Give Kids the World With Multicultural Gifts

7 years ago

It's Christmas all over the world, as the song says, not to mention Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, St. Lucia Day, Boxing Day, and Winter Solstice, to name just a few of the year-end milestone days in myriad cultures and faith traditions.

While not all of these celebrations come with gifts as a primary component, several do, and especially as families and communities mesh more and more, the desire to recognize a loved one or a peer with a token of appreciation in December is certainly real and often practiced.

Giving gifts with a multicultural spin is fun, only as difficult as buying any other present, and a great way to encourage a more global view for young people. But what to buy? 

Blue and Gold Globe Christmas via Shutterstock

Language lessons or immersion classes

There really is no better way to learn a culture than by learning to understand and speak its language. Muzzy, the BBC's language learning course, looks really cool, and offers programs in Spanish, French, German, Italian, English, Mandarin Chinese, Russian and Portuguese. The program is $200 for a year, and there are also trial and monthly payment options. Little Pim offers language learning sets for very young children (options here include the more usual suspects plus Arabic and Hebrew.) And if you really want to go big, language-learning powerhouse Rosetta Stone offers homeschooling options in 28 languages, if Santa or St. Nick or Grandma want to truly impart the gift of a new vocabulary. 

Books in translation. Most bookstores and online book retailers have a section of books printed in various languages, and many of them are for children. Amazon is a trove of books searchable by language, even within categories, like Holidays and Celebrations, and there is a full Travel and Culture section, again searchable by language. If you need help choosing, the International Children's Digital Library is a wonderful resource. Their mission: 

" build a collection of books that represents outstanding historical and contemporary books from throughout the world.  Ultimately, the Foundation aspires to have every culture and language represented so that every child can know and appreciate the riches of children's literature from the world community."

Gift-givers wanting to explore titles can click on the virtual continent for options from, quite literally, all over the world. (And if they'd like to involve the child in the choosing, perhaps a wrapped copy of a book or two with coupons for a few more that the giver and receiver can choose together might be fun. Because what's more multicultural now than the gift of extreme digital literacy?) 

Event Tickets

Depending where you live, you likely have at least some access to events like dance performances, plays, concerts or festivals showcasing the artistic traditions of other countries and cultures. I live in the D.C. area, where I can trip over these opportunities on every corner, many of them not so expensive and very appropriate for children. I've seen a special engagement of the El Salvadoran ballet for a ridiculously cheap admission price, and watched a deaf dance troupe perform (including ASL song interpretation) for free in a local library. I've also checked out Cajun dance parties and Vietnamese Tet (New Year) celebrations, complete with an affordable meal at a local shopping center. These events are frequently kid-friendly and very interesting, particularly when they're activity-based. Check your local listings for cultural options, and don't overlook local college and university and civic calendars, which often showcase global options on their dance cards. 

Food and Cooking Experiences

Sometimes young chefs -- and especially adventurous foodies -- are made, not born. While not exactly a wrappable gift, while kids are off for the holiday, perhaps a trip outside of the usual comfort zone is in order. If they've never tried a particular ethnic cuisine and have expressed an interest, a date with mom or dad to a local restaurant could be in order. For fun, wrap the gift certificate with some ingredients for a basic dish from the menu (hint, hint.)

As far as cookbooks go, you could try something general like the One World Kids CookbookKids Multicultural Cookbook or Easy Desserts From Around the World in the Easy Cookbooks for Kids series. Or maybe you'd prefer more specific options that speak to your child and/or culture, like the Jewish Holiday Kids Cookbook or Handstand Kids Cookbook kits (Chinese, Mexican and Italian options.) I'd also consider Rick & Lanie's Excellent Kitchen Adventures, by Chef Rick Bayless and his daughter Lanie, guaranteed to be a travelogue and a great jumping off point for discussion of international cuisine as well as one family's experience cooking, eating and sharing it.    

