Saturday, August 14, 2021

The Educational Summer Vacation: Studying Italy

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Initially I thought "visiting" Italy for this year's Educational Summer Vacation with my kids (ages 5 through 17) was a great idea. How have we been doing this for 10 years and never learned about Italy??

As I gathered materials for this week, though, I began to think we'd made a huge mistake. Italy is the birthplace of opera, synonymous with great architecture and luxury cars and high fashion, the seat of the ancient Roman empire, home to famous explorers and Renaissance men from Amerigo Vespuci to Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. How could we ever cover it in 5 days?

We gave it our best, though, and I hope any Italians reading this will understand.


This easy reader called Living in... Italy was the perfect introduction to this week's country. It has colorful pictures and follows a little girl in Italy, weaving in a ton of information about the country and its history.

We looked up the Italian flag and drew it. The kids are getting to be experts at the classic tri-color flag from all the countries we've been doing.

Then we turned to the map to find Italy and filled out our passport pages. (My 9-year-old thought it was funny that Italy looks like a boot kicking its islands into France.) 

These passport pages are free to download and print: you can make a fancy cover and binding, or you can just staple them together in the corner like I did.

Download the Passport Pages

The kids play piano and/or violin, and since Italian is the official language of musical notation they know words like adagio, pianissimo, arpeggio, and so on. But we wanted to learn more.

First off, Italian comes with a lot of hand gestures to make your point. Plenty of them are impolite ones I don't exactly want my kids to learn, but after some combing through YouTube I found this squeaky clean guide to Italian gestures that was just perfect.

We also learned to count from 1 to 10 in Italian and how to say please and thank you. I thought it was very fitting that the video on "how to say please" also gave us some example sentences to practice, including "Please don't yell." 

So non gridare, per favore to you, children.


Tuesday started with a reading of Count Your Way through Italy. The kids liked pointing out the numbers they remembered learning the day before.

Now, I know Vatican City is technically its own country, but for our purposes (as well as helping the kids understand where in the world the Vatican is located) we're going to say it's part of Italy. 

I gave the kids the book Where Is the Vatican? from the Who Is/What Is book series and together, we read Pope Francis: Builder of Bridges by Emma Otheguy. We were going to watch this 5-minute video on Vatican City, but we were actually camping and didn't have cell reception, so we had to skip it.

I did, however, think ahead to print out this game called "Electing a Pope" and bring it along with us. The children were thrilled that even on vacation, they can't escape forced education from their mother.

My 13-year-old guessed the two questions were "Do you accept the responsibility of being pope?" and "Are you sure?"

I'm fairly certain we're the only non-Catholic family to ever have played this game, but I sure did learn a lot about how a new pope is chosen and it's good to know new things. Also, without the questions about the pope it's a fun strategy game so I'm not sorry we printed it out.

As a bedtime story that night, I read Days of the Blackbird by Tomie dePaola. (The Mysterious Giant of Barletta by Tomie dePaola would be another excellent choice.)


After reading Angelina of Italy by Maya Angelou, we did a very shallow dive into Italy's history. 

Another easy reader called Pompeii... Buried Alive was a perfectly age-appropriate way to talk about the explosion of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. and how it perfectly preserved a lot of the ancient city of Pompeii and its people. 

Since we were driving home from our camping trip today, we watched this 48-minute video in the car, but if we hadn't been a captive audience we would've watched something shorter about Pompeii like this or this. and maybe made a baking soda and vinegar volcano.

For the ride, I also gave the older elementary schoolers and tweens a few books including Rotten Romans from the Horrible Histories series and Roman Diary by Richard Platt.

The last thing we did was stop for gelato on the way home, and I know the place was authentic because while we were there a guy stopped in and started yelling in Italian to a friend working in the back room.

This was only half of the flavors available.

Gelato is a slightly higher temperature than ice cream, making for a creamier texture; it also melts faster which means go get some napkins and strategically place them under and around your youngest children.


Venice is the city of canals, and it's actually sinking about 1 millimeter per year. It's built on marshy ground that was filled in and fortified with stakes as explained here

The kids colored the Venice coloring pages here and here while we watched this video about gondolas and this one about the city's flooding problems.

The 7-year-old.

The 9-year-old.

Since my daughter did Romeo and Juliet for her school play last year, we looked up pictures of the balcony that supposedly inspired the play. Even though in reality it's just a tourist trap that doesn't really have anything to do with it.

Last, we watched this video on the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I had no idea it was closed to the public for a few years because they were worried about it toppling over. The tower is also mentioned in two books I gave the kids to read: Building Blunders (for grades 3-5) and Massively Epic Engineering Disasters (for grades 3-8.)

We looked at examples of creative tourist photos with the Tower or Pisa, then went outside to take some perspective shots of our own around the yard. 

The older kids worked together and had some good ideas, and the younger kids struggled to understand the concept. But I counted it as a success when it clicked for the 5-year-old that things closer to the camera look bigger and things further away look smaller.


Did you know that Leonardo da Vinci's last name is not "da Vinci?" It just means "from Vinci," which is a city in Italy. #themoreyouknow

We read a great picture book called read I Am Leonardo da Vinci by Brad Meltzer. Not only did it share a lot about the artist/sculptor/biologist/everything else, but it gave the message that it's more than okay not to think like everyone else. 

Out of respect, my teenager made Jesus look normal. Everyone else, she colored like a court jester going through an emo phase.

In spite of the fame of paintings like The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper (coloring page here,) da Vinci considered himself more of an inventor than an artist. 

This short biography told us all about his inventions, but if I had only younger kids at home we would've watched this animated short about his favorite flying machines.

Michelangelo was another famous Renaissance artist from Italy. Aside from being the fun one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Michelangelo is probably best known for painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the Vatican. And according to this video, it was a lot of work. 

Check out this 360-degree interactive tour of the ceiling I found:

Despite this, Michelangelo thought of himself as a sculptor, not a painter. So we read the picture book Stone Giant by Jane Sutcliffe to learn about his famous statue of David.

As an activity, I printed out a coloring page of The Creation of Adam, the most famous part of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and the kids painted it. The trick was, they had to do it like Michelangelo.

They said it was really hard work, and didn't finish all the way before their arms got too tired. 

My 9-year-old elected to maker her own design instead of using the coloring page, and painted a moose.

I know the Sistine Chapel is all scenes from the Bible, but God created moose so I think this counts. 

For dinner that night, we had pizza. We make pizza often, but this was real Italian-style pizza (or so the recipe promised.) I made dough and sauce and everything. We even stretched the dough by hand instead of using a rolling pin.

Thankfully stretching pizza dough does not require tossing it over your head.

Putting on the toppings.

Looked pretty authentic to me!

I also left several fiction books set in Italy around the house for the kids to discover during the week, including:

I was also tempted to buy the ebook Lucia's Renaissance, which is based on a real person tried in the Inquisition during Renaissance Venice, but I'm trying to work my way through some overdue library books right now so I can't commit at the moment.

During our week in Italy, I don't think we were able to do justice to all the places and people we learned about. But we had good pizza, read some good books, and learned new and interesting facts about history and geography. Even if a few of my kids still think the Leaning Tower of Pisa is called The Leaning Tower of Pizza. 

Building the perfect Italy lesson plan for your students? Are you doing an around-the-world unit in your K-12 social studies classroom? Try these free and fun Italy activities, crafts, books, and free printables for teachers and educators! #Italy #Italian #lessonplan
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