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Teaching Global Awareness with Arts & Crafts
By Anna Reyner, MA

There's no better time than now to introduce classroom activities that enhance children's awareness of our global community. Children hear about world events and go to school with children from around the world. They learn to respect both the unique qualities of different cultures, as well as similarities between all cultures, if they learn about global customs, traditions and celebrations.

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, which can be made in the classroom using arts and crafts materials. Not only are multicultural arts and crafts fun to make, they provide a perfect hands-on learning experience. Young children enjoy and learn best when all of their senses are engaged. Arts and crafts combine 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 candle holder to celebrate these holidays, but their candle holders 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. Children are more likely to develop interest in other people's customs and cultures if they understand them in a broader context. Exploring cultures through seasons is one way to help develop this broader world view.

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 public schools, both Halloween and the Mexican Day of the Dead are celebrated with arts, crafts, costumes and hand made decorations. In my own home school, volunteers make fascinating Mexican "sugar skulls" for each classroom. Many schools have interested and talented parent volunteers who would eagerly contribute ideas from their own cultures, if only asked. 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 distractible 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 traditional arts and crafts, are tangible reminders that all cultures have unique ways of expressing themselves. This is an excellent time to expand classroom activities that teach children how we are different, how we are alike, and how we are all connected to the cultural heritage of the past.