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When my husband and I decided to leave everything behind and take our family to live in Germany for three months, we had grand visions of the refining effects the trip would have on our six-, eight-, and 10-year-old kids. Classical concerts in Baroque halls, edifying tours of historical sites, and educational museum visits loomed tantalizingly in our minds. We expected to return to Phoenix with the most cultured kids on the block.

While we did have plenty of educational and cultural experiences during our time abroad, the lasting effects of our trip on our kids have been of a surprisingly different kind. What has stuck with my kids was not a development of their refinement, but rather of their relationships.

Before our trip, my older two boys’ daily after-school strategy was to stonewall my daughter from their play. She was the proverbial annoying little sister they were far too cool to include in their Pokemon battles and on-screen Super Smash Bros brawls. When we arrived at our apartment in Cologne, however, the Pokemon cards the boys had brought with them ran pretty thin pretty fast, and there was nary a video game console in sight. Instead, our home away from home (which was owned by a German family with young kids) overflowed with lower-tech European-made toys like LEGOS, blocks, and Playmobil figures. Eventually, with these materials at hand, my sons gradually realized that a six-year-old girl’s imagination had a lot to offer the situation.

Because we had no friends or relatives in the country and our kids spoke very little German, they had only each other to play with for most of our stay. Occasionally we’d catch a group of boys in the park nearby playing soccer, and my sons would speak the universal language of “foot plus ball” with them. But in the state of North Rhine Westphalia where we lived, school stays in session until almost the end of July—two days before our departure date. There simply wasn’t opportunity to make many connections with local kids.

Cooped up with each other for three months, my kids found that familiarity did not breed contempt. It actually bred fun. Over the summer, the three of them created an entire universe of play. It started with blocks and some Minion figures the grocery store gave out for free. Somehow the blocks turned into a labyrinthine structure my kids called “school” which the Minions inhabited as teachers and students. Minion pacts were forged, Minion hearts were broken, Minion nations rose and fell. Don’t ask me all the details, but it was every bit as intense as any D&D role play you’ve ever seen. Soon any toy at hand was fair game as a character or prop in their sprawling setup.

This imaginative play has followed us home. Now that we’ve been back in the States for months, my kids still call to each other across the house, “Do you want to play ‘school’?” My oldest and youngest, who used to spend their time together locking antlers like a couple of stubborn goats, are now the most avid players. I never could have predicted this turn of events.

Whenever anyone asks me how our kids did on our summer abroad, I quip that everyone should send their kids to a foreign country for a while. But there’s truth beneath the joke. I certainly don’t believe a European summer is realistic for every budget and lifestyle, but there are things we can all do to help our kids learn to enjoy each other’s company. Maybe it’s a break from certain types of play that divide them, time away from video games or screens for a while, or the introduction of time-tested games everyone can join. Whatever the means, the development of relationships among siblings is a lasting gift for the entire family. I’ll take that over classical concerts and historical landmarks any day.

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