Saturday, July 30, 2022

The Educational Summer Vacation: Studying Colombia

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The summer marks the 11th year of The Educational Summer Vacation in our family; we put up the giant wall map, the kids choose different countries, and we spend a week learning about each one. 

If we haven't met yet, I'm Jenny Evans and I take this journey every summer with my six kids, ages 6 through 18.

This week you're welcome to come along with us to Colombia! Borrow, beg, or steal whatever you like from this post to do at home with your own kids... we don't mind.


The first thing we do every week is find the country on our wall map and examine it. The kids filled out a passport page about Colombia, looking at the map and writing down its location, bordering countries, and capital city.

I didn't line them up in height order like the von Trapps, it just happened.

While they filled out their passports, I read Colombia Treasure Quest from the Tiny Travelers series. Don't be fooled by the cardboard pages: it's not a baby book! It's actually a great activity book and intro to Colombia for kids of any age. 

The colorful illustrations remind me of a certain Disney movie set in Colombia that rhymes with "Enschmantro."

Then the kids looked up the flag of Colombia and drew it on paper to add to our wall. 

At the end of the summer, we take them down but keep them and put them all back up the next summer; we've been doing this since 2011 so we've amassed a ridiculously large collection.

We do a little family religious devotional on Monday nights called Family Home Evening and we always have a treat at the end (the kids insist), so that night our treat was Colombian rice pudding, made with a recipe from the book We Visit Colombia.

Bad lighting; good pudding.

If you make rice pudding, be aware that you need to make it in the morning and chill for at least a few hours before serving it.

For a bedtime story that night, we read A Thousand White Butterflies by Jessica Betancourt-Perez. It's a really cute picture book that also incorporates simple Spanish phrases into a story about a Colombian immigrant making her first new friend in the U.S.


The Caño Cristales river is also called "the liquid rainbow" or "the river of 5 colors." But you can only see the colors for a few months of the year, if the water and light conditions are right.

We read about the that make it appear so colorful in this article and then watched a vlog about a photographer who visited Caño Cristales to make a time lapse video of it. 

(I usually can't stand travel vlogs because of the "I just love taking slo-mo videos of myself wearing cute traveling outfits" vibe, but this is not like that.)

And then of course, we had to go watch the finished South America time lapse video that this behind-the-scenes video was about. It was amazing.

Next natural wonder of Colombia: Taryrona National Park. It's the best place in the world to see monkeys, especially howler monkeys, capuchins, and cotton-top tamarins. Cotton-top tamarins are endangered, and in fact the only place they still live in the wild (not in zoos) is in Colombia.

The last natural wonder we explored is called el Peñon de Guatapé, a giant boulder 7,500 feet tall. We watched this video and this one about el Peñon de Guatapé, which people can climb using the 708 steps built into the side for a great view.

The surrounding town of Guatapé is also very colorful and beautiful, as shown in the pictures in this article.

As an activity, I gave the kids two options. They could either:
  1. Make a postcard of Guatapé OR the Caño Cristales river
  2. Write an illustrated guide called "How to Be a Cotton-Topped Tamarin" 
I thought everyone would pick the postcard option, but I was surprised that 3 of them wanted to make the how-to guide.

My 16-year-old made a little booklet filled with hilarious sketches:

I provided the 6- and 8-year-olds with a template like this one and showed them how to do a Google search for cotton-topped tamarin facts. The 6-year-old needed help writing his, so we sat together and I asked him questions to help him figure out what to write.

My 8-year-old took it and ran, and when he showed me his finished guide I was laughing so hard at his adorable illustrations:

Tamarin love.

He read that monkeys will often "present their rears" to rival troops of primates to defend their territory, resulting in the most hilarious picture that's ever been drawn in this house.

My 14-year-old, who wasn't that into this activity, chose to make a postcard of someone being yeeted off the rock of Guatapé.

Boys will be boys.

He's under no illusions about what happens to crafts like this after we're done doing them.

My 10-year-old decided to make a Google docs postcard addressed to her doll, Dolly.

That night, we read the picture book Biblioburro: A True Story from Colombia by Jeanette Winter. It's the story of Luis Soriano, a man in rural Colombia who started a traveling library in 1997 to bring books to kids in rural Colombia with his two donkeys, Alfa and Beto.


Cumbia is the national dance of Colombia, and I'm kind of glad that my teenagers were all out of the house this afternoon, because I've heard that after a certain age it's not cool to dance with your mom anymore or something.

We watched this instructional video to learn basic cumbia steps, and I loved that they do it in both English and Spanish. It's not the easiest to follow if you've never danced before, but I used to swing dance in my life B.C. (before children) and it's very similar, so I was able to help everybody follow along. 

