We started homeschooling with the goal of traveling a lot and immersing ourselves in a variety of cultures. Our kids have the unfortunate timing of being post-bubble babies, though, so finances haven’t allowed us to venture off as far as we’d hoped. Still, we maintain our desire to experience the world in all its beautiful diversity. We just do most of it while physically close to home. Perhaps, we surmise, these early efforts will ignite in our children a thirst for cultural immersion when they are older (and can foot the travel bill themselves — and maybe invite us along).
Throughout this journey, we have met some lovely people (like our Ethiopian neighbors who taught us the real meaning of coffee talk), learned as much about ourselves as we have about the world (we don’t all pick up languages easily), and made some serious errors in judgment (like showing our eight year old The Boy in the Striped Pajamas without having previewed the ending first).
Here are some of the lessons about virtual cultural immersion we have learned along the way:
* Once you pick a culture or country to study, find the broad commonalities within the culture. Three helpful places to start are with holidays, pastimes, and food. Beginning with national holidays (as opposed to religious or cultural celebrations) will ensure a broad perspective (It would be accurate to relay that most Americans celebrate the 4th of July, for example, but not at all true to say that most Americans celebrate Christmas or Chanukah). The Earth Calendar website has a helpful search engine by year and country.
Children love to learn how other children play, and even those who do not participate directly can relate to pastimes (think soccer in Brazil, hockey in Canada, and dominoes in Haiti). Most resources with basic information about a country will share the national and popular pastimes. Try and recreate some of the games to play as a family if possible. Arlette Braman’s Kids Around the World Play offers some step-by-step instructions for international games.
Finally, no matter how diverse a country’s population, there are always a few universally enjoyed culinary experiences (like tortillas in Mexico and naan in India). Many are easy to make. Our family has thoroughly enjoyed the recipes from the cookbook Extending the Table. The artfully done book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats by photojournalist Peter Menzel and author Faith D’Aluisio offers a stunning visual perspective of the foods families all over the world eat.
* When you are ready to dig more deeply into a culture, diversify. Try and discover as many distinct aspects about the culture as possible, making sure to distinguish between those that are widespread and those that are specific to a certain region or sect. When I lived in Chile, two of the most popular North American television shows that aired were Beverly Hills 90210 and Dallas, both about wealthy, melodramatic people with fancy cars and expensive clothes. I spent a lot of time convincing the locals that I was nothing like their beloved soap opera characters and confusing them with my non-specific accent.
Travel books, like those in the DK Eyewitness Travel series, usually offer a peek at a variety of locations within a country and highlight the local culture for each. The Destinations section on the National Geographic website lets travelers post their own pictures to mingle with those of the magazine. Pinterest offers members a treasure trove of internet resources for any one location. It is a good place to start your search.
* Think positively. When you consider the people who define a country, find the heroes, artists, and peace-makers first. Examine the contributions the culture has made to humanity before digging up the conflicts and criminals. Children love inventions, making it a natural jumping off point. KryssTal, an educational website out of the United Kingdom, offers a search engine where you can search inventions by country. The Find the Best website also allows searches of a country’s most important inventions. A simple google search for peacemakers by country (e.g. “Ugandan peacemakers”), can render a list of people to consider. Once you have decided upon a peacemaker from the country you are studying, you might find their biography and a coloring page at the Do One Thing website.
If possible, visit local centers and museums dedicated to the culture you are studying (like this one in Chicago). You might have to travel to the nearest big city to do so, but they are usually inexpensive, small venues that pack a big cultural punch. Not only will children be more interested in learning about a culture by starting with its more exciting inhabitants and contributions, but this approach prevents a negative first impression. It also provides a natural springboard for learning about the various faith traditions that influence a nation, a study that should also begin with the positive contributions.
* When learning about the challenges, mistakes, and infamous citizens of a country, be sure to keep them in context. Though they may have been or continue to be a plague on a nation, they do not necessarily define an entire culture. It is a helpful lesson to learn that nations can rise above their most abhorrent weaknesses. Focus on the events that precipitated the challenges, how the population was affected, and any healing that has occurred. At the same time, offer a realistic perspective. Be careful not to minimize suffering, for example. It is just as important for children to learn how hardships, tragedies, and oppression affect humanity as it is to know how a country survives them.
Our children are fortunate to live at a time when the world is literally at their fingertips. So much information can be overwhelming, though. It is our job and privilege as parents and teachers to help them accurately and compassionately process all that they experience in their virtual tourism of the world. In doing so, we enjoy the privilege of journeying with them. Our collective vision of the world expands as our familial bonds tighten. It is learning laced with joy, adventure wrapped in promise. And it’s practically free.