Suitcases gathering a little dust these days? Yeah, ours too. Any travel, and especially family travel, seems daunting during the pandemic. (How many times would you say “Don’t touch that!”?) Of course, even without a pandemic, traveling with kids isn’t exactly easy. And taking your kids overseas? Well, the thought of that sends chills down many parents’ spines.
Still, we want our children to appreciate the world around them. So we asked some bona fide world travelers and other savvy individuals to tell us how they bring the essence of cultures from across the globe to kids—no plane ticket required.
Simple Plans for Introducing Other Cultures
If a question about Europe comes up, Dallas native Lauren Bryan Knight almost certainly has the answer. She now makes her home in London; Knight is the author and owner of Aspiring Kennedy, an international tour and travel guide website.
She and her husband moved abroad a decade ago for his graduate work; their children—Viola, 8, Harrison, 5, and Edie, 3—came along after. Living in Europe, and having a mom who travels professionally, obviously puts the Knight kids at an advantage when it comes to understanding and appreciating foreign cultures.
“Working in travel at the same time we had babies meant that they were often coming along for the ride,” Knight notes. “My oldest had clocked 10 countries by her first birthday, and it never really slowed down after having our other kids. Well, until COVID.”
Food Works Magic
While the family has always enjoyed learning about the world, the pandemic-imposed lockdown led to different ways of doing so. “For example, I got new cookbooks and began making food that reminds us of some of our favorite places,” says Knight. “If you’re eating a wintery soup from Tuscany, dinner in rainy London feels a bit cozier.”
Eating foods from different countries is a great way to, well, get a taste of what life there is like. Music is another. “Smelling the black dhal slow-cooking and playing Indian music on your record player makes you feel less like you’re in your home and a bit more like you’re grabbing food in a Mumbai train terminal,” says Knight.
Want to give your kids a bit of French culture? “Never underestimate the power of a weekend morning with Edith Piaf cranked up a bit too loud and a breakfast table of warm, store-bought pains au chocolat.” (Those would be chocolate croissants, bien sûr.)
Keep It Fun and Easy
Perhaps these music-filled meals stir memories for Knight’s children. What if your kids don’t have those experiences to recall? There are actually learning opportunities all around you.
During COVID, Kipper and Andrew Jewsbury have been planted stateside, but their children—known on their blog, Kids & Passports, as Falcon, 11, and Batty, 9—have visited 37 countries and every continent except Antarctica. They have plenty of advice on how to introduce your kids to other cultures at home.
Kipper Jewsbury’s bottom line advice? “Keep it fun and easy,” she says. “We all have plenty on our plates with work, virtual school and chores. Don’t make this another chore.”
That means a simple approach, centered on things your family already enjoys. “Pick a place. Watch a movie or read a book,” Jewsbury suggests. Picture books or photography books are great for helping kids visualize life in another society.
You can also go on a YouTube trip, as the platform has endless videos of travel experiences, from train rides and urban exploration to mountain hikes and wildlife tours. (Just screen the video first to make sure it’s kid-friendly.)
Once your family has gotten a feel for the country, “have a party where you make or buy food from that culture. Just one dish is fine,” Jewsbury stresses. “Maybe the kids want to do an art project to decorate the party. Use the time to sit together and share your thoughts on what you’ve learned, what you would still like to learn, connections you see to your life, differences you appreciated, and so on. Maybe next time, you’ll be inspired to dive deeper.”
That deeper dive could include live-streamed and other virtual experiences—something that the pandemic has made more abundant than ever.
“One of the COVID silver linings is how many organizations have put their festivals, lectures, performances and classes online,” says Jewsbury. “Now, from the comfort of your own sofa, you can watch dance performances in Vienna, attend Egyptology lectures or go on safari in Africa.”
Learn a New Language
Our North Texas communities also provide windows into foreign lands. For example, there are a number of language schools with options for kids.
“Learning the language provides an immersive experience into a new culture,” says Kerry Briard, director of admission and development for Dallas International School (DIS). “The more fluent children become in another language, the broader their access to that culture.”
DIS students receive a bilingual education in French and English, and learn an additional language—Spanish, Mandarin or German. But you don’t have to be an official DIS student (or parent) to benefit from its expertise.
The school’s Language Institute offers online classes for children and adults, as well as camps, for French, Spanish, Mandarin and Arabic.
Both traditional DIS classes and its special programs extend beyond learning language. “DIS helps children learn about international cultures through various subjects, including art, music, literature, poetry and history,” notes Briard.
Travel via Museums
Art museums are another DFW resource to immerse kids in foreign culture. “Children are naturally curious, and art museums are filled with eye-catching, wondrous objects,” points out Connie Hatchette Barganier, education manager for Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum (which offers free entry to its permanent collection).
“Artworks are packed with a lot of visual information—colors, shapes, textures—and invite us to construct stories about what artists are communicating, or to form more personal connections. Building upon those initial observations, an artwork can act as a portal into many time periods, places and cultures from around the world.”
