Monday, 29 September 2008

Irish language Playschools Increase

Irish is child's play

Twenty years ago, the Irish language was not cool. If a student left secondary school with any more than a cupla focail, they were doing well. Unless they needed Irish for a career in politics, with the Gardaí, or perhaps teaching, many people did not see the point in learning a language that was used only sporadically.Fast forward to today and much has changed. Irish has slowly become trendy.

TG4 is popular with adults for shows like Ros Na Run and children for shows like Dora The Explorer. Comedian Des Bishop's In The Name Of The Fada documentary further helped to reinvent Irish. As a nation, we are interested in our language again and demand for it is on the up. Not only are gaelscoil-leanna becoming the popular choice for parents when picking schools for their children, naíonraí (Irish playschools) are also increasing in popularity.

Until recently, many people did not even know what a naíonra was - it is, in fact, a playgroup for pre-school children who come together daily, usually for between two and four hours, under the guidance and supervision of a naíonra leader. Its defining characteristic is that it is run solely through the medium of Irish.

The staff structure the environment to ensure that all facets of the child's holistic development is catered for, while also giving the child the opportunity to acquire Irish naturally through the medium of play, which is this particular age group's chief method of learning.

Cliona Frost, principal officer of Forbairt Naíonraí Teoranta, an organisation which supports the promotion of education and care services in Irish for children from birth, particularly through naíonraí, says the demand for Irish has been steadily on the rise since the organisation was founded in 1978. Back then, there were a total of 12 naíonraí nationwide, whereas today, there are 221. Cliona reckons one of the main reasons we are embracing Irish with gusto again and exposing our children to it at a young age is that we are aware of other nationalities living among us who have strong cultures and languages.

Joanne Uí Chuana recently opened the naíonra Cead Ceimeanna (First Steps) in Bettystown, Co Meath, as she felt that there was a general lack of Irish-language facilities available for pre-schoolers in her local area. 'I have been working closely with Forbairt Naíonraí Teoranta regarding the set-up of the naíonra. 'They gave me practical advice and a small grant to help me purchase books and CDs,' she says.

Joanne admits to being excited about the adventure ahead: 'My dream is that this house will not only be a much-loved naíonra for the children who come here but that it will also become a little haven for all things Irish.'The benefits for children attending a naíonra include language acquisition, excellent reasoning skills and cultural awareness. 'The children will learn about Irish music and dancing and we will celebrate Irish festivals, such as St Brigid's Day and St Patrick's Day,' Joanne says.

Although she will speak Irish exclusively to the children she says they will mostly be learning through play and, at their age, will pick it up easily. 'I will use body language to help explain what I am saying but if a child becomes upset and I need to communicate with them in English then of course I will,' she adds.

The children will be learning Irish every day so some parents may lag behind, but Joanne has a plan for them. 'We will help parents who are a bit rusty by offering lessons. Soon we will introduce other Irish activities too, such as speech and drama and after-school Irish classes.' For the time being, though, Joanne is content to start with a morning and afternoon class daily, each with six pre-schoolers. Although she expects this to increase soon, as there is currently a very long waiting list. 'I aim to have two morning and two afternoon classes soon. I was shocked but delighted at the high level of interest."Joanne is also looking forward to diversity, with children of various nationalities attending.

'At a naíonra where I worked previously, we had a young Iraqi boy. 'He had only been in Ireland a short time and was learning English and then he came to us to learn Irish too. 'His parents played Irish CDs in the car for him and within a few months he was able to sing whole songs in Irish. 'If he can do it, anyone can - even the parents!'

While new naíonraí are popping up all over Ireland, many have been established a long time, such as Croí na Coille (Heart of the Wood), in Shankill, Co Dublin, which has been run by Cris Uí Bhriain for the past 15 years.

Cris had been involved with various playschools and had been secretary of the IPPA, the early childhood organisation, before her love of the Irish language gave her the idea to set up a naíonra. 'I loved Irish and had become fluent and I wanted to do something with it. I felt that the Irish language was often restricted to the middle class and I wanted to make it available to everyone, so I set up a community naíonra."

'Since setting up, Cris has incorporated other services too. 'At Croí na Coille we are different to many other naíonraí because we run full-day care, whereas other naíonraí usually offer a morning or afternoon class. 'We also run Irish after-school clubs. These are open to all children who are interested in Irish - we do not restrict it to only children who attend gaelscoilleanna.

'I believe our own language of Irish is in our hearts and it is great when children can acquire it. So whether a child is fluent or only learning, we welcome them all,' she added. Irish Independent -

Lthch: Siobhan O'Neill-White

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