Our family is interested both in raising bilingual kids in Chinese and English - and in Montessori principles. As a non-native speakers of Chinese, we are always looking for fun, play-based ways to incorporate Chinese into our lives.
One way we’ve been slyly sneaking in Chinese play with our youngest (age 3) is by pairing her Habbi Habbi book, Foodie Friends, with our play kitchen. Back when the kids were younger, I spent hours sewing felt foods (here’s a collection of free DIY felt food templates), so it’s about time that they do some double duty and provide educational value as well.
This bilingual activity is inspired by Montessori principles
Our play is inspired by a Montessori three part lesson. If you’re unfamiliar with this technique, the basic premise is this. First, you tell the child what the object is (“This is a book.”). Next, you ask the child to show you that object (“Where is the book?”). And last you ask the child what that object is called (“What is this?”).
To incorporate this practice a play opportunity, I encourage 妹妹 (Chinese for 'little sister,' and how we often refer to her around the house) to choose a page of the book, and she touches the Wand to each of the items on the page, to help her remember what items are what, and then we begin restaurant play.
We speak and learn Chinese through play
I pretend to be a customer and I wander into our dining room loudly and dramatically declaring how hungry I am. We pretend the open book is a menu, which she offers me. I order food, making sure to use phrases that I’d like her to model later on, and then she runs back to her kitchen, where she rummages until she finds the right felt food. When she brings it back, I ask her to tell me what it is, to help cement the new vocabulary in her mind. If she’s forgotten, she taps the page of our “menu” with the Wand, and then repeats.
Sometimes even her big brother (哥哥) gets in on the fun. His food combination suggestions are always the silliest and make 妹妹 giggle - shrimp ice cream with a side of strawberry tacos, anyone? As she becomes more confident in her language skills, she’ll take a turn at being the customer.
We rotate between our Habbi Habbi books
When we first started this game, we preferred to use the pages about fruits and vegetables from the Book of First Words. More often than not, we’d pretend to be grocery shopping, and I’d ask for items like blueberries, carrots or avocados, and she would pack her produce into a little shopping basket.
These days, she likes the sweets page from Foodie Friends best, but that’s likely only because the most recent addition to our play kitchen was a set of four donuts. Her interest in some of the other foods in the books have prompted me to try to sew other foods for our kitchen like steamed dumplings – they’ve been a big favorite recently because she’s discovered how delicious they are!
Lately, when we don’t have matches for a page she’s interested in, we’ve been using Grapat mandalas as “ingredients,” which she mixes together using the Habbi Habbi Wand to make things she sees, like guacamole and black beans (loose parts recipe cards via Etsy).
The best bilingual activities combine fun, joy, and context
This game gives me great joy for many reasons, but perhaps one above all others. When I first arrived in Beijing at 19, I was all alone in the city, and with only a semester’s worth of study, I lacked any confidence in my Chinese. I was so anxious about going to a restaurant, feeling sure I’d make an absolute fool out of myself when I would order.
This game we’ve derived from Foodie Friends assures me that if ever 妹妹 finds herself alone at a restaurant, she’ll be able to confidently tell the waitstaff what she’d like to eat. Although I do wonder if in fifteen more years, her answer will still be the same: chocolate for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
About our lovely Guest Contributor: Kate
After five years living as expats in China, Kate and her husband had always hoped their children would learn to speak Chinese. While their children, ages 6 and 3 are normally enrolled in an immersion Montessori school, this year, Kate has been trying to meet her children where they are, while they learn at home. Kate dreams about a day when her kids’ Chinese will be better than hers – it’ll be any day now! She posts about her family’s journey on Instagram at @littlecitizens_bigdreams.