Most parents would agree that providing our children with realistic, natural exposure to many cultures encourages open-minded thinking and compassion. It builds a sense of acceptance of others, and provides them with connections to people and places far away from home.
With each new school year comes more opportunities for our kids to meet classmates different than themselves. Acknowledging and discussing similarities and differences in a comfortable, family setting will help them develop healthy viewpoints, and could help them make friends, too. Here are some ways to learn about different cultures outside of the classroom, from toddlers to teens.
For infants and toddlers, exposure to various foods and spices from different cultures provides unique sensory experiences. Developmentally, it is important to share a child’s own family culture, by taking part in traditions and celebrations. In addition, sharing books, songs, or music from other cultures helps broaden young children’s awareness of others—they’ll begin to become comfortable with the sounds and words spoken in different cultures.
With preschool children, work together as a family to create a special container of items from a certain culture. Include small artifacts, coins and paper currency, actual clothing, and items used in daily life. Reading facts about animals living in certain cultural areas can be a fun starting point for learning about habitats and conservation. Ask friends and family who travel to mail postcards from their destinations. These can become treasured artifacts as well.
School-aged children can consider other cultures with respect to how different groups of people meet their basic needs for shelter, clothing, food, transportation, and communication, and how the environment affects their lives. In addition, children can connect their inherent curiosity about animals and plants to other lands.
Families can also seek out traditional games, such as mancala (a strategy-based game with origins in Africa), create replicas of international art viewed at local museums, or research the importance of the Wonders of the World, like the Taj Mahal in India. Compare American culture with cultures around the world by creating a collage of different magazine images. Often times, this activity brings about an awareness of our similarities despite the physical distance.
Current world events are presented rapid-fire and in real time for today’s teenagers. Engage them in discussions, with justice, government, and the messages communicated by recent events around the globe as conversation-starters that consider other cultures in the modern world. Researching the past contributions of an individual from another culture can also bring some personal meaning to learning about others.
In addition, teens can pair an area of personal interest (for example, jewelry-making) with a charitable organization like THREAD that raises funds in collaboration with particular populations in need. Volunteering through a program such as Aurora’s Project Worthmore (projectworthmore.org) encourages direct involvement with the challenges many refugees face as they acclimate to America.
If you plan to take a trip to another country, children of all ages can help research and plan together. For example, everyone can collaborate on learning a new word each day from that culture’s spoken language. In lieu of international travel, families can attend local cultural festivals held year-round. Set a goal of experiencing at least one traditional food, dance, or activity at such an event to help teach kids about a new culture.
As parents, we can communicate respect for others by learning about other cultures alongside our kids, and by encouraging kids’ natural curiosity in others. Doing so can help us gain needed awareness for all.