Many people would question would probably question your sanity if you tried to use kids, travel and benefits in the same sentence. Taking kids on an overseas trip is expensive. For families with more than 2 adults and 2 kids, the costs can become even more eye-watering. For example, with our family of 5 we have to try and find rooms that will provide an extra bed or otherwise book two rooms. With their lack of patience, young children are also very good at inducing migraines with statements like “Are we there yet?” Young children can also move surprisingly fast so you must be hyper vigilant. They also want to go to the toilet at incredibly inconvenient times, they can be fussy eaters, you will be eating out at times that you would never have imagined when you were child free, and will be returning to your accommodation just when you feel like heading out for a big night.
This article tries to give you the answer to why you should travel as a family. While the downsides to travelling with kids might seem daunting there are even stronger reasons for travelling as a family. There are massive benefits to travelling with kids both for the children themselves and as a broader family. Here are just some of the advantages of travelling with your children.
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1. Travel can build stronger family relationships
Life for many people seems to be getting busier, more stressful and faster. Many mums and dad spend much of their non-work time shuttling kids to events such as sport, music lessons, or tutoring. Often spouses can feel like they are two ships passing in the night. Down time in many households is spent using a screen which is also socially isolating. Shared life experiences such as travel can bring families closer together.
Travel can bring your family together even at the planning stage. When preparing for a trip, you might find yourselves reading, watching and discussing movies, TV shows and books about the country you will be visiting. Cooking food together or going to a restaurant related to your destination country is also great fun and will build excitement about your forthcoming trip. Planning done right will also mean a lot of shared time researching and discussing your itinerary.
The trip itself will provide many opportunities to strengthen relationships. Travel takes away distractions such as work, school, and the daily family routine and creates more time to talk, experience and play together. As a family you will have many shared experiences that will bring your family closer together. Even the misadventures or seemingly minor experiences will become fun, shared memories. For example, from our first trip to Japan, our family still talks about the number of times we got lost, the look of horror on our youngest son’s face when he was busting to go to the toilet and was confronted with a squat toilet, and how we discovered the delights of using a Japanese bidet. As an aside, expect that your trip won’t be perfect. Assume that there will be hiccups. Try to ‘go with the flow’ and you will be much more relaxed.
2. Your kids will become more adaptable and flexible
Living for a short period of time in an unfamiliar culture will create many new and unpredictable situations. When you are in a place where languages, customs, transportation, and food is different to what you are used to there will be plenty of unpredictability. While most of the time you will start each day with a plan of what you want to do, you must be flexible. Simple issues such as unexpectedly long queues, delayed trains or buses, bad weather, or a terrific temple, restaurant or shop that you accidentally stumble upon will cause you to change your plan for the day. Such experiences will also help your children to learn patience.
Children will learn from watching you adapt to unexpected situations and will also become more flexible themselves. The experience of travel will at times take your children outside their comfort zone. If you give them a safety net when they are confronted with new situations they will be the better for it. One of our children used to be a fussy eater and was reluctant to try new foods or experience new situations. Thanks largely to travel, he is now quite adventurous when trying new foods and happily gives new experiences a go once reassured they are safe.
3. Travel can ignite or re-ignite your child’s curiosity and sense of adventure
I’m a primary (elementary) school teacher. At the moment, I teach children that are between the ages of 5 and 6. At that age, kids still have a natural sense of wonder and excitement about the world around them. Young children are in awe of the world around them and are intensely curious. Curiosity is not just a desire to learn but is the spark that helps us to learn and grow. It saddens me that as children get older their innate curiosity and sense of adventure is dulled. I feel that this process is now accelerating with the advent of the digital age where kids are getting outside less often to interact with their peers and the world around them, and are spending far more time using screens.
Travel, even at the planning stage, can reignite a child’s curiosity and sense of adventure regardless of their age. As a teacher, one of the people I greatly admire is a man by the name of Rafe Esquith. He is arguably America’s most famous teacher. He was the 1992 Teacher of the Year and for over 30 years worked with children from poor and immigrant families. His approach to teaching fostered a love of learning among his students and changed their life trajectories for the better.
