Paul is four years old. His dad is British and his mum is Spanish. They live in Marbella, in a lovely beach area that’s popular among expats; Paul has neighbours from Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands. Paul’s dad works as a manager for a British hotel chain.
“5 minutes walk from the beach? You’re so lucky, your kids must love it! So you go to beach every day, don’t you? When can I come to see you”?
That’s what most people tell us. Most people who haven’t been to the beach with small kids.
When you think about kids on the beach, you visualize happy, cute kids, who build sandcastle and jump in the waves like on Neckermann and Thomas Cook billboards. These lovely images where the sun is shining and the kids in cute, matching swim suits with no sand on are playing quietly while the parents are relaxing, sunbathing and sipping their drinks on white sun beds.
FORGET IT. THIS is how a kids on the beach REALLY looks like:
When my son Andrés was born in Spain I received congratulations cards from all over the world, in at least five languages. My family from Poland, my husband’s relatives from Venezuela and Dominican Republic, our friends from France, Italy, UK, Mexico, Brasil, Canada and many other countries, they all sent us gifts and wished us all the best on the phone, Skype and Facebook.
When he turned one, we celebrated his birthday with a dress-up Disney party in a group of family and friends from six countries. As a toddler he spent a New Year’s Eve in Paris, carried in our arms to the top of Eiffle Tower and sleeping in his buggy as we were wathcing fireworks over Notre Dame cathedra.
And it wasn’t until now, when he turned 5 that I started to think how much he’s influenced by his multicultural upbringing.
One of my main principles is that people don’t have to parent in exactly the same way to get on well. I mean, it’s none of my business if my friends breastfeed or bottle feed their babies, go to back to work soon or stay at home, let their kids watch TV or ban TV, etc, etc. We have a group of wonderful, supportive friends who do a lot of different things with their kids; some of them cook and bake together, others prefer to order pizza and watch movies, yet others love to be outside and play sports. Continue reading A big war over a little chocolate. Are parenting wars the new “sexy”?
I’ve been a volunteer for a major part of my life. I taught English to children in a local orphanage since I was 16, I worked with children from underprivileged backgrounds in Croatia and with little cancer patients in Spain. And since I had kids, I’ve been a volunteer translator for several organizations. Continue reading Be Santa. Volunteering with kids.
So, here we are back home after a 2 weeks holiday in London. The boys have had the time of their lives: there was plenty of stuff with Thomas the Tank Engine, they visited lots of cool places and – surprise of the year- fell in love in British food!
No one would guess that they were born in Spain, the Mediterranean food paradise and that they are both picky eaters. Fish& chips became their new favourite dish, they drank lots of disgusting tea with milk and they preferred cheap street food to lovely home meals cooked by my friends.
And they spoke lots of English.
As the video was recorded on a very noisy King’s Cross Square (we wanted to have red buses in the background) you can’t hear very well Andres’s answers; this is why I repeat his words. Sorry if that sounds annoying 😉
I’m very glad as they both got a grasp of the language quickly. As you can see in the Easter video , in April my older son only knew colours and numbers in English. After a few months of lessons at home and a 2 weeks stay in UK he can ask simple questions (what’s your name/how old are you), describe objects from his everyday life (food, toys) and – what makes me a very proud mum – ask for things in stores and play simple games with English speaking kids.
Even Michał, who’s not 3 yet has learnt to answer his age, say “please”, “thank you” and “bye bye”.
Would you like to help your kids to speak English abroad without spending a fortune on language summer camps?Read on and, if you like my ideas, use them on your next family trip!
These activities are based in London, but I’m sure you can do similar things in many UK cities. Good luck!
Tip 1: Activities for kids in English: events, museums, play groups.
Good news: they’re free!
British kids who spend the summer in the city can’t be bored. There are lots of cool workshops and activities organized in museums, events for families in parks or play centres.
Isn’t a storytelling session at a Transport Museum, among red buses and other cool vehicles funnier than “story time ” in the classroom at a language camp?
A good website to start is http://www.netmums.com/ , an English site where you can find activities, playgroups and events for kids in your town. You only have to register and tag the area where you’re going to stay in UK.
