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World Travel -- Sort Of

by Karen Raskin-Young

My daughter, Meredith, and I have been traveling this year. We’ve gone to six countries in twelve months, and we haven’t even left home. What we’ve really done is begun a study of world geography that has been informative, fun, varied and produced lots of unanticipated experiences. We can’t wait for the countries we have yet to explore.

A couple of years ago I purchased some world geography kits. They include an information booklet, puzzle pieces and a puzzle book complete with an activity involving wacky suspects involved in a theft in each of about twenty five countries. Meredith was too little then, but I somehow thought they would come in handy later. Even though they’re meant for kids eight years old and up, we opened our first kit last January near Meredith’s seventh birthday because we just couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Her brother, Jeremy, had left for a nine-day trip to England with teachers and students from his college and we wanted to go too! We had the incentive of wanting to know about and share his experiences, so we started in on the information book. We saw pictures of, and read about, Heathrow Airport, the British Museum, Tower Bridge, Stratford-upon-Avon, and the Globe Theater, which were all places we knew he was going to visit. It made it easier for Meredith to keep track with some difficult material. She put the puzzle together and then we started in on the puzzle book, which she loved. She had the most fun guessing which character was the thief and giggling at their silly names and histories. It was the right combination of facts and fun, something we have tried to reproduce ever since. The experience might have ended there except that Jeremy was still in London and we had, purely by coincidence, another resource we could use. Jeremy was studying Shakespeare, among other things, and I had previously purchased a Shakespearian punch-out puppet theater and mini-script for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, thinking it would be a fun way to introduce a young child to a difficult subject. We started with a synopsis I had, then set up the theater and read through and enacted the play, laughing at the silly doings and discussing the characters. Then more serendipity: Our local university announced it was putting on a production of the very same play, and we attended that, too. A visiting Shakespeare company put on yet another play, so we were steeped in theater. To round out our experience, we brought home from the library a few books on England and created our own version of an English tea. We had a wonderful time and we probably learned as much about England as Jeremy did.

When Chinese New Year rolled around and we realized we could study China to coincide with it, Meredith was raring to go. This time we had no puppet theater, but it didn’t make any difference. We started with the books and puzzles from the kit, and then looked about for other materials. We live in a small city without the major resources of a larger one, but we were beginning to realize there still might be unexpected treasures here. We found informative books at the library and discovered a tiny Oriental Market in town that we had never thought of patronizing. One day Meredith and I made a leisurely exploration down its aisles and came home with food to try. We found other types of food at the grocery store and we made a special meal for Chinese New Year while being dressed in typical traditional dress with appropriate hairdos. Since Meredith adores dress-up, this became a new and usual part of our studies of countries. We also renewed our acquaintance with old favorite movies relating to the culture: Mulan and Big Bird in China. It was wonderful to see things on film we had been reading about.

With May approaching, it suddenly made sense to piggyback our learning onto another holiday: Cinco de Mayo. We completed the book and puzzles for Mexico and found not only informative publications, but relevant children’s fiction at the library. This time we were really on a roll. Our city has a Cinco de Mayo parade and carnival, which Meredith had never before attended. We not only took part in these, including a ride on a slide that scared me silly, but also tried out a couple of new Mexican restaurants. We discovered a movie on the lives of children from around the world which included Mexico, and books with a Spanish language introduction and Mexican crafts to do. We had fun making "papel picado," learning about the Aztecs and practicing the Mexican Hat Dance. One result of studying countries in this interdisciplinary and varied way is that Meredith now thinks we should study everything by gathering multiple materials and enriching the bare bones of the subject.

Throughout the rest of the year we have had lots more adventures. We studied Greece in the summer just in time for the Summer Olympics, which took place in Athens. In addition to the usual materials, we read up on the Olympics and its history, created our own athletic races to see who took home medals, followed Olympic events and athletes on T.V., created a Greek meal, read Greek myths and discussed and drew the various gods, and took advantage of a T.V. program which showed Greek sights from a helicopter.

In the fall, we studied Australia, partly because I had purchased some Minties (chewy mint candies) which were beginning to get hard, as well as a four-pronged boomerang from Australia. We made lists of Aussie words and had much fun trying to carry on a conversation using them. We had dinner at the Outback restaurant -- not a new occurrence -- but this time we read every Australian reference on the menu and walked all around the restaurant, studying their map to find places we knew. We also examined every wall poster and statue to see how they corresponded with what we’d studied. We watched an old favorite movie, Rescuers Down Under, this time noting the setting near Ayers Rock (Uluru) and goannas and frilled lizards we had become familiar with. On my husband’s suggestion, we also saw Crocodile Dundee. Although the movie was somewhat too advanced for Meredith, we came to appreciate it as well because it, too, showed us things we wouldn’t have seen otherwise, such as an aborigine festival called the Corroboree.

By now we really understand how to research subject-specific books, movies and places to visit. We used this technique when we made an actual trip to Williamsburg and Jamestown in October. We read so many books beforehand and during the trip and saw several informative movies as well, that we knew what we were going to see. Everything we saw there only added to the knowledge we already had about Pocahontas and John Smith, the ship, Susan Constant, specific locations in Williamsburg and some of the history we had gathered. We attended lectures by Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, saw colonial concerts and entertainment, learned games and tried foods, and Meredith even wore a mob cap. When we returned home, Meredith was easily able to make a thorough presentation at our homeschool group’s Presentation Day on the history, games and customs of the places we’d seen.

Geography is now more to Meredith than a set of facts to be memorized. It is a living thing and has become, unexpectedly, one of the most fascinating and involving parts of her homeschool study and daily life. We continue to "travel": She has just turned eight and we are presently on a journey to Japan where we are learning calligraphy and Japanese characters, growing bonsai plants, learning Japanese songs, writing haiku and tanka poems, doing origami, becoming familiar with Japanese folk tales and Hiroshima, creating finger puppets to speak Japanese words and trying out new foods. We even attended a session called Arts of Japan at a Phoenix museum that just happened to be scheduled the day we were in town. You can call us world travelers if you like, but most of what we experience happens right here at home where we can sleep in our own beds and still pet the cat (if he doesn’t sit on wet paintings or sample new dishes). Care to join us on our next jaunt? We’re heading to India soon. K.R.Y.