Five-year-old Aailyah Cormier chattered excitedly as she walked along a hiking trail that led to a campsite where other young students were waiting.
“What’s this letter?” her teacher asked as she pointed to a letter taped along the trail.
“E!” Aailyah and some of the other campers shouted, which prompted the next question of what sound does the letter make.
Aailyah and the other campers shouted out a chorus of the vowel sounds associated with the letter.
The campers walked single file on the sidewalk-turned-hiking trail at Truman Early Childhood Education Center in the direction of the school’s multipurpose room that’s been transformed into a campsite.
Inside the “Big Woods,” students can fish for numbers and words, read inside tents, and match capital and lowercase letters on a clothesline.
Other activities involve games that help the students identify letters and words they’ll need to know when they start kindergarten.
Aailyah is one of 70 students who is part of Camp Pre-Kinders, a summer program to help the parish’s youngest students become more prepared for their kindergarten classes that start in the fall.
It’s important for young students to recognize all 26 letters and the sounds those letters make by the time they reach kindergarten, said June Inhern, an early childhood resource coordinator who works with preschool teachers in the school system.
It’s the second year the Lafayette Parish School System has offered the program as a way to help preschoolers who had difficulty with identifying letters and the sounds they make and other skills that help build the foundation for reading.
The camp focuses on literacy and building those skills with fun, camp-themed activities, said Alysia Messa, the summer program’s principal and Truman’s assistant principal.
“The purpose is to take some of our students that are lower-achieving students and enrich their skills to help prepare them for kindergarten,” Messa said.
Teachers identify students who would benefit from the program based on assessments of the preschoolers’ skills at the end of the year. The school reaches out to those students’ parents with information about the half-day summer program, Messa said.
During the final week of the camp, the students learned more about the animals they would see if they were to go hiking or camping — muskrats, boars, rattlesnakes, copperheads, beavers and deer. Outdoorsman and retired educator Harold Woods shared with the students a collection of animal skins and pelts and information about the animals’ diets and habitat.
“This is called a masked bandit,” Woods said as he held up a raccoon pelt. “If you go camping and you don’t secure all your food, a raccoon will open your ice chest and steal your food. They’re very smart.”
Later, Woods held up the pelt of an opossum and asked the children what they thought the animal ate.
“Crawfish,” one of the young students shouted.
“Anything that doesn’t eat him — he’ll eat it,” Woods told the students.
Following his presentation, the students had the opportunity to touch the pelts and animal skins.
The activity centers inside the “Big Woods” are designed to help students have fun as they learn during the three-week camp that ended Friday.
“We did a lot of repetition with them — having them write their letters, make the sounds of the letters and write their names,” teacher Mary Landry said. “We blended the learning into all our fun activities, for example, when we played with Play-Doh and they’d stamp the letter we were learning into the Play-Doh.”
Landry also used graham crackers smeared with marshmallow cream as a tiny chalkboard. Students used pretzel sticks to write letters.
Small class sizes — about 10 students to three teachers — also ensured students received extra attention, Landry said.
“They’re having fun learning,” Landry said. “This also helps build their confidence. These students may not know all 26 letters, but they’ve made progress. I had one little boy I tested who got five letters. He said, ‘I’m smart!’ They have success and they feel good about it.”
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.