Hay River’s only francophone day home for pre-school-aged children turned one on Saturday, celebrating with a party for regular participants and their families.
“Babies learn language from within their mother, until they are about two or three,” said Marla Mateus, the owner and operator of Garderie Francaise Petit Panda Day Home. “And I realized the earlier they start learning, the better.”
Mateus taught French, first in her hometown of Montreal, and then in Fort Smith for a number of years before moving to Hay River. She said she considers herself something of a pioneer for early French-language learning in the community, and has it as her goal to prepare kids to enter Ecole Boreale with a solid foundation in the language and an understanding of basic math and science.
“We’re prepping for veterinary school here,” she laughed. “I want them to learn that science and learning is fun, not a chore.”
As a result of having the day home in her own house in the 553 section of the community, Mateus has to cap her day home to eight children to conform to her business permit. While she began with children aged between two and five years old, she now wants to expand the ages to include infants, as well.
“It’s not just about having a broader range of possible clients, but also about getting kids learning the language as early as we can,” she explained.
Mateus said, with siblings coming in behind her current charges, her services are booked full until 2017. She does have plans, however, to eventually put in another door and have the day home be completely separate from her living space, which would allow her to change permits and take on more children.
“Just getting here, buying the house, doing all the landscaping work, and getting it ready to host children was a feat in itself,” said Mateus. “We bought this place with the plan to have it as a daycare centre.”
While the first clients were the children of teachers at Ecole Boreale, Mateus said other groups, particularly Metis, followed. Now she has fully anglophone families applying for spaces because they want their children exposed to different languages early on, but are not able to do it in their own homes.
“The Metis have seemed to really want to recoup some of that heritage,” she said. “But it’s obviously beneficial for kids from all backgrounds.”
Both francophone families and unilingual English parents mingled in the backyard of the day home on Sept. 28, where a strict prohibition on English was lifted in honour of the older attendees. Mateus said the immersion is normally complete to encourage the children to accept French as something that is part of their lives, as opposed to a lesson being taught.
“My son definitely has good comprehension in both French and English,” said parent Bernie Langille. “We figured the time to learn French is when they’re learning to speak, and it’s really working.”
Shawn Buckley, another father, said a second language has been a good thing for both him and his son Kijel, as the latter brings it home after a day spent in French.
“He just came home singing French songs the other day,” said Buckley. “It’s really catching on and that’s great. I work in tourism and we do get French-Canadian and European tourists who speak French. This is good for Kijel, good for me, good all around.”
— Sarah Ladik