From down the block to around the world: How to create memories and more when traveling with kids
Taking your kids on vacation should mean much more than an endless chorus of “are we there yet?” Just as travel can have deep significance for adults, a trip away can also create a lasting impression on children.
But how to create an experience that kids will not just remember, but also grow from, is easier said than done.
Impacts of traveling when young
For better or worse, children are sponges. They absorb everything around them, as their biology supports their efforts to understand their surroundings in order to survive. These seemingly-spidey-level-senses aren’t lessened while traveling. In fact, research shows that what kids see, hear, smell, and feel while traveling can have a huge impact in the classroom and beyond.
One 2005 study reported that enriched environments like those we experience when traveling can activate important “brain fertilizers” in the frontal lobes, shaping executive functions like stress management, attention, concentration, planning and learning skills, while also improving physical and mental health. Teachers have seen firsthand just how powerful these developments can be in school, as 56% believe that travel has a positive impact on their students (source).
It also stands to reason that family vacations can help kids practice interpersonal skills, as they’re greeted by new cultures and people that they may not otherwise have met. In comparing their newest friends with their own selves, your little travelers can also start to develop their own identity, assessing not only what people have in common, but also what makes them special.
As an added bonus, group trips may also help kids understand the value of money and of course, family bonding (source).
How to make the trips as rich as a classroom but as fun as the playground
Clearly, even the simplest of trips can do your kids’ brains a favor; but why stop there?
Whatever you’ve got on the itinerary, do your homework ahead of time. Know what to expect at your hotel, museum, attraction, wherever. That way, you’re not wasting any precious and scant time away trying to figure out what to do and where to go. As part of your research, figure out what your kids may be particularly drawn to, and have some answers to questions they may ask in your back pocket. While there are many tour guides that are enrapturing to kids, odds are, you’ll be the one they come to first with questions. This is your chance to offer up your funnest facts and show what’s really interesting about your next stop.
Or, if you don’t feel like playing tour guide, pass the metaphorical flag on a stick to the little ones and let them lead the way. It may seem scary, letting your kids drag you around and make the group decisions, but doing so will help shift their perspective. No longer are they just observing, suddenly they’re a part of this experience, investigating and analyzing as if it’s their job. Take it up a notch by asking them questions like “what do they think of ___?” or “where are we going next?” This also helps them practice their decision-making skills, ensuring that when the time comes for them to travel solo, they’ll be pros at navigating a new place.
Lastly, stay flexible. When traveling, kids are taking in what feels like a whole new world. Their attention will be pulled in a million different directions, they’ll have opinions on everything, and they’ll have their own agenda, with unique thoughts and desires for their day that may not perfectly line up with yours. Stopping for lunch at a restaurant you haven’t yelped will be probably be ok. Taking an afternoon off just to walk around your temporary neighborhood will lead to even more discoveries. Don’t just tolerate those little diversions, embrace them.
All trips start at home
Just as taking a trip means packing at home, creating a lifelong love of travel can start right in the living room.
Spark your kids’ curiosity with a good old-fashioned globe. Give it a spin and see where your finger lands. Do some research together on that spot, or, if you have multiple kids, maybe they find multiple destinations and have to vote as a group to decide the one they’d rather visit. No globe? No problem. Google Earth contains a plethora of features that are sure to inspire fascination with our planet. Try “I’m Feeling Lucky” to zoom in on a random city, or use “Voyager” to discover curated spots of interest.
Playing pretend is yet another activity that proves essential to kids’ growth. Encourage your miniature safari guide to lead you through your home, pointing out animals and natural wonders along the way. Maybe they’d rather visit the lava fields of Hawaii, constructed using couch cushions and pillows scattered throughout the living space. It sounds silly, but acting out adventures like these can inspire children to not just imagine new places, but see the wonder in them.
Stories are perhaps one of our most powerful tools to inspire connection and adventure. Consider making your next family movie night travel-centric, even going so far as to tie it in to any upcoming plans. If you’re headed to the big city, maybe “Night at the Museum” or “The Secret Life of Pets” will get everyone excited. If you’re off to the beach, perhaps “Moana” is the right choice. Big Europe trip in the works? “Ratatouille” or “Paddington” are great options. And if you have no clue where you’re going but know you’ll be adventuring somewhere soon, “Up” and “Mr. Bean’s Holiday” are always huge hits.