Several times a week, the entrance at the New York Seamen’s Church crowds up with strollers, baby carriages, toys and other children’s paraphernalia.
Laughter, crying and hollering temporarily interrupt the peace and stillness that is usually enjoyed there as mothers jostle for space for their coffee cups and diaper bags. The children’s groups at the Swedish Church are enormously popular, so popular in fact, that it’s hard to get your tot in at all: The waiting time for a spot can be as long as a year. So, what do they do — these youngsters — at this place? Well, depending on their age level, and there are currently nine groups with kids from age 6 months to 9 years, they sing songs, play, read stories and listen to Bible stories.
“And they all enjoy a fika break with kanelbulle and juice,” adds Anitha Pihlblad, Parish Assistant, who with Elisabet Ostrand lead the groups. “These groups are important for the mothers as well as the children. The mothers (more mothers than fathers bring their children to these groups), who are usually the Swedish person in the family, are far away from their own family, and for them to meet other Swedish moms is necessary, they create networks. One can discuss anything, from problems with children to problems with the in-laws. Because when you marry a person from another country, these things aren’t getting any easier and it’s important to have somebody to talk to. As for the children, it’s an opportunity to hear Swedish spoken by other people.”
The songs Anitha and Elisabet sing with the children are a mix of newer ones, as well as the classics like “Björnen sover” and “En sockerbagare.”
“These are the songs our mothers and our grandmothers sang to us,” Pihlblad continues. “They are deeply imbedded in us, it’s important for us to carry on such a heritage to our children, especially when we are far away from Sweden. I often think of mothers in particular as carriers of tradition in a family. It’s usually the mothers who make sure that Lucia and Christmas are prepared and celebrated.”
Pihlblad also says that language development begins with the ear, with what we hear. Thus, the children’s groups at the Swedish Church boost these children’s abilities to speak and understand Swedish.
Says Carmen, mother of 2-year-old Ebba:
“I take her here mainly to meet other children and to let her hear Swedish spoken by others than just myself. Ebba was born in the U.S., but I am trying to make her Swedish by carrying on important traditions like Lucia, and by giving her Swedish books and movies.”
Louise is the mother of Ville, a blond boy of 2-1/2 years. She too feels it’s important for her child to hear that there are others, outside the family, who speak Swedish.
“And here he gets to meet other children, which he loves,” Louise says. “We go to this children’s group here, and to the Swedish school in Tarrytown upstate. Now that Ville is talking more, I hear all the basic words come in Swedish.”
22-month-old Hugo was born in Sweden and his Swedish parents are only here for a short period. For his mother, Sara, the group offers a great way to connect with other moms.
“It’s important to keep the Swedish songs alive for Hugo’s sake, and it’s important for me to meet other Swedish moms.”
After the kanelbulle and juice break, toys are put out and the children play with each other, then follow more songs and dance games. Finally the class ends with a few songs of religious nature, Anitha and Elisabet turn off the light and candles are lit in the dark. The children and their parents sing, “Det lilla ljus jag har” (This little light of mine).
“It’s amazing to see the children grow,” Pihlblad says. “Both Elisabet and I love these children’s groups. It’s so much fun to watch them beginning to take part in the songs, to see when they understand it’s time for bulle and juice. It’s great!”
For more information about the Swedish Church, the children’s groups and other activities: www.swedishchurch.net