Another nice site is TimeOut.
Here you can find a list of free child-friendly museums, outdoor play centres and other fun places.
We have joined the following activities:
– V&A Museum of Childhood: home to a great collection of kids’ toys, games and costumes. They run activities from 10.30 to 16.00 from Monday to Friday, including storytelling, have-a-go sessions and arts and crafts activities. The entrance to this museum is free for kids and adults.
The boys loved a story about animals and as the language was very simple, they didn’t find it hard to join in the activity.
– London Transport Museum : one of their favourite places in London! Can you imagine two little boys obsessed with vehicles of all kinds at a cool place where you can get on all the buses? And if it wasn’t enough, there is a lovely play area with a wooden train track to play and more buses to “drive”!
This museum is free for kids. Adults have to pay 15 pounds, but it’s an annual ticket – they don’t sell one day tickets – I absolutely recommend it if you’re staying longer in London as your kids will definitely want to come back to the museum. We have been 3 times and the boys never wanted to leave! Good news for the parents: there’s Wi-Fi in the museum and it’s located in Covent Garden, so after your trip to the museum you can explore this great area, go to the theatre or for a meal in one of numerous lovely restaurants.
We joined storytelling and arts&crafts sessions in this museum, both dedicated to Pigeons that delivered letters during the 2nd World War.
Although the topic is quite advanced for young kids, they enjoyed drawing and cutting their pigeons and participating in a very animated storytelling session, where they even got to throw small plastic balls at each other to represent the fight!
We also loved Coram’s Fields, a huge playground with a park and summer activities for kids. This centre offers different summer activities, like football, music, dancing or simply playtime for under fives. Andres and Michal enjoyed playing with new toys, chatting with lovely monitors and getting to know other kids.
A funny thing happened to us at Coram’s Fields; a little girl thought that the boys are her brothers as they were wearing same strapped t-shirts as hers and followed them all around the place!
Tip 2: Organize play dates with English-speaking families
Do you have a profile on Couchsurfing.com ? It’s a fantastic site that connects travellers with locals who offer to host them. Couchsurfing has local forums in different cities all around the world, and there are also dedicated forums for families. You can meet wonderful, open-minded people on Couchsurfing who love to travel and meet new friends.
You can also try a forum on NetMums.com “meet a Mum” to connect with mums from the area where you’re going to stay.
Benefits? Kids will make new friends and so will you, moreover locals can find you cool places in the area!
I met a wonderful, very friendly, like-minded multilingual family on CouchSurfing who met us in London: Sachiko, a Japanese translator who moved to London a few months ago with her partner and her son Christopher.
Chris was 5 years old and spoke four languages. The funny thing is one of his languages was Spanish; as soon as the boys discovered that, not a single English word was said on that playdate.
But still, the three of them had a great time!
Tip 3: Motivating learning resources
Kids love picture books and colorful magazines about their favourite TV characters, like Thomas the Engine, Peppa Pig or Disney Cars. In UK you can get a lot of cheap picture books in charity shops and “one pound” stores. Go shopping with your kids and let them choose the material they like best. Watch TV in English with your kids; we became fans of a programming block on Channel 5 Milkshake! that features popular shows and music videos for children. The boys were delighted to see that Thomas the Tank Engine, Tree Fu Tom and other characters they loved “could speak English, like us, mummy”.
Tip 4: Yes, DO talk with strangers!
I taught the boys to say “hello” and “bye bye” every time we got on the train, bus, we entered a shop or a playground, not to forget “excuse me”, “please” and “thank you”. The British were delighted with their efforts and our idea of a “learning holiday” and often followed up the conversation asking about the boys’ name, age, favourite food and colours.
I’m aware that it may be a difficult exercise for introvert kids; you can start with a “hello” on the playground or at a store you visit everyday. Sometimes kids who don’t like speaking English in the classroom change their actitude completely in a “real life” situation, especially if they see positive reactions of foreigners.
A lovely lady on the train gave Andres an Angry Birds stickers book for his “excellent English skills”; another gentleman praised him with a pound.
