When a child learns about a foreign culture, a world of possibilities opens up. New sounds, language, dress, cuisine, songs and stories — all arose curiosity and inspire exploration. Even more importantly, learning about a new culture cultivates an enthusiasm to understand and appreciate diverse ways of living, facilitating positive regard and sharing an implicit message: Our differences are valuable and honorable.
“In teaching our children empathy we are giving them a crucial skill for leading a successful and happy life,” says Harvard University professor of neurology Alvaro Pascual-Leone. “Empathy provides a strong foundation for listening, communications, collaboration and problem-solving — critical skills in a rapidly changing and diverse world.”
Inspiring such intercultural awareness and understanding is our mission at the Northwest Language and Cultural Center on Whidbey Island. Drawing on that experience, here are 10 activities that plant the seeds of fascination, appreciation and empathy:
1. Create a festive evening
Once a month, get the family involved in an immersion experience at your home. Incorporate music, expand your culinary horizons and try out fables. Ask that everyone share something they know or want to know about the featured culture. Most recently my family invited over our new friend Masha, who grew up in Russia, to share her life experiences.
To get you brainstorming, imagine a Russian-themed evening of your own. You could have an uzhin (aka dinner) of borscht, a bright vegetable soup that highlights red beets, and peroshki, baked buns filled with a variety of vegetables and sometimes egg or meat. Such recipes are easy to find online.
While you're hard at work in the kitchen, turn up Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf or any of Tchaikovsky's compositions. Over dessert, share some classic Russian folktales and, depending on your family's personal decision, the ups and downs of your featured country's history.
2. Listen to world music
Turn on world music any time of day — while driving the kids to and fro, cooking, studying. It's easy to do and provides a look at another culture. For some beautiful compilations of world music, visit this website.
You can also make music, a stimulating and exhilarating experience for people of all ages and especially youngsters. Take African hand drumming, for example. Kids can really feel what it is to make powerful sound in a group. To learn more about drumming opportunities near your family, visit Baby Jam (for children 5 and under) or La Drumma (for older children).
For a magical way to get to know another culture, try dance. One local resource is the Bulgarian Cultural and Heritage Center of Seattle where the folk dancing can be quite intricate and rewarding. The experience yields beautiful endorphin highs and a great feeling of community, not to mention a wonderful exercise for the brain! Try Medena Pitka (translated as "Honey Bread"), a children's folklore program led by the incomparable Daniela Ivanova-Nyberg.
4. Discuss problem solving from around the world
How are houses built around the world? What kinds of kitchen utensils are used? When are people active during the day? What role does climate have on traditional customs? Get your family talking about these questions to explore how different cultures tackle problem solving.
While delving into how other cultures solve common challenges, ask your children to brainstorm what hasn't been done to truly ignite their creativity. A handy website to get the conversation going is Everyday Speech.
5. Become familiar with your own culture and family traditions
To appreciate another culture, it's worth knowing your own to provide a foundation of security in kinship and inclusion. Create a family tree, and get in touch with relatives to share stories. Discuss favorite family traditions, or create a scrapbook celebrating what your family loves to do together. The Family History Discovery Center in Bellevue is an endlessly interesting field trip to help enhance this historical voyage.
6. Throw a birthday party
Your party could relate to family heritage or explore a country of interest. Let's say, for example, that you decide to have a French fête. Invite along that famous elephant Babar and make colorful bon anniversaire sign. Serve French crêpes, quiche and baked goods (Patisserie Ines on Capitol Hill has a particularly delicious selection and, for older children, cooking classes). During the party, play French accordion music, pass out berets and teach everyone a song or two in French.
7. Get a pen pal
Through the exchange of letters with a pen pal, we begin to genuinely care about someone we have never met in person. The world becomes simultaneously much grander and more relatable. There are numerous organizations to get you connected; for children between the ages of 5 and 17, check out Amazing Kids!
Learning a new language is like opening a door into a different perception and understanding of the cosmos You learn to think differently!
8. Visit cultural centers
Living in the Northwest, it feels paramount to learn about the First Peoples of this region including Chief Si'ahl of the Duwamish tribe. Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center in Seattle features a permanent display of Native American artifacts and art, housed in a traditional longhouse — all for free! The center also hosts ongoing events such as forest restoration work around the Duwamish riverbed and classes for building a sacred hoop drum.
Another gem of a cultural center is the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) in Seattle. The NAAM offers creative, interactive youth workshops designed to discuss race and diversity. The museum also has a youth curator program, inspiring the young members of our community to get involved early.
9. Learn another language
Children have so much to benefit from by learning a new language. The cognitive benefits are wide-ranging, enhancing problem solving, creativity and communication. But perhaps most importantly, learning a new language promotes self-examination and reflection.
"Learning a new language is like opening a door into a different perception and understanding of the cosmos," says Josette Hendrix, director of the Northwest Language and Cultural Center. "You learn to think differently!"
Consider the English expression "you are right," says Hendrix. In French, that same expression is "tu as raison" — literally, you have reason. The Bulgarians say "ti si prav" — loosely meaning "you are straight or upright." All these would be translated in English to mean "you are right" but each has a subtly difference in connotation.
Pick a cause to which you and your family feel particularly drawn. It could be taking care of a park, your local library, a museum — any number of organizations need your help to keep the lights on. Volunteering cultivates communication and social skills, and it fuels us with purpose. It just feels good to help others, and that's a powerful gift to give our children.
Let's teach our children to cherish and treasure the world's beautiful, numerous cultures. Show them that we're not a monoculture, devoid of magnificence and biodiversity. By introducing your kids to a variety of persepectives and experiences, the world will emerge in vast and vibrant ways, rich with stories, songs, cuisine, art and so much more.