When my family is in Idaho, my children attend a local, public, elementary school. When we’re abroad, we have to get more creative. My daughters have studied at a bilingual Montessori school in Mexico, homeschooled in Australia, and used online programs in Brazil. Wherever we are in the world, our favorite assignments often involve an exploration of the local culture in which we find ourselves. Here are six ways that we incorporate culture into education when abroad.
6 Ways to Explore Local Culture
Studying a country’s flag not only provides a window into the history of different lands, but also allows for a little bit of art class. We learn the elements of a flag, what they signify, the national motto, and then recreate the flag with good old-fashioned paper and crayons.
Interviewing the locals provides an education you might not find otherwise. It also facilitates that extra little push that expat families sometimes need to integrate with the people around them and make new friends. I accompany my eight-year-old on interviews with store clerks and others in the community. Questions can include asking locals what they love about their home, problems facing their communities, and what they most want visitors to know about their country and culture.
Keeping a journal not only counts as a daily lesson in creative writing, but also acts as a means of preserving the memories of adventures abroad. Our children start journaling before they can read and write, with entries largely composed of drawings of things they see around them. In time, they add words to their entries, and then evolve into pages of text with the occasional accompanying illustration.
Whether it’s Koninginnendag in Amsterdam, Carnaval in Rio, DC’s Cherry Blossom Festival, or one of thousands of other cultural events taking place around the world, festivals offer a unique opportunity to combine education, entertainment, and local culture galore. Research the origins of the festival ahead of time as a school assignment, then enjoy the festival with your family as the reward. Don’t be deterred by events which seem overwhelming or less than kid-friendly, a good internet search will reveal tips and tricks from families who’ve attended the festivals before you and are more than happy to share their experiences of how to make the most of an event when you have small children along.
Flora and Fauna
Have your children identify and draw the unique plants and animals that aren’t found in your home country. This exercise brings local culture into science studies and nature exploration. I like to use the findings to then spice up math exercises, turning humdrum equations like 5 x 8 into word problems: If 8 coatis each have 5 kits (baby coatis), how many coati kits are there? When it comes to my daughters and math, incorporating a baby animal works wonders to make the lesson more pleasant for everyone.
Language learning with children is both fun and effective. We use a combination of audio programs and bilingual children’s dictionaries. If my daughters experience frustration at not speaking the native language, we sit down and make a list of all the words we do know. It ends up being far more extensive than we’d thought and confidence is restored. When we travel to other English-speaking countries, we make note of differences in vocabulary (lift versus elevator, et al). The most important lesson my children have learned when overseas in regards to communication is that two children need not share a common language to enjoy a good game of hide-and-seek, and when in doubt, a smile overcomes all language barriers.
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