Latin and Greek for Children

by Ariana Traill (Associate Professor, Classics) and Antony Augoustakis (Professor and Head, Classics)


Latin and ancient Greek are popular subjects these days – with kids. The Classics Department offers two successful summer camps, now in their third year, for children aged 9-12: “Meet the Greeks” and “Meet the Romans”.

Kids learn the basics of Latin and ancient Greek – body parts, animals, colors, numbers, greetings. They read simple stories and ancient texts, such as graffiti or vase inscriptions, while learning about Greek and Roman culture through games and crafts. In the morning, they might create a bulla, that is, a locket that Roman children wore to protect themselves from evil spirits, while dressing up as their favorite mythological figure. In the afternoon, they might write out their own Greek papyrus with a stylus and ink or paint and label their own Greek vase (which might resemble a clay garden pot…) or play a mythology trivia game in the Spurlock Museum. They are probably going to ace the trivia game, because authors like Rick Riordan have made Greek mythology such a trendy topic in middle schools these days.

The camps are run through the University Language Academy, the pioneering work of Silvina Montrul, whose research in secondary language acquisition among children has demonstrated the importance of early and continuous exposure to a foreign language for higher linguistic proficiency. Professor Montrul has been running eight-week Spanish camps and a year-long Spanish afterschool program has run since 2010. The program expanded into Latin and ancient Greek in 2015 at Montrul’s invitation. Classics faculty Ariana Traill saw the potential to bring Classical languages to a wider audience.

As a Classicist, Traill knew about the advantages of learning the classical languages. Apart from the pleasure of reading Classical literature in the original, the study of Latin and Greek has strong transferable benefits to other subjects. Latin is a great way to boost advanced English vocabulary: over 90% of English words of more than two syllables come from Latin. Greek roots abound in English, especially in technical vocabulary, and they are not hard to identify, once kids know the basics. As a parent, she knew there was plenty of interest in Greek and Roman culture among kids, as well as a need, especially at the middle school level, for interesting summer camps serving older children.

The children have a great time. They love being able to write their name in Greek, playing hangman in Greek and recognizing the letters on sorority/fraternity buildings, or playing with clay knuckle-bones – a common game in antiquity – and making Roman roads out of candy. “My favorite Latin word is abi,” one child noted. “It means go away.” Last summer they even got to practice their Latin on a puppy, who learned sede (sit!), affer (“fetch”) and volve (“roll over”), based on a book by a classics alumna. Parents like that their children are learning and having fun (“but maybe less candy in those roads”, noted one). The camps can spark an interest in Classical antiquity that endures years afterward, as one parent commented recently.

Word spread far this year. For the first time, the Classics Camps offered a special section this past summer to a group of students from Danville P.S. district 118, a low-income school district. Thanks to the initiative and support of Dr. Alicia Geddis, district superintendent, a group of nine students aged 12-15 were able to attend both camps May 30 – June 2, 2017. A particularly enthusiastic group, including a number of gifted and talented students, the Danville children triumphed in their trivia games (Greek jeopardy, alethes or pseudes (“true or false”)) and had fun practicing their new skills, whether reading a story about a farmer from a beginning Greek textbook or trying on costumes for Roman soldiers and brides.

Classics graduate students appreciate that the camps provide new employment opportunities during the summer, as on campus enrollments in summer school classes have been in decline. Ph.D. students gain exposure to K-12 teaching and knowledge about running an outreach program. Students in the Latin teacher training program benefit particularly because the camps provide valuable experience working with children, which can can be required as a condition for hiring by a public school. The Latin teacher training program has a 100% placement rate, in part because graduate have the necessary work experience.

On a practical note, the camps are financially self-supporting. They are advertised by flyers distributed through local school districts, through the university’s public engagement portal and through the chambanamoms web site. Sections are capped at fifteen. Each section is assigned a lead instructor from the Department’s Latin teacher training program, as well as a teacher’s aide from the Classics MA and PhD program. All camps staff are subject to criminal background checks.

The University of Illinois offers many camps for children and it is possible to start new ones. Those looking to launch similar programs should begin by seeking event approval for minors. The Classics Camps are greatly indebted to the University Language Academy, which simplified the start-up process enormously. Special thanks are also due to staff at the Spurlock, who have provided strong support each year, including making the Zahn Learning Center available as the camps’ main base in 2016. ATLAS hosts the camps’ web site and supports registration and credit card payments. SLCL supports the camp through its budget office, which maintains financial records. Thanks are also due to an anonymous donor whose gift helped make the Danville students’ week possible this year.

About iprh

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was established in 1997 to promote interdisciplinary study in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
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