An Urban Parent’s Guide to Raising Cultured Children

In a world of infinite distractions, embracing alternative ways for our children to learn and grow is a resource for all parents looking to keep their kids well prepared for whatever is thrown their way.

Danielle Mowery, Brooklyn mother and founder of Building Dyslexia Awareness, is “always on the lookout for ways for [her son] to learn that don’t involve traditional academics and emphasize his skills.” Organizations across the country are developing dynamic programs to teach science, math, music and art outside of the regular classroom experience. This week, we search high and low for these amazing opportunities and learn, in the process, that the possibilities are more than we ever imagined.
Alternative learning programs are crucial for many kids these days. Ms. Mowery, whose son is dyslexic, informed us that nearly 20 percent of the US population is diagnosed dyslexic—meaning it's likely that one in five aren't going to have an opportunity to thrive with what is considered "traditional" book learning.

Brooklyn Historical Society has found a successful way to go off-book: the organization has created the Young Curators program, which enables young people to learn the ropes about how to become historical curators, through a 10-week in-school residency with a BHS educator. Special Cultural After School Adventures (CASA) grants from New York City Council Members help to support the kids as they are encouraged to expand on their extracurricular experiences and out-of-class education. A history lesson that doesn't put you to sleep!
“New York City offers such outstanding opportunities for kids to learn skills or speak other languages, through the schools as well as the community. From immersion language classes at the elementary level to specialized high schools that focus on architecture or technology, you can really expand your knowledge,” said Ms. Mowery, whose family has taken language lessons together and individually.

One excellent institution that offers French immersion and language lessons is the French Institute Alliance Française. There are year-round courses for toddlers, kids and adults to improve on their French skills in private or online classes; you can even sign your family up for lessons all together. Next time you’re at the French bistro down the block, you won’t be stuck with the baguette.
From marine science and ecology workshops to chemistry courses, the Intrepid Museum offers a plethora of year-round classes for children and teenagers that challenge them, often in ways the classroom environment cannot. Its Aviation History Workshop challenges participants with subjects such as biomimicry, and Up, Up and Away takes explorers on aircraft carriers and around the machinery in the museum. Equality at Home and at Sea teaches 6th through 12th graders about race and gender issues in the military over the past 70 years and even involves a debate. Kids will have their sea legs under them in no time!
"Having that chance to be involved on such a different level, to succeed in something beyond academics, gives children confidence and focus," said Ms. Mowery.

Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History has collaborated with the New-York Historical Society to create a specialized program for 8th through 12th graders preparing for standardized tests and with an interest in American Studies. The courses are a great way to get some extra help for your children or engage them in subjects they truly can't get at school. Other interesting courses include “Hip Hop History in Context: Thinking Outside the Bronx,” “Propaganda! How Rumors, Racism, and Nationalism Shaped WWII,” and “Unladylike Behavior: Women Making History,” all of which are taught by top educators in the city.
“All children, all people, learn differently,” Ms. Mowery explained. “But nearly everyone enjoys learning by doing. Some really great schools encourage kids to learn by doing in the classroom.”

One New York school that is altering the way students learn in their schools is the Harbor School. Courses range from aquaculture and marine biology to boat building and sailing. Students can even enroll in Advanced Diver Certification, Scientific Diver Certification and Rescue Diver Certification classes to learn lifelong skills not traditionally taught in New York classrooms—ones that will take you to deeper depths.
China Institute's Chinese for Children Program is another way to immerse the kids in out-of-the-classroom learning opportunities. These after-school Chinese language and cultural courses help kids learn to speak, listen, read and write one of the most important languages in the world.

“Will that skill be essential for the rest of your life?” questioned Ms. Mowery. “Maybe not, but the skill of mastering something new will be invaluable.” And an appreciation for an increasingly influential culture is one of the best ways to encourage kids to keep an open mind. China Institute's classes host distinguished speakers with experience. Families looking for a personal or small group experience can elect to take private lessons or participate in family workshops.
San Francisco's Botanical Garden isn't for your average green thumb. The organization offers intensive courses for youth on botany and ecology, as well as podcasts that can bring the learning home for families. They offer year-round guided walks and courses at the facility, in addition to housing a venerable library of all things green that are fantastic for learning more or research.
The Shedd Aquarium is a phenomenal learning environment for families of all ages; they even offer college courses! Ages 5 through 14 can enroll in the aquarium's youth programming, which explores Chicago's ecosystems and natural environment. Shedd Stewards, the upper-level program goes a bit further and explores animals and their habitats along Lake Michigan. High School Lake Ecology and High School Marine Biology both take participants exploring in the field and are a great way to make science more applicable for you people. As Ms. Mowery said, kids need to be engaged directly to experience learning to its fullest.
The Miami Science Museum is an excellent place for families to learn about biology, physics, ecology and other subjects. The institution offers unique informal hands-on learning experiences for those kids looking to explore science in greater detail. The museum also partners with nearby universities to develop specialized programming. It's a college-level lesson for the scientist in the making!

Pictured is a rendering of the museum's new planetarium in downtown Miami, which is scheduled to open in 2015.
Parents in Houston looking to engage their kids in learning outside of the classroom need look no further than the Children's Museum of Houston. The institute runs a bevy of out-of-school learning opportunities focusing on science field experiences. For families wanting to learn together, the museum offers free math activity nights for school kids. Take the field trip for a night at the museum!

With all the distractions of the city, it seems there’s never really time for much of anything—particularly not for enjoying those very distractions. You and your kids have your hands in this and that, lending your limited and often sparse attention to a cultural event here, or a social gathering there, but when was the last time you forgot about the ticking hands on your watch face and took joy in the simple act of being together?


For the next seven weeks, we follow families that do.   


Each day, with every meal and chore, these New Yorkers take a step back from it all. From neighborhood outings to museum visits, we connect with parents and their kids about how they keep their busy schedules in check and make time for what matters at the end of the day, when soccer season is over and to-do lists are crossed off: each other.


We also look to Houston, Miami, San Francisco and Chicago to see what they have to offer families who are searching for ways to be a part of each others’ everyday lives.


When it comes to your family, who doesn’t have a moment to spare?

Week One: From the Comfort of Your Front Yard

Week Two: Fashion, and Family: A Lifestyle

Week Three: Art and the City: A Family Affair

Week Four: Walking the Walk: The Family that Plays Together …

Week Five: Around the World in So Many Ways

Week Six: Put Down the Textbook, for a Lesson Learned

Week Seven: The Tradition of Coming Together


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