The latter one had a dubious pleasure of meeting my son in the middle of a tantrum; Andres got hysterical at a restaurant because apparently Michal’s roast looked nicer than the one on his own plate, so I took him out for a moment. As I was waiting for him to calm down so that I could seriously talk with him about behaviour in public places, an elderly gentleman approached Andres, asked him his name and gave him “a coin for chocolate, your English is very good, boy”.
Andres immediately stopped crying, said “thank you, I love chocolate” and ran back to the restaurant to share the good news with his brother.
He thought that the coin had actually some chocolate inside.
My friends back in the restaurant decided they should all take turns to cry on the street; it could result more profitable than their London jobs.
Tip 5: You can get it if you really want…and ask for it in English
Ice cream? Orange juice? A packet of crisps? A toy car or fluffy animal in a “One Pound” store? Yes, you can….but you must ask for it in English.
Andres was used to ask for things in small stores as I often encouraged him to do that back in Poland. He knew some basic food vocabulary; that was all he needed.
And is there better motivation for a five year old than a lovely ice cream on a hot, sightseeing day?
He asked for his first “English ice cream” at Coram’s Field, on the third day of our trip. He used very simple sentences “ice cream, please” and colours instead of flavours “pink and yellow, please”, but the lady behind the counter understood him.
Some shop assistants were very helpful, asking him simple questions in English to make him speak more ( a big or a small smoothie? Pink or orange?) He was praised, encouraged to speak and he gained confidence, which was even better than sweets.
Michał reduced his store conversations to “hello”, “bye bye” and “thank you”, but he definitely understood much more; once,when Andres asked for an ice cream, he immediately shouted “two”!
How to make this exercise easier for your kids? Role play “a store” at home. It is especially motivating if you “sell” sweets 😉 With older kids, you can use plastic coins as “real money” and introduce the expression “how much is it”.
Tip 6: English is all around you
Look at billboards on the road. Read aloud signs at the museums. If you go to a zoo or a city farm, read the information about the animals to your kids and ask them if they know what the animal is called in their own language. Encourage your kids to read the signs and try to understand their meaning.
However, remember that visiting a foreign country may be an overwhelming experience for your child. Take it easy; if your kids are tired and unwilling to speak English, let them have a rest. Learning English on holiday needs to be a fun experience, not an obligation.
I always encourage families with small kids to take it easy on holidays. It is better to visit fewer museums or attractions, choose carefully those that are the most attractive for kids, and spend the rest of the day playing in the park or at the playground.
I had been to London for a few times before I had kids and I was delighted to discover the city from my boys’ perspective: beautiful parks, interactive displays for kids at museums. fun at workshops. My boys would be bored to death in British Museum, but they talk everyday about the fun we had in the “pirate place” (Diana’s Memorial Playground), play area in the Disney store or on a trip to Purley countryside, where they were running and shouting on the hills.
And, even more, I was happy to see how quickly they were learning English and, unlike many kids and adults I saw abroad, how inhibited they were to communicate with others despite a very basic grasp of vocabulary.
Have you tried to help your kids to speak a foreign language abroad? How was your experience? Do you think that bilingual children learn foreign languages more easily? Share your stories with me!
Many parents decide to move abroad so that they could improve their family lifestyle and give their children better opportunities. However, when you think of life overseas with a young child million of question come to your mind. How will I organize child care and schooling? Is it a safe place for kids? How about the language barrier? Will they miss a lot their friends and grandparents?
We all know how hard it can be to reconcile work and family life even in our own town, where we have relatives to help and we know how things work. What is more, young children thrive on routines; if a toddler bursts into tears just because he can’t eat his dessert with his favourite Pocoyo spoon or play with Jaimito in the park today, how will he cope in a Pocoyo-free and Jaimito-free world?
So, I’m glad to tell you: you can make it. Yes, you and your kids can happily live ever after in a foreign country. Yes, it’s a rewarding experience for the whole family. Yes, your kids will benefit from learning a new language early. And yes, I know that because I moved from the very South to the very North of Europe with a 2 year old Michał and a 4 year old Andres.
In my case it was much easier as we moved from Spain, where we had lived for six years to Poznań, my hometown in Poland, where I had lived all my life.
