There are lots of fun and inexpensive ways for kids to learn about different countries and cultures by launching their own explorers and getting back reports.
Kids who dream of traveling around the world don’t have to wait until they’re older. There are lots of ways to explore and learn about other countries that don’t require your kids to board a plane to an exotic place. Of course, children can travel almost anywhere virtually through the power of the Internet, but there are more participatory ways to do it, too.
Families can help younger children launch toys, favorite plush animals, cardboard characters and other items on a round-the-world journey of their choosing, or help them follow the travels of other characters they can learn from. Especially useful if you are planning a “staycation” or smaller vacation this summer, here are some ideas to get your kids excited about travel and thinking about other cultures.
Let Stuffed Animals be your Emissary
For example, a stuffed skunk recently traveled all the way to the Great Wall of China before returning to a middle-schooler in Leeton, Missouri—with stops in places such as China, Vietnam, India, Dubai, and Tanzania along the way.
The skunk’s travels were a result of a project for a middle-school science class, where students were instructed to mail a small stuffed animal in a checkbook box along with a letter of instruction to someone they thought would pass it on. The skunk eventually returned with its box full of photographs and notes, giving the class a taste of what their animal had experienced in other countries.
Pushing the Envelope like Stanley
You can duplicate this idea with any stuffed animal (beanies babies and light plush animals are most likely to fit into a small box and keep postage low). Including an end date for the project on your enclosed note will hopefully ensure that your kids will receive their toy animal back safe and sound—and well-traveled. You can read more on the stuffed skunk project at The Daily-Star Journal.
A similar idea is the Flat Stanley Project. The project originated from the children’s book Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown, in which a boy is squashed flat by a falling bulletin board and then realizes he can travel the world by envelope. The Flat Stanley Project was started by third-grade teacher Dale Hubert in 1995, and was originally conceived as a classroom project. Paper “Flat Stanleys” could be sent in envelopes, and teachers could sign up to host or send a classroom Flat Stanley. Of course, the project can also be done individually and can be a fun summer activity for kids. After reading the book, they can make their own paper Flat Stanleys with their name and address on the back, and then send him off to a faraway friend.
Stanleys are encouraged to return with journals, to encourage literacy, and with pictures to help their owners visualize the world. If you’re worried about Stanley getting lost, email is an option too. Flat Stanleys can be scanned and emailed as attachments, then printed out by the receiver. To learn more about the Flat Stanley Project, you can visit the Flat Stanley Website and check out all the places he’s traveled on a picture blog—Flat Stanley has even spent a few days visiting the Obamas!
Watch & Learn from Traveling Bears
Another way to get kids excited about travel, this time without worrying about postage, is the Traveling Teddies program from the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). The Traveling Teddies program is a society-wide geography education program begun in 1994. Dozens of bears are currently traveling with SATW members — themselves, all professional travelers — across the globe, with the goal of exploring different geographies, cultures, and histories.
Many teddies are affiliated with classrooms, but many have also created blogs or podcasts so that others can share in the fun. Some great blogs (with lots of pictures!) kids will enjoy reading are the travels of Teddy and the adventures of Kevin T. Bear. More blogs and podcasts are available on the Society of American Travel Writers website, along with a world geography quiz.
Ways to Get Started
The idea is to send your traveling friend to a family member or friend who can be counted on to participate in the project and send your friend back with some great pictures and stories. However, if you want to follow the “traveling skunk method” and send a stuffed animal that will be sent to a chain of people before returning to you, be aware that your animal may be more easily lost this way—though it also may travel to more places. Though of course Flat Stanleys can also get lost, it’s easier to mail out several of them just in case.
If you can’t think of anyone who lives far enough away, there are various reputable websites that offer pen pal opportunities for kids. Students of the World is a French-run website that helps kids connect with a pen pal from far away. If you’d rather not find a pen pal through the internet, another good resource is your child’s teacher, who may know of students at other schools looking for pen pals. Your child can send their traveling friend to their pen pal and learn about a different part of the world—plus receiving snail mail is always fun.
If your child wants to send their traveling friend to a famous person, tell them to be aware that they probably won’t receive a response. The best way to send mail to a celebrity is to their fan mail address, which many celebrity fan clubs post on their websites. However, this definitely doesn’t guarantee a real response- or even a response at all.
Still, you never know—in 2008, second graders at a New York City school each mailed out a Flat Stanley to a celebrity. The only one to write back was Barack Obama, then the Democratic candidate for president, who wrote a three page letter to second grader Aron Mondschein describing Flat Stanley’s visit with him in Washington, D.C.
Let us know how your project goes when you try it, and send us your ideas for keeping the mail coming!
(Teddy photo courtesy of Elaine Warner; Flat Stanley in Nigeria photo couresy of Greg Delhaye.)
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