Gift Some Global Good

If your child has a humanitarian bent, there are ways to contribute to organizations around the world from your desktop, in often quite tangible ways. A $20 donation to Heifer International, for instance, could give a kid a share in a llama, and therefore an investment in transportation, income, and wool for a family in South America. There are several options -- cows, pigs, and even a flock of chickens can be sponsored, if that's more up your kid's alley (a full selection of games on the website might get them into the subject matter), and the Read to Feed fundraising program is pretty cool too. 

Depending on your child's interests, families can choose to donate to tangible charitable projects around the world. All or part of a $250 donation to Smile Train helps to provide a cleft lip and palate surgery from locally-sourced and trained medical teams in poverty-stricken spots in India, South America, Asia or Africa. Kids can track progress on wells provided by charity:water, once they donate there. Global awareness and giving back doesn't have to be boring, even at holiday time. 



Popular music has more international influences than ever, but world music can be accessible for children, too. And with all due respect, I'm not talking about "It's a Small World After All" on repeat. Any home can have some Native American flute music on in the background for some serenity now (I like Carlos Nakai.) Kids are prime percussion fans, so if you've got a little drummer boy or girl in training, pop a disc like Planet Drum on their playlist. (Sucker boomer grandparents into buying this one by telling them it's got some Mickey Hart on there too.) New York-based Irish sisters Screaming Orphans mesh traditional and pop sounds, and their new cd Lonely Boy would be great for tweens and teens looking for an alternative to the  top-40. Check out their videos here.   

You can always give a child the gift of music-making too. Staying on the drum tip, a djembe will get big points, or a ukulele, maybe. House of Musical Traditions in Takoma Park, Maryland, is an excellent online resources for instruments of all kinds from around the world.

Do not forget earplugs, for yourself.  

Toys and Games

 A basic web search unearths some great ideas for gifts for kids that combine a multicultural perspective with fun. The Melissa and Doug Best Friends Forever Deluxe Magnetic Dress Up set (besides being a mouthful to say) is a fun gift for a fashion plate. I also like diversity that doesn't have to tell you that's what it is, if that makes sense. The dolls just happen to represent different cultures, but the priority here is the cool clothes, and sometimes that's all you need to bond. For a younger child, the Lego Duplo World People Set is fun, and the Mudpuppy Our World Floor Puzzle, while it says it's appropriate for ages up to six, looks like fun for everyone in the room. 

If you have a doll fan in the house and you'd like your choices to reflect different colors and cultures, sites like Toys-R-Us sort out bestsellers in the ethnic category. Over on Etsy, Still Dez curated a wonderful selection of dolls in the Thought I Saw You Today treasury. I'm a fan of the "African Mother, Aunt, Friend" from Timo-Handmade, and Savannah, the African-American all fabric doll from Sue114 has one of the best faces I've ever seen on a doll in the history of all dolls. I think I want one of her for my own. 

Beyond dolls, Ansluasi created the Etsy Small World After All treasury, with a number of handmade and one-of-a-kind items. I love this Children of the World finger puppet set from WeeKnit that he features. 

Celebrate Your Own Culture

No matter where we originate, we can all get caught up in the day-to-day of living, wherever we happen to land. Even if your family celebrates your culture together, it's worth paying attention to what your child would like to know more about, or in what she shows a special interest. If she's a sentimental type who likes family photos, maybe she's old enough to have a framed copy of the grandparents' wedding photo. If he's your music hound, maybe it's worth researching the popular artists from your country or community of origin. Older kids may appreciate dvds. The options are, truly, endless. 

The best gifts of all kinds, for all ages, are unexpected and meaningful. Our cultural identities and backgrounds, and appreciation of others, provide so many chances to test these waters and expand horizons. Whatever you celebrate, in whatever language, it can be a wonderful experience for you and your children with a little bit of creativity and not necessarily undue expense. 

Contributing Editor Laurie White writes at LaurieWrites. Her photos are on Flickr.

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