Planning a family vacation takes a lot of work, with the most obvious reward being a fun-filled trip full of new and exciting experiences. But have you ever thought of how you could make your vacation… more?
Our family sure has! Fabian and I love to have a good time and try new things, but we definitely haven’t missed the amazing learning opportunities that trips present for our family. We try to make all of our excursions as enjoyable and memorable as possible, and sometimes those traits are fostered through the things we learn while preparing for and taking a vacation. If you’re thinking about how you can incorporate education for your kiddos into your future travels, you’ve come to the right place! I’ve got an introductory set of subjects that you can easily add to your itinerary down below!
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Trips are a great opportunity for kiddos (and adults!) to work on their literacy skills. Literacy skills include everything needed to read and write, as well as more advanced practices in spelling and comprehension. Although writing can be difficult in certain modes of transportation, nearly all travels make reading possible, and good readers make good writers! Whether you’re taking a road trip, hopping on a train, or boarding a flight to get to your destination, there will be a lot of down time that kids can spend with their noses in a book.
Some kids will eat this up without much prompting. After all, even reading is better than sitting in a car doing nothing for 6-8 hours, right? However, not all children will be easily convinced. One way to hype up reading on trips is to allow the child to get a brand new book during the pre-vacation planning. There’s so much preparation that goes into a trip that kids often get pushed to the side a bit. Allowing your child to choose a special book just for the trip reminds them that the experience is supposed to be fun for everyone, including them. But no cheating — they can’t start reading until the trip starts!
In addition to the educational benefits of spending some extra time reading, this practice also has some other advantages that are worth noting. For instance, bringing one or two (longer) books saves room compared to packing the big and bulky toys your child may be used to playing with at home; reading a new book on a trip creates a strong memory imprint, giving the child positive memories associated with both family travel and reading; and — this is the best one — it keeps the volume level to a minimum for at least part of the trip. Win, win, win!
If you’re not quite on board with the book idea, there are many other ways to work on your child’s literacy skills during a trip. Car trips give kids lots of opportunities to read passing signs, and there are a variety of games that families can play together to promote literacy (for example, the alphabet game! As a group, try to find at least one thing outside the car that starts with each letter of the alphabet — finding something for all twenty six letters mean you win!).
Air travel also gives children many chances to try their hand at reading and understanding symbols associated with travel, such as the departure boards, gate signs, etc. They’ll be expert wanderers in no time!
Finally, if you’re willing to share your map or buy children their own, taking a trip is a great time for kids to practice their map-reading skills! Even with Google Maps abound, reading maps is still an important skill in modern society.
On the off chance that your kid will buy in to this, you can make sure the special book for the trip is about the destination you’ll be heading towards! Two birds with one stone. For the rest of the universe, there are a couple other ways to incorporate history in your pre-vacation days and throughout your trip.
First, you don’t have to completely give up on the book idea. Younger kids love to be read to, which gives you plenty of chances to suggest a bedtime story related to your target location. These can discuss cultural customs, notable public figures, or major events from the area. Not only will this help your child more accurately anticipate what the trip will be like in terms of norms, food, etc. (especially true for travels outside of the country), but it’ll also give them a context to view the sites of the vacation destination when the time comes. This real-world connection helps children commit information to memory!
The prep work becomes even more worth it when it comes time to visit a museum or historical site because kids are less inclined to view something as “boring” if they were a part of it from the get go. E.g. if you want to visit Mount Rushmore, but are worried about your little whiners, give them a chance to learn about it and see pictures of it at bedtime before letting them know you’ll be seeing it in person. If you’re lucky, they’ll ask you if the family can see it one day! They’ll be be unlikely to complain about their own idea later on, and will be way more excited to get there than they would’ve been if it was just a stop required by the adults.
This is by far my favorite subject, and in my opinion the easiest to incorporate into trips. Fabian and I always plan a lot of outdoor adventures into our vacations, and there are endless ways to casually tie the biological sciences into those experiences.
Exercise: Physical activities are a great opportunity to teach kids about their bodies and their needs. For us, this involves a lot of hiking, and making connections between the child’s experience and their muscle groups, nutritional needs, etc. Kids have a lot of energy, but their muscles can get sore just like ours! When they notice that they’re tiring out, or a particular part of their body is starting to hurt, parents can easily throw in some vocabulary to explain what is happening (e.g. quadriceps, respiration, recovery, etc.). Obviously it is unlikely that the child will understand the details of these concepts, but this is about exposure! Even a very fundamental understanding is enough (too much drilling will take away from their enjoyment of the moment).
Plant Life and Animal Life: Outdoor activities are the perfect time to impart some knowledge to your child about the many different life forms that exist around them. Plants are usually bountiful and easy to spot during hikes, but there’s a big difference between merely looking at plants while passing by and truly seeing plants in all their glory. Use the environment as an outdoor classroom, and allow your child (and yourself!) and really admire the various plants you encounter on the way.
Teaching your child to admire animal life is a similar task, though usually much more interesting! The trade off of that higher interest level is that it often requires your hike to go much more slowly. For our family, that tradeoff is totally worth it. Rushing through a hike can be fun if there’s a set goal, but otherwise it just causes you to miss the details of what’s around you! There are many life forms that we never get the chance to admire because we refuse to simply slow down. This is an important skill that we preach and practice when we explore a new area, and the result is that we get to teach Skyler all about different types of insects and animals that have a real-life context. They don’t just exist in a textbook or on TV — they’re real and cool and right in front of us.
* Socioemotional Skills
This skill set is kind of a bonus that goes along with the previous subjects if you play your cards right. Socioemotional skills include all the abilities that allow a child to both manage their own emotions and empathize with the emotions of others. These skills are incredibly important in daily life, as they enable us to connect with other people, compromise to accomplish shared goals, and understand different points of view.
Fabian and I promote these skills through our travels by making it a point to learn about the people of different places, how to understand and respect their “unusual” customs, foods, etc. The big take away for kids with this one is that “different” doesn’t always mean “bad”, and by taking the time to learn about history and culture, we can begin to understand where the differences come from.
In our family, these skills extend beyond other groups of people. We also make a very big deal about respecting other life forms that we encounter. Although we want Skyler to have hands-on experiences with the plants and animals we find, we never allow him to do anything that would hurt them. All touches must be gentle, and all living things must be returned to where they were found so they can continue living their lives. Teaching kids about biology helps with this skillset a lot. After all, it can be hard enough sometimes to understand other humans. How can we possible expect children to respect things like trees and insects if they’re never actually taught anything about them?
These teachings manifest themselves in sometimes unexpected ways that have made us proud. For instance, Skyler once found a caterpillar that was very fuzzy. It was a type he hadn’t seen before, so he was very intrigued by it and he held onto it for a very long time. Eventually, he realized that we needed and leave and he had to leave it behind. Although he cried quite a bit over the loss, he was able to articulate that his sadness was coupled with happiness for the caterpillar because it’d get to have a happy life in the grass where it belongs. If a five-year-old can understand that a caterpillar can be happy, and has its own agenda, he’ll certainly be able to extend that curtesy to other children when the time comes. Parenting win.