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Give the Gift of Local Global Adventures

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As I started to put together a "global kids gift guide" drawn from items my family has loved over the years, complemented by many suggestions from friends, teachers and fellow parents, I asked my 13-year-old daughters what some of their favorite gifts have been over the years. We talked about interactive globes, the giant map on an old playroom wall, books about faraway people and places, and a Putomayo CD that was played so much we've replaced it twice. But when we started discussing why they liked these items, it always came back to interaction. It wasn't the gift itself but the gift of time my husband and I gave to our daughters playing and dancing, reading and wondering, and making connections with the world using those globes and maps. Our love of the world came through, and it inspired in them a curiosity -- a thirst really -- to want to know more.

This conversation then turned to some of their favorite gifts of all: family trips. Some were international, such as our family trip to Peru last Christmas. Others were what we have dubbed "local global adventures," such as our "Egyptian excursion" to New York City which began at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's permanent Egypt exhibit, followed by an Egyptian lunch and then a camel ride at the Bronx zoo (yes, all in one long day for twin 7-year-olds).

While food, music, art, movies, games and books are excellent means to bring the world into our children's lives from the toddler through the teenage years, considering giving a "local global adventure" this holiday season. It can be enjoyed over the holiday break or anticipated in the coming months. To be sure, local global adventures come in all shapes and sizes and do not have to be expensive. In fact, they don't have to cost much at all thanks to your local public library. What you will need, however, is a healthy dose of curiosity and initiative.

Local global adventures can last anywhere from an afternoon to a few weeks. It can be an exploration of another culture over the holidays or a theme over the summer. You might consider it as prelude to an international destination you're planning on visiting someday, or the next best thing to actually going there if financial or logistical reasons make that impossible. It's important that you create local global adventures that you and your children want to experience and you do so within your own means. The overarching point in exploring another culture is to open your children's minds to the beauty and validity of other people and places.

As an example, here's a detailed local global adventure to Egypt. Most large city or university art museums have at least a few permanent Egyptology exhibits, while many others occasionally host traveling ones. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Institute of Art and Archaeology in Memphis, and the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Galleries of Asian Art in Washington, D.C., all have large, permanent exhibits.) First, since geography matters, find Egypt on a map. Trace the Nile River and explore its important role in Egyptian society. Research the country's extensive history. Find and play popular Egyptian music. Study hieroglyphics, check out modern Arabic, look at beautiful picture books found in the library and learn about mummification. Then visit the exhibit and, afterwords, try to eat at a restaurant nearby that serves Egyptian or Middle Eastern food where you can discuss what you saw. Depending on the age of your children, read about contemporary Egypt in the newspaper. Explore the topics of democracy and Islam and the effects that the recent "Arab Spring" have had on Egypt, the region and the connection to your lives. In short, bring the exhibit to life and up-to-date through an expanded exploration of Egyptian culture.

And of course, Egypt is just one example. The whole world is open to a local global adventure, and you and your children are the tour directors. Perhaps a movie, a magazine, a travel article, or a lifelong dream to visit a place or see a particular sight will spark some ideas. Creating a local global adventure takes both imagination and organization, but the preparation is a large part of the experience -- and the fun. Although each adventure is inherently different, follow a loose framework both to keep yourself focused and the adventure age-appropriate. Here are some ideas to get the creative juices flowing:

  • Pick a country, a culture, or a region that interests you. Build your adventure around a cultural event, such as a local festival or museum exhibit, a particular book or landmark, music, or food. Examples include choosing the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, the Eiffel Tower, or the Pyramids of Giza, and learning about its origins and the various roles that it has played over time. Use a book to inspire an adventure, such as Mark Twain's Following the Equator, any of Charles Dickens's Victorian novels, or Rudyard Kipling's tales of India.
  • Find it on a map together. How close or faraway is the country from the United States? What do you know about it or any of its neighbors? Just seeing the country on a map allows you to begin to deduce basic characteristics. Explore the capitals of the European Union by first mapping out a Eurail itinerary followed by visiting museums, trying different foods, and listening to music.
  • Use food to stimulate learning. Go on a culinary adventure that incorporates geography, culture, and history. For example, explore differences among Chinese, Japanese, and Korean foods and cultures by starting with a map to locate the countries. Go to the library to check out books, including travel guides, and take a virtual sightseeing tour of each country before you sample various cuisines at local restaurants.
  • Seek out background information for context. Get a sense of the country by learning about population, languages spoken, historical facts of interest, and current events. The Country Studies Series produced by the Federal Research Division of the U.S. Library of Congress or CIA World Factbook online both have a tremendous amount of interesting information. Among other things, you can listen to the national anthem, learn the head of state's name and title, find the name of the current U.S. Ambassador, read interesting demographic statistics, and understand what drives the national economy. Search through kid-friendly sites such as Kids National Geographic for simple country overviews. Spend time at your local library looking for age-appropriate literature, picture books, travel books, magazines, movies, and music.
  • Learn about current events. Research what is happening in the location or to its people. Discuss what relevance these events have to the United States. Keep tabs on your destination after the adventure is over.
  • Seek out interactive information, crafts, and puzzles. Numerous online sites offer a variety of downloadable crafts and coloring pictures. The National Geographic "Atlas Puzzle" pages offer online virtual puzzles.
  • Build curiosity and appetite about the country through food. Find a restaurant in your area that offers authentic cuisine from that country and encourage your kids to sample a wide range of native dishes. Or better yet, try making your own together. Look for recipes to learn about ingredients, whether you plan to follow them or not; the BBC site or Epicurious "Around the World in 80 Dishes" have some great recipes, with the latter having the added benefit of a Culinary Institute of America chef doing a video demonstration.
  • Use music and rich visual images to bring culture to life. Search for music on Amazon, iTunes, or in the library, as well as look for art books, "coffee table" photo books, back issues of National Geographic magazine, and travel videos in the library, online, or on cable channels. Seek out national art in museums or art galleries near you.
  • Be curious about the language. Visit Ethnologue online, Hello-Hello (apps to download), Live Mocha or the Peace Corps Multimedia Language among others. Practice a few expressions you might use, such as common greetings and phrases (e.g., "Hello, how are you?" "I'm fine, thank you, and you?" "please," and "you're welcome"). Make flash cards to practice and use them with each other during the course of the adventure.
  • Prepare to discuss culture. Culture is a system of shared values, attitudes, and beliefs. Food, music, and art are just the surface manifestations of culture, and it's important to teach children this point. Be open to exploring the culture -- both the different and similar ways of doing things -- and be prepared to reflect on your own culture in light of the alternative perspectives that you will encounter. Be open yourself and your children will learn to be the same.

Once you've gathered all of this information, begin planning your adventure. Create an itinerary that incorporates as many elements from your research as you can into your adventure. But keep in mind that your learning does not have to end when the adventure itself is over; you can keep it going for weeks and even months by continuing to play the music, eat the food, and use the language. The world is an interesting place with so much to learn and enjoy, and giving the gift of a local global adventure is a great way to get your children started exploring it.

Stacie Nevadomski Berdan is an international careers expert and the coauthor, most recently, of Raising Global Children: Ways Parents Can Help Our Children Grow Up Ready to Succeed in a Multicultural Global Economy (ACTFL, November 2013).