An unlikely friendship between young learners from two Manitoba pre-schools 450 kilometres apart is being welcomed as a small act of reconciliation.
Despite the distance between the two centres and their children’s developing literacy skills, Winnipeg’s Oak Street Nursery School and Headstart Misipawistik Cree Nation in Grand Rapids have found a way to keep in touch.
Early childhood educators started a pen pal program this year to swap stories and pictures to expose their students to new friends and life in a community much different than their own.
"We hope you’re having a good time at your school. We love you," states a handwritten letter recently penned by "your new friends" — under which there are a number of both legible and illegible signatures from Oak Street children.
Earlier this week, the centre’s director jotted down thoughts from Rielle, Kohen and Olivia, amongst other children, and folded their letter into an envelope. The nursery school crew then took a trip to a neighbourhood mailbox.
The activity was a follow-up to thank their northern peers for visiting them when they were in Winnipeg for a field trip last month.
The authors fondly recalled their in-person meeting and a moment when a Misipawistik boy complimented a Winnipeg student on his shirt. They also expressed gratitude to their peers for participating in a drumming circle with them, teaching them how to count in Cree, and gifting them hand-picked stones and driftwood.
"Building bridges between communities is just such a great way to create understanding, to create tolerance and to create acceptance of the differences between communities and cultures," said Karlin Mann, who oversees the nursery school in River Heights.
Mann and Leanne Lavallee, co-ordinator at the northern Headstart program, met through ToyBox — a project created by a University of Winnipeg professor who works with teachers to publish free literacy, numeracy and wellness activities to boost young students’ knowledge and confidence.
Both managers have been working with ToyBox on developing strategies, each of which includes a range of levels so caregivers can use them as instructional tools for children aged two to eight. They have each piloted the program’s activities, all of which are based on research, in their own way in their classrooms.
Sheri-Lynn Skwarchuk, director of developmental studies in U of W’s education faculty, indicated her program aims to fill a gap in early learning resources because there is no formal pre-school curriculum. Skwarchuk said one of her priorities has been to ensure Indigenous educators and parents are part of the brainstorming process so ToyBox strategies are culturally appropriate, relevant and inclusive for all students in Manitoba.
When the children from Oak Street and Misipawistik met in person, each group showed the other how they practise their alphabet strategy. Early childhood educator Michelle McNabb incorporated a drum into the latter version — much to the excitement of all students involved.
"It was so heartwarming. This is what early years programs should be about: caring for one another, regardless of who you are and where you come from," Lavallee said, noting there was plenty of play time for the children.
The Headstart co-ordinator said all employees have been learning from their colleagues’ unique lessons.
Oak Street’s "discovery tables" mesmerized her students, so Lavallee said she plans to create similar play stations equipped with themed toys (Mann’s centre has an ocean table with blue decorations, sea shells and sea creature figurines).
The partnership has prompted the educator to realize her program takes nature for granted, she said.
Winnipeg students were in awe of the nature presents their peers sourced from the bush, including driftwood, birch bark and rocks hand-painted in the four colours of the medicine wheel: black, red, yellow and white.
Mann said she teaches her students, who are between the ages of three and five, about the residential school system and the history of Indigenous peoples in the province with age-appropriate lessons. However, she said early childhood educators have much work to do when it comes to introducing children to First Nations, Métis and Inuit cultures and connections to Mother Earth.
"I missed out on teachings," said the director, who indicated she learned little about her Métis identity as a child. Mann said she hopes the students she is taking care of right now will feel much differently when they grow up.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.