Play-based learning and nutritious meals in a Guatemalan preschool

Magdelena photo by Landon DeHeer

By Lizzie Brown

Sun contributor

Lizzie Brown, a 2021 Glen Lake School graduate and 2023 Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) graduate who is currently enrolled at University of Michigan-Flint, reflects on her recent trip to Guatemala, and what she learned at a model preschool run by a nonprofit with northern Michigan support.

As our van approaches the preschool in San Lucas, a town of 20,000 between Antigua and Guatemala City, my eyes assess the sheet metal walls that protect the nearly 50 people waiting for our arrival. I am accompanied by eight other students and two faculty chaperones who joined an NMC study abroad trip in May to broaden our knowledge about Guatemala and the culture within the country.

We partnered with Planting Seeds’ International (PSI) to get an in-depth immersion into the communities that the nonprofit serves. For more than 20 years, PSI has worked to improve access to quality education to develop healthy children, families, and communities across Guatemala. The organization enjoys a base of local support among Michiganders who have traveled to the Central American nation.

Walking through the inconspicuous door, my attention drifts from the green painted building to the rainbow and sun painted on the opposite red wall. San Lucas is home to PSI’s model preschool. Class sizes range from 20 to 25 kids per teacher. PSI works with the community members to hire teachers that are local to ease the introduction of a new learning style.

Within the classrooms are different centers, each with a purpose. One center focuses on broadening the kids’ vocabulary and consists of a themed play area that could be the beach, and in two weeks, it becomes a beach scene. The intent behind this group is to teach the kids new words, as well as new environments, that they likely have not experienced in their day-to-day lives. (Most have not been to the beach, though Guatemala borders both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.)

Another center located in the back of the room allows students to practice pre-writing skills and fine motor skills with their fingers. Then there is the painting center in the far-left corner of the room. And the final center is in the right corner designated to building and constructing different structures. Only a limited number of students can participate at each center; if a child wants to switch, they must ask permission to move their gancho, or clothespin, to the designated activity. The design is intentional because it teaches the kids about different social and emotional skills.

Many of the PSI directors that we spoke with said they want to build the kids’ social and emotional skills to break down the machismo that is prevalent in Guatemalan culture. After spending their preschool time learning those skills, the children are able to regulate their feelings and become well-rounded individuals in order to be kind in all kinds of situations.

One of the moms at the San Lucas preschool is named Magdelena. Two of her three children have attended this school. Magdelena’s 16-year-old son did not attend San Lucas because the school was not open when he was preschool age. He instead attended a different preschool in San Lucas that had a class of 30-40 students. His classwork was more focused on repetition, and recess was the only time to play. Even with the more rigid school system, he found joy and excitement in going to school and reading.

Magdelena learned about Planting Seeds because she lives close by and saw kids going to the preschool. She reached out to Planting Seeds to have her daughter, Juana, attend the school. After success with one child in the program she has enrolled her youngest daughter, Katy, at the age of four.

One of the Planting Seeds programs that Magdelena has taken advantage of is the Read with Your Child program. This program was created to help parents learn to read with their kids by using the pictures in the books. Magdelena’s family had been reading with their kids, but now Juana helps Katy read stories at night. In addition to the reading program that PSI offers, Magdelena appreciates the smaller class sizes in the preschool. Her two daughters have much smaller class sizes than her son did, which allows for more one-on-one time with the teachers. One of Magdelena’s biggest struggles was getting Katy to attend school. Katy was resistant to coming until she saw that most of the school day included play-based learning. After seeing this, she was less hesitant to join the small preschool.

Very few have been able to crack the code on how to entice young kids to want to eat vegetables. This is one of the biggest hurdles that Magdelena has with her kids, which is why she opted to take the nutrition class that PSI offers to parents in the school. Through this class she learned how to make nutritious home-cooked meals. Despite her efforts to cook healthy meals at home her kids would just not eat the food. This is not just an issue with her kids; most kids, even in the United States, are picky eaters. Magdelena recounted that Katy just wants to eat cereal and not veggies. But who at her age doesn’t?

Although Planting Seeds’ nutrition class might not have been as successful as it could have been for Magdelena, the school itself has changed her kids’ behavior. Juana and Katy now read a story, sing a song, or read a poem to Magdelena before going to bed. Juana helps Katy read different books, and they both enjoy practicing their counting skills. Magdelena gave the example that when they set the table, they count how many plates they need, how many forks, knives, and spoons they will need as well. The family works together to enforce the learning from Planting Seeds’ in their everyday life.

For those in the Leland Public School community, dean of students Matt Peschel is planning a study abroad trip for Spring 2024 to work with Planting Seeds International in Guatemala. Contact him at To learn more about Planting Seeds’ work in Guatemala, visit