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Birthdays in Brazil, Tooth Fairies in France, by Gwen Taylor

Books and more books to help kids understand and appreciate the various cultures in their world

As technology and rapid communication systems shrink the planet, it becomes increasingly important for children to understand people of other cultures. One way they can gain this appreciation is through literature – the many children's books that explore the various cultures of the world.

By sharing these books and developing learning experiences to accompany them, we can help students to develop an appreciation for the diversity found in the world, as well as helping them to understand the similarities that connect us all.

Girl wearing a birthday crown

Birthday crowns, like the one this child is wearing, are a Brazilian birthday tradition.

Another year older.
Worldwide birthday traditions are an easy and fun way to build cultural consciousness. P.K. Hallinan's Today Is Your Birthday! (Ideals Children's Books, 1990) is an excellent book for primary grade children. Birthday Surprises: Ten Great Stories to Unwrap (Beech Tree, 1997), edited by Johanna Hurwitz, offers read-aloud choices for intermediate grade children. "Don the Dragon's Birthday," a poem by Shel Silverstein in Falling Up (HarperCollins, 1996), is appropriate for both primary and intermediate grade students.

After sharing a story or poem with the class, I tell the children that during the year they're going to investigate how children in other countries celebrate birthdays. As each student's birthday approaches, he or she will research celebrations in a country of his or her choice. The birthday child will design a poster featuring appropriate decorations and the words "Happy Birthday" in the language of his or her chosen country.

The due dates for my students' birthday projects are – what else? – their individual birthdays! When one of my students has a birthday, that child locates his or her chosen country on a world map, displays the poster he or she made and discusses the celebration experience that was researched. (Children with summer birthdays celebrate in weeks when there are no other celebrations.)

There are several sources to help students. Birthdays! Celebrating Life Around the World by Eve B. Feldman (BridgeWater, 1996) provides information about 17 different birthday traditions around the world. Arlene Erlbach's Happy Birthday, Everywhere! (Millbrook, 1997) provides information for 19 countries and an activity related to each country's traditions. Another excellent resource – www.birthdaycelebrations.net – offers birthday games, recipes and activities for numerous countries.

A hole in your smile.
Kindergarten and first grade teachers will be delighted with Throw Your Tooth on the Roof – Tooth Traditions from Around the World by Selby B. Beeler (Houghton Mifflin, 1998), which presents tooth-loss traditions from 65 areas of the world.

Make a tooth-shaped cardboard cutout for each location mentioned in the book. Place the cutouts in a box and invite each child who loses a tooth to draw a cardboard tooth from the box. You can then read about what it's like to lose a tooth at the location listed on the card and place a colored pin at the location on a world map.

Games children play.
Arlene Erlbach's Sidewalk Games Around the World (Millbrook, 1997) provides background information on 26 games. Why not plan a class Games Day? Divide students into groups and assign a game to each group. Each group makes the materials needed for the game, creates a poster of the rules and plays the game until they understand it well enough to teach it to their classmates on Games Day.

Great read-alouds.
Many children will be familiar with the words in We All Sing with the Same Voice by J. Philip Miller and Sheppard M. Greene (HarperCollins, 2001), as they've been part of "Sesame Street" since 1982. Paul Meisel's illustrations enhance the message. The book has an accompanying CD for sing-alongs.

Another good read-aloud is Wake Up, World! A Day in the Life of Children Around the World by Beatrice Hollyer (Henry Holt, 1998), which compares the lives of eight children around the world as they wake up, do chores, go to school and so on. Your students can compare their own experiences with those of the children in the book.

Why not start each school day by sharing a joke from another part of the world? Barbara Walker's book, Laughing Together: Giggles and Grins from Around the Globe (Free Spirit Publishing, 1992), features jokes from 98 countries. If you have intermediate students, try discussing humor and why people find jokes funny.

An excellent teacher resource is Promoting a Global Community Through Multicultural Children's Literature by Stanley Steiner (Libraries Unlimited, 2001). It reviews nonfiction, fiction, picture books, folklore and poetry, with suggestions for classroom use.

Learning to say "feliz aniversario" or hearing about France's "Tooth Mouse" helps kids appreciate ways of life that may be new to them. Enjoy these books with your class and help them develop "cultural consciousness."

Children in a potato-balancing race, book covers for Birthdays!, Laughing Together, Wake Up, World!, and Tooth Box activity

The potato-balancing race (above) is a popular birthday game in Israel. Birthdays!, Laughing Together and Wake Up, World! give insight into celebrations and daily life in other countries. Learn about tooth-loss traditions around the world with the "Tooth Box" activity (bottom right).

Topic: Multicultural Traditions

  1. Multicultural Pavilion: Resources, lessons and intercultural activities.

  2. Building Smiles Together™: Lessons, activities and a great curriculum for oral health. Link to any of the resources for kids, teachers and parents as part of your Tooth Fairy activity box.

  3. Birthday traditions: Find out how the tradition of birthday parties started, learn about traditions in different countries and link to famous peoples' birthdays.

Gwen Taylor coordinates the elementary education program at Lewis-Clark State College, Lewiston, ID.