After practicing with each kid, we played some cumbia music and tried it out. Later that day, my 6-year-old even approached me and said, "Can we do the dance again?" (He's pretty good, although a little short for spinning me around.)

As a bedtime story, we read Waiting for the Biblioburro by Monica Brown. It's another story about the traveling donkey library like last night, but less biographical and more about the wonder of books.


Colombia has lots of exports: coffee, flowers, and unfortunately, drugs. 

First, let's get the bad part out of the way. Colombia is recovering from a 50-year civil war that made for some really hard times in the country. 

Colombia is unfortunately informally known as the drug cartel capital of the world. It stems from the 1960s when guerilla groups like FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) started fighting the government, and funded their activities by exporting illegal drugs. Other paramilitary groups opposed FARC, but they only made things worse for the average Colombian. This is a really heavy subject for kids, but to help introduce it we read the book A Refugee's Journey from Colombia by Linda Barghoorn. It does a fantastic job at explaining the conflict in kid-friendly terms and doesn't take long to read.

With that out of the way, we moved to a few less controversial things. Colombian coffee, for example, is famous all over the world. Although my family and I don't drink coffee, I thought it would be really interesting to find out how it grows so we watched this video and I was surprised to realize the brown beans I see in the grocery store aren't how coffee starts. I had no idea.

Flowers are another big export of Colombia. In fact, in the town of Medellín, Colombia there's a famous flower festival that happens every year. Flower growers decorate these giant boards called sillaterras with colorful flower arrangements (some in the shapes of pictures or words) and strap them to their backs to parade down the street. 

We watched this video about making a sillatera and then tried it out ourselves.

Each kid got cardboard from the recycling and went outside to collect flowers (being mid-July, it's not the best time for flowers so they were allowed to use any natural materials like grass and leaves.) They arranged everything on their cardboard and hot glued it on. 

My 8-year-old made a smiley face:

My 10-year-old made a pretty arrangement in the shape of a heart:

I told the kids they got bonus points if the sillateras were wearable, so my 6-year-old wanted to attach a string. He explained to me but then stopped as he searched for the right word: "I want the string to go across my forehead so it can be more..."


"No," he said. "More like it's supposed to be."

The 14-year-old made more of a modern art sort of sillatera, which I thought was cool:


I've been learning Spanish for the past several months and the younger kids have been begging me daily to teach them Spanish words, but one of the basics we haven't covered yet is las partes del cuerpo, the parts of the body. Since Colombia is a Spanish-speaking country, this was a perfect day for them to learn.

We watched this video a few times (even I learned some new vocabulary words), and then played a game. If your kids are younger you can just call out "la nariz!" and have them touch their noses, for example, but if they're older you could play Simon Says but do it all in Spanish: "Simón dice tocar _________" (Simon says touch _________).

We followed along with this Spanish version of Head, Shoulders, Knees, and ToesMy older kids buried their heads under the sofa cushions and wished for a meteor to strike the earth, but my younger kids seemed to enjoy it.

The last thing we wanted to cover today was the national sport of Columbia, tejo. It's like cornhole, but with explosives. Instead of aiming for a hole in the middle of the board, you're aiming for the packets of gunpowder in the center. You earn points for getting near them or hitting them (and making them blow up.) Here's a visual.

Had I known, I'd have picked up some extra firecrackers on the 4th of July and saved them for this week, but I don't plan that far in advance so maybe we'll do it next year. We attempted it with a homemade gunpowder recipe, but it didn't work. I don't know the details because explosives are my husband's department, not mine.

As a bedtime story, we read Digging for Words by Angela Burke Kunkel. It's a true story about a Colombian garbage collector who started saving books from the trash and created the first library in his neighborhood in Bogotá.


On Saturday for dinner, we had ajiaco soup. It's an easy soup to make (with one ingredient I had to buy off of Amazon ahead of time.)

My 10-year-old even found avocados marked with a "product of Colombia" sticker. Unfortunately, I have a chronic problem with judging the ripeness of avocados and by the time Saturday came around, most of them were overripe to the point of being unusable. 

Oh, well. We were able to salvage a little bit.

Then we watched Encanto, which I knew was set in Colombia but watching it a second time after doing this week I realized there were a lot of little things we hadn't picked up on. The kids kept yelling out, "Hey, there's the river! There's the flowers! There's tejo! There's the soup!" Almost everything we covered this week was in the movie, in one form or another.

We had a really fun week in Colombia. We broadened our horizons, learned some new words in Spanish, ate some different food, and read a lot. The failed tejo experiment was disappointing for the kids (especially the ones that spent all that time grinding up the gunpowder ingredients with their dad) but they're all holding me to my promise of buying extra firecrackers next 4th of July and trying again.

Learning about Colombia is fun and hands-on with these free crafts, ideas, and activities for kids! #country #educational
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