I recently asked a group of my students—all of them bright juniors and seniors at the Chicago public high school where I teach—what language is spoken in the Netherlands. Their answers ranged from Gaelic to Jewish. It’s hard to believe, but sadly, not uncommon. A recent National Geographic-Rober survey showed American youth don’t have even a basic grasp on world geography: only 37 percent were able to identify Iraq on a map, half couldn’t locate New York and 20 percent couldn’t pinpoint the Pacific Ocean.
Geography isn’t just locations on the map: it’s cultures, environments, languages, people and places. It’s the key to opening the door to our children’s increasingly global futures.
So how can we, as parents, bring our children up to speed? Here are 10 tips for bringing the world into your home.
Give your kids access to world maps. Stick a giant world map up on the wall, keep an updated atlas within easy reach, place a globe on your child’s study desk. Whenever you hear a faraway country mentioned on TV or in a book, look it up together.
Take time to talk about world events. Find an interesting article in the newspaper and share it with your child. Switch off the usual kid-only channels and watch the Discovery Channel’s Planet Earth, a showcase of natural wonders around the world.
Encourage your child to study a world language. How many adults regret not having learned a foreign language as a child? Kids soak up languages like sponges and they’ll thank you someday when they’re using it in their future career or backpacking across Europe. If your local school doesn’t offer world languages, bring it up at the next PTA or school council meeting.
Rent a foreign flick and have a world movie night. Some suggestions:"The Way Home,” a Korean movie directed by Jeong-Hyang Lee about a little boy forced to spend a summer with his grandmother in the country, or"Ciao Professore,” directed by Lina Wertmuller about a teacher and his struggling elementary students in southern Italy. Check out your local video store or visit www.netflix.com.
Host a foreign exchange student. Your children will learn firsthand about the language and customs of another culture and in turn, develop a lifelong friendship. Contact Youth for Understanding (www.yfu.org) or AFS Intercultural (www.afs.org) for more information. If you aren’t ready for the commitment, consider inviting a foreign college student stuck in town to spend the holidays with your family. Contact the International Student Office of your local university.
Visit a museum. We are so lucky to live in a world-class museum city. A visit to the Field Museum alone can take children around the world in a matter of hours via permanent exhibits on the Ancient Americas, Africa and the Pacific Northwest. Visit with the knights of Medieval Europe and mingle with the Ancient Romans at the Art Institute of Chicago. Don’t miss smaller museums such as the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, which takes children back in time to ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Nubia and Persia. The Mitchell Museum of the American Indian explores the history, culture and arts of North American native peoples and the National Museum of Mexican Art in the Mexican-American neighborhood of Pilsen sponsors several kid-friendly events and exhibitions.
Celebrate a world holiday. Learn about the traditions of La Festa della Donna and give all the girls you know a bouquet of yellow flowers or fly a colorful kite on Kodomo-no-I Day. Check out your local library for books with craft and party ideas. I recommend Kids Around the World Celebrate!: The Best Feasts and Festivals by Lynda Jones and The Kids’ Multicultural Cookbook: Food& Fun Around the World by Deanna Cook.
Explore a Chicago neighborhood. Hop in your car and visit the world right here in Chicago. Travel to Sweden via Andersonville, India via Devon Avenue and Greece via Greektown. Step beyond the museums and galleries and shop for goodies at the local grocery stores and boutiques. Stay for lunch and make a point to try a dish you’ve never experienced. Chicago Neighborhood Tours (www.chicagoneighborhoodtours.com) offers an amazing array of guided tours to get you started.
Check out online resources. Visit the National Geographic Geography Bee at www.nationalgeographic.com/geobee/today.html. Find a satellite image of your neighborhood at maps.google.com, then zoom out and travel to any other location in the world. Learn more about the lives of everyday kids around the globe at www.katw.org. Finally, check out our world from an alien’s perspective by visiting NASA’s astronomy picture-of-the-day site at antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/.
Grab your passport and just GO! Mark Twain said it best:"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” Travel gives parents and children alike a new perspective on life. Together, compile a list of the top 10 places you want to visit as a family. Let your kids research and plan a trip with you. Then pack your suitcases, hop on that airplane, step off the beaten path and most importantly, have fun.