Actually we were coming back to my hometown, where I had family and friends, but it was still challenging. We were moving with two small kids from a small town by the beach to a big city with cold weather. My kids, who used to spend all days outside playing by the pool with just their swimmers on, would have to wear warm jackets, scarves and woolen hats. And as we hadn’t travelled to Poland for a while, they didn’t remember anything about the place.
I had left my city, Poznan, as a young student; I knew everything about the best parties in the town, but I had no obviously no idea about childcare, schools, playgrounds and other kid-related stuff. Many people think Costa del Sol is a paradise for kids; it’s a wonderful area with beach, mountains and many green areas. Plus, most housing estates have their own pool. “Your kids are going to hate you for taking them away”! my friends were saying. “They’ll be freezing and they’ll be sick all the time, they’re not used to the cold!”
However, we have decided to move to Poland and we have carefully planned it so that it would be a rewarding experience for the whole family.
Let me share my tips with you and your little expats-to-be!
Please notice that this is only some general advice; I’ll soon publish more posts about expat life for families in different countries with useful links.
1) Learn together about the new place
A 3 year old from France has no idea that a place called Ireland even exists. Talk to your children about “the new country”, tell them things about the place they may appeal to them. If you’re moving to Italy, you can talk about “the place with the best pizza and ice cream in the world”. Try to familiarize your child with the language and culture of the new place: you can watch together your kid’s favorite shows on YouTube in the “new” language, pictures of the town and fun places for children. If it’s possible, go on a short family trip to that country first. Read together illustrated books about the place and answer your kids’ questions. It’s also a good idea for a family activity and spending some quality time together!
Before we moved “from the South to the North”, I spent ages talking with kids about cool things to do in Poznań. We watched pictures from my own childhood, talked about the parks, playgrounds and the zoo. I explained to the kids that kids in Poland don’t play at the beach, but in winter they play in the snow, they can make snowmen and sled. They wear nice scarfs and hats with their favorite Disney characters.
Kids can become obsessed easily; after a few days Andres was asking all the time “when are we going to play in the snow, mummy? Why not today”?
And of course when we came to Poland in sunny September, all he wanted to do was to sled. Everyday he asked when it’s going to snow.
The funny thing is that this year we had only one weekend of snow. What is very rare in Poland. Maybe we have brought warmer weather from Spain.
2) Get the kids excited
Every mum and dad knows how much a kid can get excited about his/her birthday party that’s due in 8 months. Or a holiday trip. Or Christmas. They never get tired of talking about the details, the party guests, their dream present or cake.
Plan a special event as soon as you get to the new place; it can be a party, a trip to a local beautiful beach or arranging together a new room for your kid. Talk a lot, plan a lot, enjoy a lot. Let it be a new, wonderful thing that they have never been able to do at home!
Talk about the journey. If it’s the first time your kids are going to travel by plane, you can take them for for a trip to the airport first and explain what you’re going to do. They will definitely like the idea!
3) The importance of routines
Small children thrive on routines. They won’t have their dinner without their favourite Sponge Bob and they won’t sleep tight if mummy doesn’t read them a story first.
(My son has recently developed a habit of putting all his stuff animals in pairs, giving each one a kiss and “a spoon of milk” from a small plastic pot. He won’t go to sleep if even one resident of his little Noah’s Ark is missing ).
Before you go abroad, think what are the most important routines for your family. Is it a bath and the story before you go to sleep? Or maybe Friday nights with Disney movies and pizza? Pay extra attention to the routines and stick to them at a new place; that will give the kids the sense of belonging and security.
If you start working immediately once you get to your new destination, it’s helpful if your partner can spend some time at home in the beginning and pay attention to the children.
4) When packing together is half the fun
Most kids love to pack their backpacks even for a day trip; they find it important to choose which toys they will they to the park or beach. Involve kids in packing your bags and enjoy that experience! Let them organize their toys and clothes and help as much as they can. They can put different labels on cardboard boxes (ie. “toys”/”summer clothes”/books”).
My boys had a lot of fun hiding in our never ending boxes and organizing their stuff. They became experts in climbing the pile of boxes in the living room.
