Cultural Education for Your Tween
Believe it or not, there's a reason for all those field trips your kids take – it's not just a day off for everybody. Intelligence research has shown, and educators agree, that cultural knowledge is an important component of a child's intellectual and social growth. It's also the one form of intelligence that doesn't decline with age. Easy for them to say, but with television and radio saturated with raucous rap and pop tunes sung by belly-baring blondes, it can be tough to keep kids interested in more traditional forms of culture. The good news is, it's not impossible.
Taking Little Bites
Carol Weston, author of the Melanie Martin series of books for preteen girls and mother of two daughters, takes direct aim at the topic of cultural education in Melanie in Manhattan (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2005). Melanie has already been to Spain, Holland and Italy. Now she discovers the cultural treasures right in her own backyard: New York.
"The book about Spain was a piece of cake because I lived in Spain for two years, and my daughter is living there now as part of the school year abroad program," says Martin. "I'd visited both Holland and Italy and drew upon those experiences for those books. After that, it just seemed logical to have Melanie explore New York and to show that culture is everywhere."
And it is. While to those of us who dream of visiting New York the cultural attractions may seem obvious, even the smallest town has a history, and according to Weston, that's a good place to start expanding your child's cultural horizons. It's especially effective if you start when they're very young so that visiting museums and exploring history are simply part of the routine.
Weston has a variety of suggestions for making art museums interesting for kids and for making them think rather than just race through to get to the gift shop. Here are some activities she recommends:
- Start at the gift shop. Yes, you read that right. Have your child pick out a postcard of a painting they like, and then lead you on a reverse treasure hunt to find the painting.
- Pack a sketch book and colored pencils. Encourage your children to copy the paintings.
- Give everyone 30 seconds to look around the room and choose one painting that they would hang on their wall. Ask them to explain their choice.
- Don't stay too long. Plan an hour or two at a time. Spend the rest of the day at the park.
As a parent of three, I can add that you shouldn't limit your children by what you think is appropriate. When my oldest son was 11, he wanted to visit the Warhol museum in nearby Pittsburgh. Not able to find a sitter, I reluctantly took his 6-year-old brother along, thinking the museum would be much too sophisticated for him. The 6-year-old loved the bright colors and recognizable imagery of Warhol's pop art. Now 11 himself, it's still his favorite museum. However, do keep in mind that some museums have age restrictions for behavioral reasons.
Beyond Classical Culture
Remember that cultural education isn't limited to the old paintings. Folk art and music are important components of our cultural heritage. Margaret Sagarese, author of Good Parents, Tough Times (Loyola Press, 2005), points out that country and jazz music are both original American art forms.
"I think we have to get away from a stodgy definition of culture," says Sagarese. "Arts and crafts are unique to many American cultures, such as the American Indian or the country people that live in the hollers. Visiting these places and seeing the crafts they make, like jewelry and dolls, is as important as seeing the paintings of a Dutch master."
Sagarese also thinks it's important to accept and try to understand pop culture out of respect for our children. If we take their culture seriously, they may be more willing to expand their horizons. In fact, she suggests using that as a springboard to some cultural activities for girls. "Fashion is an art form, and it's certainly one most girls can relate to," she says. "One great activity would be to take them to a museum of first ladies' dresses. Sometimes there are even traveling collections of clothes that belong to celebrities such as Madonna or Princess Di. Even this is part of our cultural heritage."
Weston agrees, saying that sitting down with your children and watching their favorite show on television, even if you don't care for it, sends a message that all culture is important. "Just put your feet up and be glad you're sharing the moment," she says. "Or, if your daughter turns on the radio, instead of saying you can't stand the music, give it a chance. Try to search for the common ground."
Culture in the Schools
Not every child is fortunate enough to have parents who care enough to take them to the museums to see the art, dinosaurs or folk crafts. This is why programs in schools that provide that cultural exposure are so important and worth supporting. Besides just exposing children to existing culture, these programs may be nurturing tomorrow's great masters. "One great argument for the arts in school is that it's one thing that stimulates poor learners," says Sagarese. "Not every child is good at math, but every child can draw and express themselves. Art can elevate kids."
Programs such as field trips to cultural attractions also often have the advantage – for all children – of professional guides or teachers who are very knowledgeable about that particular attraction. Even so, Weston says parents should not be intimidated by art and culture if it's something they weren't exposed to as youngsters. In fact, learning as you go is a great example for children – that art is an ongoing, lifelong learning experience. Museums often offer low- or no-cost audio tours, as well as tours by docents that can help both parents and children learn a thing or two. Follow the experience up with a book from the library that everyone can enjoy.
In the 1960s, American psychologist John Horn proposed that there are two factors to intelligence: fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Fluid intelligence includes skills such as speed of reasoning and memory. These increase into adulthood and then decline due to the aging process. Crystallized intelligence is the knowledge and skills obtained through learning and experience, and it can increase indefinitely during a person's life. Schools already know this. Share it with your kids.