Website offers kids a virtual passport to global cultures

Website offers kids a virtual passport to global cultures

Does your child know that students in China attend school all day and into the evening? Or that cricket is the game of choice for most Indian children?

 You may not be able to travel to those far-flung destinations yourself, but a new website can give your kids a passport to learn about other countries.

 University of Illinois Extension has created the “Forever Friends” website as part of its Schools Online. The idea is to give teachers and parents new tools to promote “geographic and cultural literacy,” authors say.

The leaders of tomorrow are going to live in an increasingly global and multicultural society, says Jane Scherer, urban programs specialist and director of Extension’s websites.

“They need to be aware of the customs, the traditions, the living environments of people in the world around them,” she says.

Developed for fourth-  through sixth-graders, Forever Friends introduces students to the cultural arts, customs and philosophies of Japan, China, India, the Philippines, Korea and Vietnam.

First, children fill out a passport, which will be stamped as they "visit" each country.

Then they're taken on tours by a host who is native to each country -- such as Yuefen in China, who explains how China is the largest country in the world, with 1.3 billion people from 56 different nationalities. She talks about the complexities of the written Chinese language, efforts to protect pandas and how to use chopsticks.

She also describes the typical Chinese school day: start at 7 a.m., work all morning, lunch and nap from noon to 2 p.m., work all afternoon, home for dinner at 5 p.m., and back to school from 7 to 9 p.m.

In India, Ajith takes children to three very different cities: Mumbai, the largest, where they learn about the elaborate, five-day Punjabi wedding (which can cost up to $300,000); up north to Ahmedabad in Gujarat, where they see a kite-flying festival; and then to Thekkady in Kerala, in southern India, where they ride a boat to a wildlife sanctuary to see elephants and tigers.

Extension worked with teachers and consultants from across Illinois, and with natives of the six countries, to develop a site that was both authentic and interesting for children, Scherer says. Teachers’ advice? “Make it fun, make it educational, make each country different.”

“It’s not a formula,” Scherer says. “It’s much more focused on what we hope kids will be really interested in.”

Scherer and the website’s two developers, Extension educators Virginia Kuo and Greg Stack, traveled to China two years ago on an educational exchange, working with three different Chinese universities on youth programs. That stimulated their interest in helping American youth understand the rest of the world, particularly Asia, Scherer says.

Extension educators will start promoting the site to teachers this month. An online manual includes additional materials and supplementary activities for the classroom, such as international foods or festivals.

The site conforms with state standards on social sciences education in fourth through sixth grade, but teachers can adapt the material for other ages, she says.

And Scherer encouraged parents to check out Forever Friends and more than 30 other Extension educational websites as an enrichment activity for children this summer.

"It’s helping kids learn about the world around them,” she says.

Photo: The home page of the new "Forever Friends" website. Photo courtesy UI Extension.

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