection," Gardner said. "This is a great opportunity for me to gain a more global perspective on early education in order to support my teaching and exposure to other cultures and traditions for the children I teach."

"There are no words to describe the gratitude that the community of Msengeni and I have toward Hort Woods, Andrea, and all others who have facilitated this culture exchange for us," Albright said. "As an American living abroad, and having seen or heard about destruction and violence occurring in many other corners of the world, I feel it is crucial that I share my experience and promote an understanding between the American and Swazi cultures."

This understanding and sharing of knowledge between the two schools provides an opportunity to extended learning for the children at Hort Woods. Teachers and children are discussing what life might be like in southern Africa. Gardner and Albright have shared pictures and letters from each other's schools with their students, which has led to additional discussions about the similarities and differences between individuals, cultures and environments.

Situated between South Africa and Mozambique, Swaziland's relatively young population -- the median age is 20.7, and 37 percent of the population is under 14 -- faces serious health issues, including high rates of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, which contribute to an average life expectancy of just 50.

When Albright first arrived, there were no preschools or places to support children learning in a safe and developmentally appropriate environment. So through hard work and determination Albright and a counterpart were able to open Little Angels Preschool, which currently has an enrollment of 18 children. Their curriculum focuses heavily on creativity, art, reading and dual-language learning.

Along with assisting at the school, Albright also instructs the children -- all categorized as orphaned and vulnerable children -- and helps them learn relevant life skills, like illness prevention.

While the focus for children at Hort Woods is less about life skills, the whole exercise is about a much bigger goal of exploring both similarities and differences with children from across oceans and continents.

Christine Ebeling, the director at Hort Woods, said one of the center's goals is to develop a shared and inclusive understanding of diversity as it relates to its faculty's work with children, families and colleagues.

"To further that goal, we want to develop and cultivate new skills that will support consistent, culturally competent interactions and teaching practices," Ebeling said.

Hort Woods' efforts align with the University's broader commitment to diversity and inclusion as part of the "All In" initiative. The classrooms at Hort Woods have a diverse makeup of students. The center's emergent curriculum philosophy also builds on the interests, languages and diversity of each member of the classroom community, helping to create broader understanding of cultural similarities and differences, as well as positive regard toward other cultures.

The collaboration between Hort Woods and the Little Angels Preschool is proving that similarities can bridge the gap -- young minds open and eager to learn more about how children like themselves live and learn in cultures different than their own, and individuals like Gardner and Albright who are dedicated to finding a way to share those experiences.

"We are so appreciative of Rachel for this opportunity, and so proud of the work Andrea is doing to include and engage our children in this cultural experience," Ebeling said.

As unique and valuable as the long-distance collaboration has been between the two friends and their students thus far, events during the next few months promise to raise the partnership to next-level status.

In December, Albright paid a visit to Hort Woods, bringing first-person experience from an African preschool to children on the University Park campus. Along with a slideshow for the children, Albright brought items from Swaziland to share with Hort Woods students.

"I simply loved my visit to (Hort Woods) and sharing with your students the people and the culture that I have grown to love so much," Albright said. "The students of Little Angels love learning about American life, and they are more than eager to share their lives with the children from Hort Woods."

Garner has plans of her own to visit Swaziland and the children at Little Angels this spring.

"I am very excited to meet the children of the Little Angels preschool and their teacher, Thisela Tengetile," Gardner said. "When I visit Swaziland in May, I will be bringing some of our culture to them. I would like to share some of our classroom songs, dances and work with art."