I have read many of his books and one of the things I am greatly impressed by is how he prepares his students for field trips. He argues that many teachers view field trips as vacations. Even on trips to places such as Disneyland kids can often become bored and poorly behaved. In contrast, Rafe’s trips are designed so that students are deeply engaged and intensely curious, and they are encouraged to pursue knowledge and develop skills that will help them in their later lives. He achieves this by having his class learn as much as they can about their destination including the weather, exhibits, attractions and rides. The children help plan everything from the top level itinerary down to the meals, accommodation, and how to get around. His students even get involved in the fine details of the trip such as studying a museum’s layout and what artworks they want to see. His approach re-ignites the natural curiosity and sense of wonder among his students.
I believe that Rafe’s approach can also be used for family travel experiences. If you deeply involve your children in planning your overseas trip, by the time you travel they will be almost visibly quivering with excitement and will get so much more out of your overseas trip. Recently I read a brilliant blog post by “I’m Not a Ballerina” on the life-changing impact of taking her son to Japan. In this article she explained how she had been preparing and fostering her son’s love of Japan almost from his birth, and the benefits of her trip both for herself and her son.
4. When travelling, the world becomes a kid’s classroom
Travel gives children real world learning experiences outside the classroom. Even with wonderful tools such as Google Translate there is still a place for multilingualism. Languages are a great way to help kids relate to other cultures and learning a language can be great fun. Taking the time to learn at least a few key phrases prior to a trip is time well spent and then kids can get a chance to put their new-found language skills to practice when travelling. Travel can also help children learn geographical skills such as using mapping tools, learning about the size of countries, climate, weather, time zones, and terrain. For example, when we visited Japan our kids learnt about how Japan’s mountainous terrain impacts on the location of towns and locations. They also learnt that because Japan is one of the most geologically active countries in the world it has heaps of hot springs. Travel makes geography a concrete experience rather than a textbook experience. Travel also helps kids learn how to use timetables, learn about different currencies and use of money, and provides plenty of writing opportunities such as keeping a travel journal.
5. Travel teaches children that diversity is to be celebrated
Travel teaches children that although we may look different, sound different, eat different foods, have different values and observe different social and religious customs, we are also the same in many ways. BTW, a brilliant book to help kids learn more about similarities and differences is Mirror by Jeannie Baker. The book follows a parallel day in the life of two families – one from a Western city and one from a North African village. It’s a wordless picture book that is beautifully illustrated and delivers an important message.
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Travelling has helped our own children learn that anyone can be your friend. They have learnt to socialise and make friends with other children from a wide range of backgrounds. When we have camped, our kids have been playing with other children almost as soon as our tent has been put up. I also remember another time when we stayed in a little family-run Ryokan (or inn) in Shinano-Omachi, Japan. We stayed there for 2 nights and our 3 children happily played and ran around with the two little children of the family who ran the Ryokan despite not having a common language. It’s easy to encourage these sorts of encounters by simply going to local parks and playgrounds in the places you visit.
6. Travel encourages independence and teaches responsibility
Even at the trip planning stage, travel can encourage independence and responsibility. For example, children can put together their own packing list (with varying levels of help depending on the child’s age and experience) and pack their own bags or suitcase. While travelling, children could look after their own things. Kids can also clean up when moving from place to place, and repack their own bags. You can also ask kids to take on new roles and responsibilities while travelling such as photographer or navigator.
7. Travelling with kids encourages you to slow down and experience greater variety
Particularly when your children are younger, you must travel at a slower pace. It’s just not possible to travel at the frenetic pace you managed when you were a young independent traveller. Children will also not be able to cope with endless numbers of cathedrals, castles, temples, ruins, chateaus, markets, or national parks. I remember when I travelled to Europe with my wife when we had just turned 30 and we travelled at a fast pace for the first part of the trip. By the time we were half way through the trip we were exhausted and stayed in Cinque Terre for a few days and did very little. It was like a mini-holiday within the holiday to allow us to recharge for the rest of the trip. On that same trip we saw far too many Roman ruins and visited far too many churches. If we had done the same trip with our three kids we would have paced the whole trip much better with plenty of down-time or unscheduled time throughout the trip. We also would have been going to bed earlier so we would have been better rested. The trip would also have had a wider variety of experiences to cater for their needs and interests.
8. Travelling with kids helps you discover your inner child
When you travel with children you have a license to release your inner child. You can happily go on all different types of amusement park rides, feed and cuddle animals, go zip-lining or just run around a park. If you did some of these activities on your own or as a couple you might attract strange looks, but when doing these same things with your own children no one will question you.
This article is the first in a series of articles on travelling with children. The next article will look more closely on how to plan an overseas trip with children. Then I will follow up with articles on travelling with children, and what to do after returning from an overseas trip.
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