We’re going to pause here—we know what you’re thinking: There’s no way my device-obsessed kid is going to enjoy a trip to an art museum. You’d be surprised; it’s all in how you approach it.
Barganier explains, “Most kiddos are very kinetic, tactile learners. This can work in the museum, as long as adults remind them to avoid getting too close and to not touch the artworks. For example, children, and adults too, might try mimicking the different poses and gestures they see. This simple activity deepens attentiveness and understanding of how these stances communicate different ideas. Simple questions or prompts—such as What do you think we might hear if we were inside this scene?—can lead to some exciting discoveries.”
Keep in mind, Barganier emphasizes, that a successful museum visit doesn’t have to be a long one.
“One of the Kimbell’s great strengths is its comparatively small permanent collection made up of artworks that range from thousands of years to almost 50 years old, and that represent traditions and cultures from around the world,” Barganier says.
“In a single, unrushed hour, a family may marvel at a sculpture of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, travel along a winding mountain path in a scroll painting from China, learn the story of an influential African hero, and decide what will happen next in the painting depicting a game of cards.”
Barganier notes that many museum websites offer specific suggestions for visiting with children, and you can find information about special events with family activities. She reminds parents to be aware of when kids have absorbed plenty and are ready for something else.
Embrace the Digital Age to Encourage Learning
That’s sage advice from Barganier; the goal in all this, of course, is to incite kids’ interest and want them to come back for more.
Jewsbury agrees. “I sometimes feel pressured to learn ‘everything,’” she says. “Turns out, you don’t have to. Pick one culture to start and go with it as long as everyone’s interested. Then stop. You can always come back later.”
Your children’s level of interest may be higher than you think. Sure, they’re into video games, TikTok and a million other e-things. But you can use that to your advantage. “Don’t be afraid to leverage devices if that starts the conversation,” Jewsbury says, noting that all the major streaming services offer international children’s programming.
Have a Minecraft fan? She suggests trying to pattern builds after famous architecture from around the world.
And let kids get really hands-on. Tina Dieber, a first-generation Italian-American and mom of three who lives in Colleyville, has turned her kids into master chefs with family recipes. They also get a window into their heritage with Skype and WhatsApp video calls with relatives who live in Italy. “My son likes to see my uncle’s farm, and his twin sister likes to see my aunt’s outdoor kitchen,” Dieber says.
Have relatives, however distant, who live abroad? Forge a connection. Maybe someday you’ll even be able to visit, and your children will already have a sense of what life there is like.
“I have seen my children develop a love and appreciation for Italian culture, food and music,” says Dieber, who has used that foundation built at home to enhance the trips the family has taken to Italy. “In my mind, understanding leads to appreciation. The kids love their Italian relatives and really connect with them.”
But why is that so important? There’s plenty to know and love about the Texas and the rest of the United States, right?
Exposing children to distant lands “shows them that different cultures and people live differently than us, and that’s OK,” Knight notes. “There can be happy, extremely important aspects to daily life in other places that may have never previously crossed our own minds. It gives them awareness to think: There’s more out here than I can know or realize. And that’s a humbling realization most people get only as adults.”
Jewsbury echoes Knight’s sentiments. “Many of us spend the majority of time with people who live, think and look very similar to ourselves. Learning about and experiencing other cultures is a way to take a few steps in another person’s shoes, a way to connect on similarities and acknowledge differences without casting them as wrong. Open minds, open hearts.”
Broaden their minds
Virtual field trips, books that inspire understanding and more: Here are some specific tools to extend your kids’ worldview.
Multicultural books: Kipper Jewsbury, who travels extensively with her family, recommends Colours of Us and I’m Your Neighbor to find lists of books organized by culture. The lists include the ages the books are best suited for, summaries and images.
Kid-friendly news: Jewsbury likes The Week Junior magazine, which covers current events and other relevant topics from the United States and around the world—in a way that kids ages 8–14 can understand and appreciate.
Games and quizzes: One more Jewsbury favorite—BrainPop, a subscription-based site with short, kid-friendly videos, quizzes and activities about a variety of topics; searching “culture,” for example, pulls up everything from the Great Wall of China to the Maya civilization.
Maps and satellite imagery: Access Google Earth for satellite images, 3D buildings and terrains for cities throughout the world. Google Earth also provides guided tours to interesting sites. You can get an atlas as well. Lauren Bryan Knight, a Dallasite who now lives abroad, says her 5-year-old son goes to bed every night with his atlas and plans fantastic trips. Then they talk about what each destination would offer.
Interactive content: Here’s another Google resource. Google Arts & Culture has everything from a virtual coloring book, with famous paintings and iconic structures from diverse countries, to virtual tours of places such as Easter Island and celebrated art galleries. In addition, you can find imagery and information about various historical events and figures.
This article was originally published in March 2021.
Photo courtesy of Lauren Bryan Knight