We’ve just returned from a three-week long vacation abroad with our two sons, ages four & six. While the trip was not without the expected sleep issues, whining/complaining, travel snafus, and frustrations that accompany international travel, I can honestly say that, overall, it was fantastic.
My husband and I have always had a passion for travel and it’s been a priority for us to expose our children to the wonders of other worlds early on, in the hopes that they too will develop their own wanderlust. That said, we are also realistic and know that dragging our young children around to tourist sites, countless museums and cathedrals, and making them wait in long lines is a recipe for disaster. That is, unless we could temper each experience with creative and meaningful ways to make it fun for them.
Here are some of the ideas we came up with that not only helped our boys feel like they had some “say” in what we did during our trip, but also made them more invested and engaged in what we were seeing and doing. We kept our expectations low, so the overall tone that was set was one of relaxed fun and that made all the difference in our ability to enjoy ourselves.
1. Let Your Child Navigate—Heading somewhere on foot? Try giving your child a map or open a map application on your smart phone and let your little one lead the way. He may not necessarily have a clue where he is going (especially if he can’t read street signs yet), but following along and letting him have control for 15-20 minutess will appeal to the side of him that wants a say in where you are going and what you are doing. Besides, sometimes the best discoveries are made when you get lost.
2. Take Audio Tours—Let’s face it…just about every tourist destination and attraction has an audio guide and/or an app that you can download online. Paying a little extra to let your kids have their own guide will allow them to feel more independent, will give them something to focus on and keep their hands busy, and will engage them in learning about a site better than we can. Our sons came away with wonderful nuggets of information about the Roman Forum after we let them wander with their own handheld device. And we were actually able to enjoy our own tour and learn something as well since we didn’t have to focus as much on keeping them out of trouble. Money well spent.
3. Kids Friendly Guides & Activity Books about your Destination—A quick search on Amazon for “kids travel guides” and your specific location will likely yield some great books to bring along on your trip for your children. Children are visual learners first and foremost, so showing them pictures and reading along as you are visiting sites can help the history and significance come alive. If you can’t find something before your trip, be sure to hit up a local book store upon arrival and you will almost certainly be able to find something for your child there.
4. Buy a Disposable Camera for Your Child-Kids LOVE taking pictures and having their own camera to do so can make their adventure that much more exciting. Take along a few disposable cameras and give one to your child every so often to take their own pictures. Give them a fun assignment to focus on like “take pictures of statues/churches/fountains” or “take pictures of your favorite cars/plants/ animals.” Make sure that you emphasize that the pictures are limited and once it runs out, that’s it. Once you get home from your trip, you can make an activity out of getting the pics developed and put into a memory album. This is a great way to create a lasting memento of the trip for your child. Plus, it’s fun to see the trip through your child’s eyes.
5. Make a Scavenger Hunt-a fun and easy way to engage your child and keep them excited and focused is to make a scavenger hunt for a place that you are visiting. You can usually find a map or online guide ahead of time to give you ideas for the hunt and then either type up or write a simple hunt. While visiting Masada in Israel this summer, we presented our kids with a simple 10-task hunt with things like “Find a Cistern. For what was this used?” We also did this during our tour of the Vatican Museum. This gave us an opportunity to read the signs to the kids, incorporate a little learning and make it fun all at once. Our kids loved having a “mission” and it was awesome to see their little faces light up with they made a discovery that was on their list. When the kids completed all the tasks, their prize was a visit to the gift shop for a small token or treat.
6. Let Them Choose an Activity-another way to remind your child that you are listening and value her opinions is to ask her what SHE wants to do and to give her a chance to choose. This can be a big choice, like where to visit that day, or a smaller choice, like where to eat for lunch. Of course you can gently coach her or provide a limit to her choices (ie. “You can choose today! Would you like to visit the XYZ Museum or go to the Zoo?”) rather than leave it open ended. If you have more than one child, just rotate who gets to choose to keep it even and fair.
7. Use Public Transportation-It’s pretty universal that kids LOVE public transportation. Riding the bus, subway, tram, trolley/streetcar, horse & carriage, pedibike, cablecar, etc. in your destination is an exciting and fun adventure for your children. Even if it’s not the easiest or most direct way to get somewhere, taking the time to figure out your route, find the station, buy tickets and take your ride is entertainment in and of itself and makes great memories for your children.
8. Give them a little $$-foreign money is cool and our kids love having a little of their own to keep in their pockets and inspect. You can give them a few coins and tell them that they can use them for fountain wishes, to make a donation at a site that you visit, to use something fun like a telescope or a photo machine or to buy a souvineer. Set a limit and tell them that is all they get to spend that day. This is also a nice way to address the “I wants…” which tend to happen a lot of vacation. Tell your child that once he spends all his money, that is it for the day—he may also begin to develop a sense for how valuable money really is!
9. Leave Your Mark-There are lots of neat ways that you can leave a little piece of your family behind in the places that you visit. Many cities have special traditions or causes that you can contribute to which will help your own family feel more connected to your experience. This summer we planted trees in Israel since that is an important good deed for the country and in Venice we left a family “lock of love” on the Accademia Bridge. Try Googling “traditions” or “tourist’s ways to give back” and your destination and see what your search yields. Not only can you infuse more meaning and the importance of service but this will also be a nice memory to talk about when reflecting on your trip months and years from now. “There is a tree in Israel with YOUR name connected to it!” or “Remember how much fun we had in Venice? We left a little message from our family there-do you remember what it was?”
10. Plan Something Unique-Every city or destination usually has something unique and memorable to offer beyond gorgeous scenery & the typical attractions. With a little online research or word of mouth recommendations, you will likely be able to find unusual things to do with your children that will make a lasting impression. Hands on experiences like visiting an art studio that allows your child to create something they can take home, or taking a special lesson like a cooking class or a glass blowing class, gives your children an opportunity to do something they might never be able to do again and will make the experience that much more unique in their minds. While in the Judean desert this summer, we stayed overnight in a Bedouin camp and rode camels and while in Venice, we painted our own Venetian masks. These experiences have proven to be highlights for our boys and are the first things that come to mind when they are asked what they liked the most about our vacation.
11. Take Solo Time with Each Child-If you have more than one child, splitting up and having each parent spend time with just one (or maybe each one if time permits) is a wonderful way to make a trip meaningful for your children. Traveling usually means everyone is together all day long, sometimes for weeks at a time, so taking a break every so often and giving each child their own special time when they are not competing for attention is so important. It doesn’t have to be long, nor do you have to do anything particularly complicated—for me, it was early morning pigeon chasing with my son Sam through Piazza San Marco while my husband and older son sat and sketched Leonardo di Vinci inventions at a museum. We were apart for about an hour before meeting again, but it was lovely and special time well spent.
Most parents agree that vacation is never quite the same after you have children, but there are still wonderful ways to make your travel experiences meaningful with them along for the ride. Sure it’s not as restful or easy as travel was before kids, but watching your children discover new things and seeing their minds expand during the adventure is unforgettable.
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