As volunteer pre-kindergarten students filtered into the classroom at the Destin School of the Arts, they greeted Director Keri Klaus with their newly-learned South African word.
“Ubuntu!” they said excitedly as they gave Klaus high-fives and took their seats on a rug in front of a South African flag.
“I am because,” Klaus said to start the phrase before the children chimed in to finish it with “we are,” which is the English translation of ubuntu.
This Nguni Bantu term is just one of the many things VPK and K5 students from Jacob’s Ladder Preschool are learning in the new Arts-World Project at the Destin School of the Arts.
After a chance meeting with a South African vineyard owner who also runs a preschool, Jacob’s Ladder Preschool Director Tammie Bowyer contacted Klaus and let her develop a cultural exchange program.
“Red is red everywhere … music is music everywhere, so if I can create a way to link them by the things they have in common, then they can celebrate the things that are different,” Klaus said. “Kids are so programmed to learn at this age already, why not start teaching them about other cultures?”
From September to April, students from Jacob’s Ladder in Destin and Hemel-en-Aarde Preschool in Hermanus, South Africa, are learning about each other's customs and cultures through art, music and painting.
“This is our version of pen pals,” Bowyer said. “We learn their culture and they learn ours.”
Originally, Bowyer hoped the classes would be able to Skype with each other, but the time difference made it too difficult. Instead, they send videos and learn dances to songs like “Baby Shark” together.
During Tuesday’s class, students created a painting using their fingerprints to form the shape of a heart with the colors of the American and South African flags. In the center of the heart, students each placed two connected puzzle pieces, each one also painted the same colors as the two countries' flags. The end result was a mix of different fingerprints and colors that represented how we are all connected, but still different.
“I think if we can get these kids to think globally from a young age, then we’ll be enforcing that mindset their whole life,” Klaus said.
“I feel like that program is one of the things that sets Jacob’s Ladder VPK apart from other VPK programs in the area,” Bowyer added. “At this age, if you’re teaching them through play, then they’re gonna love to learn their whole life and that’s the goal.”