Teaching Culture Through the Arts
By Anna Reyner

How can art be used in constructing a young child's view of cultural differences and similarities?

-Jacy Varn, Toledo, Ohio

Hands-on art experiences are one of the best ways to teach cultural differences and similarities to young children. All cultures express their values and customs through holidays and rituals. These holidays and rituals invariably include objects that can be made in the classroom using arts and craft materials. Not only are multicultural arts and crafts fun to make, but they also provide a perfect hands-on learning experience. Young children enjoy and learn best when all of their senses are engaged. Arts and crafts combines sensory learning and cognitive development with something tangible that can be taken home and remembered.

One good way to incorporate multicultural learning into the classroom is to follow cultures by seasons. Take winter, for example, when many cultural holidays and celebrations occur. A teacher can easily teach and compare a wide variety of winter holidays by having the classroom create ritual objects for display and study. For example, the African winter holiday of Kwanzaa can be contrasted with the Judaic winter holiday of Chanukah. Both cultures use a candleholder to celebrate these holidays, but their candleholders look different and have different meanings. A classroom can create both a Chanukah "menorah" and a Kwanzaa "kinara" and talk about the differences and similarities between the two.

Life-Cycle Themes
Another way to help construct a child's view of culture is to study "life-cycle" themes through different cultures. How, for example, do different cultures express their belief in creation? How do they celebrate marriage, birth, or coming of age? How do they honor their dead? In many schools, both Halloween and the Mexican Day of the Dead are celebrated with arts, crafts, costumes, and hand-made decorations. In my local school district, volunteers make fascinating Mexican "sugar skulls" for each classroom. A study of basic life-cycle rituals throughout various cultures will provide children with the knowledge that while we express ourselves and our culture in unique ways, the world community has much in common.

Families who travel with their children on vacations will have fun finding a variety of cultural expressions in local arts and crafts. Parents and teachers can encourage children to share their "travel finds" with classmates. Recently, I traveled to British Columbia with my two young children and was delighted when one of them chose a native Indian totem pole to bring home as his souvenir. When we took him to the totem museum he seemed distracted and uninterested in learning about the displays, but they obviously made an impression on him when he later chose to take a replica of one home.

Multicultural arts and crafts are one of the best ways to inspire children's interest in other cultures of the world and facilitate our connection to the world community. Ritual objects, or local arts and crafts, are tangible reminders that all cultures have unique ways of expressing themselves…yet in many ways we are more alike than different.

Anna Reyner, M.A., is a dynamic creative arts instructor who is known for motivating people to get excited about their own creativity. She has presented workshops and keynotes on art therapy and imagination arts at more than 200 state, national, and international conferences.