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Europe boasts more cultural education opportunities than you could possibly drag your kids through in 5 years, let alone a summer holiday. There are so many museums, historical landmarks, and cultural performances that it can even be a little overwhelming.
What is a reasonable expectation for a 4 year old? A 10 year old? Or a tired Mom hoping to catch a bit of cultural education herself? In our first book, Family on the Loose: The Art of Traveling with Kids, we give parents plans, resources, ideas, and motivation for embedding cultural education in any family trip, whether it’s a weekend away or a ’round the world adventure. In our upcoming book, 100 Tips for Taking Your Kids to Europe, we describe dozens of ideas for preparing expectations, enjoying each day, visiting kid-centric destinations, and discovering the real Europe with kids – the flavors, sounds, experiences, and people of this fantastic continent.
Here are our five favorite tips for maximizing cultural education opportunities in Europe.
5 Tips for Cross-Cultural Education in Europe:
1) Set the kids’ expectations as far in advance as possible. Help your kids, no matter how young, get excited for new experiences. Look at maps, talk about staying in hotels, generate enthusiasm for museum visits, and watch some movies or read some books that provide context. Learn a few words in the languages of the countries you will be visiting. Taste some new foods and praise your kids for adventurous eating. Europe is packed with pasta and chocolate so you shouldn’t have any problems finding something your kids will eat once on the road, but they’ll have so much more fun if they branch out. What’s a stop in Vienna without Wiener schnitzel or a visit to The Netherlands without at least exploring Dutch new herring (eaten by lifting up the tail and holding the fish in the air)? Don’t forget that Europeans walk a lot and, in Europe, your kids are likely going to need to walk a lot too. Like everything else, walking well takes practice. Whether you expect your “waddler” to relax in a stroller for two miles, your 4-year-old to enjoy a stroll through Bruges, or your teenager to manage several days of hiking the Camino de Santiago, you’ll all need a little experience and the right equipment. Make sure everyone in the family has at least one good pair of walking shoes. You’ll want to break in the new shoes to avoid blisters and break in the kids to avoid temper fits. Help them understand how far they need to walk, how often they could even dream of getting carried, and what they will be expected to carry. Praise them for a job well done; count steps if you have to; set reasonable goals; and don’t let fussing lead to a piggy back ride if you don’t want to be carrying your kids across cobblestones. Set those walking expectations but keep it fun too. Even practice walks need rest stops and ice cream cones.
2) Interact with art. Staring at art can be a bit dull, even for parents. Many kids need to participate to really enjoy experiences. For example, think how much more fun your kids have when visiting a petting zoo versus staring at a wildlife diorama? Interacting with art might include painting self portraits, taking a series of photos of family members in and on public statues (where it is OK to climb), dressing up a public statue, or being an art critique and writing a review of a museum exhibit in the travel journal. Grumpy kids that are veritably dragged into a museum might particularly enjoy writing a scathing review. They won’t even realize that they have to observe and think about the exhibit in the process. A fun game is to buy a bunch of postcards of famous paintings and have kids write new titles for them. At the next meal, see if the parents can guess which title goes with which painting or even explain how the new title illuminates a new angle on the artwork. For example, “Lady who just told a lie.” What painting might that refer to and what would it tell you about the artist’s motivation if that really were the title?
3) Eventually, you would probably like to take your kids into an art museum and even enjoy the experience. No worries, all kids, from the very young to the very active, can have a blast on a trip to an art museum. First, set everyone’s expectations, even your own. You probably won’t get to see the entire collection at the leisurely pace enjoyed by art students or retirees. Prioritize what you want to see and do. If you really want to enjoy some slow art-gazing time, take shifts browsing exhibits alone and wrangling kids. Explain to the kids what you expect of them – quiet voices, no running, and a little patience. Introduce them to the art you plan to see in advance through non-fiction books and the Internet if possible and explain why it is interesting. Check YouTube for simple videos about famous pieces. Once on-site, aim for a short, successful visit that leaves the kids wanting more. Absolutely bring hands-on activities to keep your kids engaged. Let small kids sit on the floor in the middle of the exhibit and doodle on white paper with colored pencils. Bring a sketch pad for older kids and offer some ideas – sketch a painting that makes you feel sad, carefully copy 5 different hats, sketch a famous painting from a different perspective.
4) Music can be a highlight of a trip to Europe. It’s everywhere, it’s usually good, and it’s often free. It can be hard to find time for music and musical education at home so take advantage of being in Europe to listen a little longer. Try saving time for street musicians. You can find them in fairly predictable places and their performances can often be enjoyed by kids who can’t sit still. Music is embedded in all sorts of cultural activities. In Prague, there are hourly trumpet calls in the town square as well as trumpets announcing the changing of the palace guard. Church services across Europe often include beautiful music and many restaurants have live performances. Don’t forget to leave your teen time to explore the pop music scene.
5) Europe is full of famous historical and cultural icons but don’t miss real European life. In Europe, you can bring your kids to famous monuments that they will remember forever; show them art they will hear about in college; and explore history in a more meaningful than they can ever know at school. You can also teach them about other cultures and other ways of living by saving time in your itinerary for the not-so-famous things. Visiting swimming pools for example can be literal cultural immersion. In many countries, for example, the changing rooms are co-ed. In Austria, lap swim takes place without lap lines. Very tricky! In Barcelona, you can visit Poliesportiu Marítim with four linked hydrotherapy pools, a lap-swimming pool, saunas, steam rooms, and a tunnel to the beach. Similarly, playgrounds are excellent places for cultural exchange. It’s the best possible opportunity for your child to play and speak with local kids. Generally the playground equipment is excitingly novel and fun too!
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