5) Friends will be friends. Love (and Facebook) knows no distance.
Reassure your children that they will be able to stay in touch with their family and preschool friends. Before you move abroad, show your kids how to talk on Skype, explain that photos and voice messages can be sent via applications like WhatsApp or Line. Kids are very tech-savvy; my 4 year old knows very well that the blue icon on my phone (Skype) is used for talking with granny and the white and red one (YouTube) for watching his Thomas&Friends videos. He often asks “please, take a picture of my new train and send it to Daddy so that he could see it”.
Before we left Malaga, I befriended a few preschool/nursery mums on Facebook. My boys can sit with me in front of a computer, and watch pictures of their friends. Some of the mums are very active on FB; every few days we can see new pictures from family trips, birthday parties, etc. They also comment on my boys’ pictures; Andres is always happy when I read to him different comments about his new bike or our trip to the ZOO.
If you’re not very keen on social media sites, stick to Skype and programs for free messaging like WhatsApp or Line. Your kids will be thrilled to hear a voice note from their cousins on their birthday and answer with their own message. And it will be so much fun to plan online their visit to their home country for Christmas!
6) Help your kids with the language
“How can I help my children to learn the local language? Won’t it be too hard for them? “No matter if I speak with a graduate or a senior-level professional, this question will always come up.
Good news: small kids learn languages quickly and easily. I know many expat kids who are their parents’ personal interpreters; after a few years spent abroad, while the parents struggle with the language, kids attain fluency and even a native-like accent.
My hubby, who’s still struggling with Polish, finds Andres a perfect interpreter; he’s not only bilingual, he also loves running around the house and translating everything that’s said. So if, for example, my mum asks in the kitchen if his daddy would like some tea, the little interpreter is more than happy to run to the bedroom and shout the question in Spanish. And then run again to the kitchen with an answer in Polish. And so on.
How to encourage kids to learn a new language? Before you go abroad, search for their favourite shows on YouTube (Dora the Explorer, Sponge Bob and Disney shows are available in all world languages). You can meet people from your “new” country who live nearby and organize language exchange or classes. But remember, take it easy! Kids learn new languages best through fun activities. They don’t like pressure.
When you get to your destination, try to immerse the kids in the local language as much as you can; nursery, school, extra-curricular activities will definitely help. Go outside, let your kids make friends in the park. You will be surprised to see how quickly they can learn!
7) Search for new buddies
Kids are happy when they can play with their peers and make new friends. Visit local forums for parents (like Netmums in UK or SerPadres in Spain) to meet new people. You can also check forums for expats (like the Expat Forum) to meet families from your own country. Your little ones will be delighted to have new friends, go to the park or playground together.
8) Sincerity is the key
Recently, after one year of living in Poland my son had a conversation with a friend of mine. “So, Andres, why did you leave Spain? It’s such a beautiful, sunny place”! My boy answered seriously: “You know, in Spain there’s crisis, people don’t have money and can’t buy toys and sweets. We came here because Mum has a better job, she can pick us up from preschool everyday and play with us at home. We have more toys and we go on holidays. And we have our granny here, and uncles, and friends…”
Voila. Kids are able to understand more than we think. If your family is struggling with money, when you’re unhappy with your job, negative emotions can affect even the smallest ones who don’t know what it’s going on. Talk to your children sincerely and explain how a move overseas can improve family life. If you are moving abroad to reach a professional goal, explain it to the kids in an easy and approachable way. They’ll get it.
Of course it may not be easy in the beginning. Kids may cry, miss their family and friends home; sometimes the changes affect their behaviour, apetite or sleep patterns. Dedicate your kids time and patience. Every child has their own pace; some little children may get used to life in a new country immediately, others will need a few months before they feel happy and secure in a new place.
Life abroad benefits children not only with foreign language skills, but also teaches them to be more open-minded, flexible and tolerant. It also makes them more aware of their identity. They get to understand that the world does not end at the playground, that there are more countries and each of them has a different language and culture. And in every country they can play, learn and make friends.
Do you have your own tips? How did you cope when moving abroad with small kids? Let me know! I’m looking very, very forward to your comments!