Disney-Inspired Cultural Learning Activities

We LOVE having interns at the National Office, and it’s even better when those interns are Club staff! Today, I’m thrilled to bring you a post from Chelsea Riley from Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta, and rock star member of BGCA’s Research, Insights & Evaluation team this past summer. We will miss you at 1275, Chelsea!!!

Cultural appreciation and awareness can help young people develop a positive sense of identity and self-esteem. Disney movies offer a fun, engaging way to teach youth about different cultures! Staff can select movies based on the cultures their members have connections to or offer youth choice by voting on which movie(s) to watch. Here are a few ideas of how to build lessons and activities for cultural learning based on Disney movies!

Encanto (Columbia)

On My Way Running GIF by Regal - Find & Share on GIPHY

Before watching, you can talk about these little Easter eggs of Colombian mannerisms, then tell your members to try to spot these moments in the movie! For example, Mirabel points with her lips (hint: while she’s hiding under the bed with Antonio), Bruno throws salt and sugar, knocks on wood, crosses his fingers and holds his breath, all habits done for good luck, and Camilo snaps his fingers to show excitement (during Antonio’s gift ceremony).

Encanto features several songs and dance styles from Colombian culture. Have a sing-a-long or learn to do some of the dances together! Sing-a-longs using the lyric videos to “Colombia Mi Encanto” or “Dos Oruguitas can also be a chance to learn some Spanish words. 

Mirabel’s mom Julia makes magical, healing arepas con queso in Encanto, which you can replicate in a fun – but possibly messy – cooking activity! 

Isabela’s song “What Else Can I Do?” mentions all sorts of plants found in Colombia – flor de mayo, jacarandas, sundew, and more. Looking up photos and recreating flowers with tissue paper could make a fun craft!

Landscape from the film Encanto with a sunset village scene overflowing with colorful plants of all kinds, including flowers, cactus, bushes, and trees

Throughout the movie, you can also spot animals like toucans, jaguars and capybara, and youth might enjoy a variety of animal-related arts and crafts like this animal slime or making masks with construction paper, paper plates and/or string.  

Youth in middle and upper grades can learn about the aspects of history and the literary theme of magical realism in Encanto and enjoy some friendly competition with an Encanto-themed game of jeopardy

Moana (Polynesia)

Disney How Far I'Ll Go GIF by Moana - Find & Share on GIPHY

At one point, Maui gears up to fight Te Ka by performing the haka, a Maori war dance. You can find a demonstration and follow along on Youtube

Moana wears a couple of different leis on her head – called haku – throughout the movie. Youth can create their own with a few simple materials, sizing them to fit around their necks or on their heads! Leis are worn throughout Polynesia as accessories, for ceremonial purposes, to signify status and to celebrate occasions. Ula lole are Samoan candy leis, often given as graduation gifts, and these make a fun craft and a tasty treat! 

Samoan candy leis made out of small colorful hard candy and ribbon

The heart of Te Fiti is based on the Maori pounamu taonga, (greenstone treasures), carved stones worn on necklaces and handed down through generations. Youth can make their own with this clay craft

You can also watch videos together to learn more about the mythology behind Moana and the historical inspiration.  

Turning Red (China/Canada)

Turning Red, while set in Toronto, focuses on Chinese main character Meilin Lee and her family! We’ll focus on activities around their Chinese heritage here, but Turning Red can also be a good opportunity to introduce the concept of immigration. See a list of books about immigration and migration for Elementary youth at A Mighty Girl.

The temple in Turning Red where Mei and her parents live is based on the Bok Kai Temple in Marysville, California. When Mei’s mother tells her the story of the Red Panda, they light incense and pray to their ancestors. You can make some paper lanterns similar to the ones shown in the temple! 

Scene from the film Turning Red depicting a mother and daughter kneeling in prayer in a traditional Chinese temple

The Red Panda is native to China (as well as Nepal and the Eastern Himalayas). Youth can color, construct and wear these panda ears or get messy with this handprint panda

The movie also features some Korean characters. While the boy band in the movie, 4*TOWN, is most clearly inspired by bands like *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys, of the 00s, the band member Tae Young is a reference to popular K-Pop artists. You can play some BTS and check out clips with translations of Abby’s Korean lines in the movie! 

Animated cd cover art featuring five diverse teen boys

Coco (Mexico)

Disney Pixar GIF by Disney+ - Find & Share on GIPHY

Throughout the movie, you can often see papel picado, a traditional Mexican craft featuring colorful paper with cut out images. You can make these as a class with bright tissue (or construction) paper, then hang them as decorations! 

Colorful paper banner with intricate cutouts from the movie Coco

The multicolored flying animal in the movie is an example of an alebrije, a fantastical animal sculpture originally created by Mexican artist Pedro Linares. Youth can create their own alebrije with clay and bright paints, simpler versions with construction paper, or even alebrije masks like these.

Disney Pixar GIF by Disney+ - Find & Share on GIPHY

A central theme of Coco is music, and throughout there are a wide variety of Mexican musical styles featured such as bolero ranchero/folk ballad. There are all sorts of instrument crafts you can do to make your own music, including a six-string guitarron with a cereal box and rubber bands, maracas with plastic easter eggs and rice,  and a paper plate pandero jarocho (octagonal tambourine).

Finally, the movie is set during Día De Los Muertos festivities. Some activities related to this holiday include crafting or making actual sugar skulls (if the traditional recipe is too complicated, youth can also use icing to decorate marshmallows), creating nicho frames that members can take home and add a photo of a loved one to, or creating Cempazuchitl marigold paper flowers. 

… And More!

These aren’t the only Disney films that can help youth develop cultural awareness and appreciation. From Princess and the Frog, set in the French Quarter of New Orleans, to Brave in Scotland and Raya and the Last Dragons connections to multiple southeast Asian cultures, movies like Mulan and Lilo & Stitch can all serve as starting points for fun and educational cultural activities! (Should we do a part two???? 🙂 )

Bring It On Disney GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

What are your favorite movie-themed activities? How do you introduce Club members to other cultures and traditions? Let us know! Comment below, on the BGCA Youth Development Facebook page, or email ClubXBlog@bgca.org.

About Chelsea Riley

Picture of a smiling young blonde woman with glasses and large gold earrings
Chelsea is a Social Recreation Instructor at the Chamblee Boys and Girls Club in Atlanta who interned this summer for the Research, Evaluation & Insights team at BGCA. She enjoys drinking coffee, road trips and spending time with her dogs.

One thought on “Disney-Inspired Cultural Learning Activities

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  1. I love this Disney inspired cultural learning activity! I remember as a little girl how I connected with my own family history in many of the movies back then. It is so important for members to get a broad sense of how cultures differ, but can still be similar in how we celebrate, come together as a family, and as a community. I was talking with my husband last night about how I don’t know much about my family genealogy. How we came to experience the traditions and experiences that have been handed down over the generations. We have a long line of fishermen, hunters, and explorers! I hope to create a family tree one day that can be handed down to the next generations, so they can understand how our ancestors helped to build a culture of diversity by taking a leap of faith and settling in America. That first voyage must have been exciting and a little daunting! For Club members who do not know much about their own cultural background, I would challenge them to dig in and ask family members as much as they can to learn about their ancestry. When we understand where we came from, it is easier to relate to the world and people around us 🙂

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