How exactly can we go about turning our kids into travelers? We’ve seen those children on our own journeys: curious and cheerful. Interested in more than the next souvenir shop. Willing to eat more than a Big Mac. Understanding that they’re learning something new, first-hand.
We’ve all seen the opposite, too. Kids who complain that they’re bored and whine about not having the same amenities as at home. Zero enthusiasm for where they are and surly about anything different from what they know…even when they’re at the top of the Eiffel Tower. You don’t need to be fluent in other languages to pick up on what’s being communicated.
Turning kids into travelers is fun for everyone!
I’m going to use examples from places I’ve been with my grandchildren. Use the links to get similar ideas for where you live and what your crew likes. Because I’m budget-conscious, nothing here is pricey…although travel always involves costs. After all, we do need to eat, sleep, and pay admission fees. As well as enjoy the occasional splurge!
A word about gift shops and souvenirs: Early on, teach your little travelers that you’re not on a shopping trip. My daughter said it like this: “On our way out, we’ll go through a gift shop. There will be lots of nice things and you will want to buy them. But we’re not doing that today.” Let them know upfront and remind them as necessary. Laying out ground rules will make things a million times better for everyone involved. Trust me on this.
How to turn kids into travelers: Start at home
Of course, the sooner the better. I’m an optimist and believe you can create a traveler out of most anyone. (Though, sadly, I confess to a few flat-out failures.) With young people, it’s easy to get them involved:
- Go to local museums. All kinds of museums. For little ones, a children’s museum is perfect; we spent days at Exploration Station, a small space at Perry Farm in Bourbonnais, Illinois. It’s all about them and what they want to do. This means letting them spend as much time as they wish at any activity, even if you think they’d really like to see other possibilities. Bigger kids enjoy small, quirky museums that don’t require much time. Try the Money Museum at the Federal Reserve in Chicago. (It’s FREE!) You’re trying to hook them on the concept, not pound knowledge into their brains…that comes later.
- If you go to a large museum (I’m thinking of the Museum of Science and Industry) or something less interactive for the kids, like the Art Institute of Chicago, don’t turn it into a forced march. Pick a section or exhibit and see how it goes. Let their interest be the guide. A couple of hours may be plenty, or it might turn into a full day. Whatever!
- Go to ethnic grocery stores. Wander the aisles to see what other countries like to eat. Buy a different fruit to try at home. Definitely buy a new kind of candy, cookie, or soft drink. Compare the store to yours.
- Keep mementos from your trips. Brochures, tickets, programs. Without getting all crafty–unless you want to–figure out a way to organize them, so they can remember the day. (Ziplock bags are simple.) Or start an easy collection–postcards are inexpensive. You may want to go the magnet route. Whatever you decide, it’s fun to keep adding items.
- Get a map of the area and mark the places you visit. Look up new neighborhoods, landmarks, tours, and attractions. We enjoyed a hop-on/hop-off bus tour of Chicago. Talk about what you’d like to do there. Let them choose from the options you present to them. (Two or three is plenty.)
- If possible, try different kinds of transportation. Can you take a train or bus? How about at least parking a bit away and walking to the destination? Does the area have a local metro or subway? A water taxi? A ferry? Learning to read transportation maps is a great skill to teach a child.
- Find new places to eat. Make a “rule” that you won’t eat at a chain…although I understand this may need to be flexible for many reasons. Food discoveries can come later–sometimes familiarity means comfort and ease during a busy day.
- Though I’m dwelling on museums, there are other ways to explore. I get great ideas and prices at Viator; just type in your destination to see what’s available. Anything that shows them something new. I took my grandkids to cemeteries, parks, botanic gardens, plays, and festivals. Lots of places are free–that’s a good lesson, too.
Expanding to overnight adventures
I’m lucky. I was able to take my older grandchildren on short excursions and weekend trips from the time they were little–even before they started school. We went to museums, parks, libraries, cathedrals, and places that just sounded interesting. We gathered shells at the ocean and watched salmon running. We stopped at roadside viewpoints. We stayed at hotels where they learned to be quiet in the hallways, sleep in different beds with different pillows, and eat whatever was available for breakfast. And we looked for local eateries, even if it was just for hamburgers or pizza. My daughter was totally supportive of our adventures–and our getaways gave her some time for herself.
Tips for multi-day trips: Here’s what I learned…
The chance to go somewhere for a night or two expanded our opportunities. No matter where you live, going just a few hours farther is new and exciting. Example: About two hours away from us, Springfield, Illinois, is home to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
Schools in Illinois usually offer a field trip to Springfield to middle school students, a quick day to the state capital and buzz through the museum. By going on our own, we could really delve in to more Lincoln history. We spent about three hours at the museum, then went to the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, where Lincoln lived from 1844 to 1861. Enter the home to see the parlor where he accepted the nomination, where three sons were born, and where one died. The next day, we stopped at the Lincoln Tomb; Abraham, Mary Todd, and three of their four sons are buried there. The two-day trip had an impact for both grandchildren. Later, when their classes zipped to and from Springfield, they appreciated the time we’d spent there. They realized how little they were able to see and learn during a short field trip.
- With a little planning, balancing fun and education is easy. When in doubt, go with more fun. Remember, you’re building an attitude about travel. And you’ll be surprised how much information the kids absorb!
- Don’t overplan. We could have done so much more in St. Louis and Springfield, but it was more important to do a few things really well, rather than race around, trying to cram in everything.
- Add other travel skills as you go. Teach kids how to tip. How to order at a restaurant (look at the server and start with “May I please have…”). How to find public restrooms. How to send postcards. How to pack.
- If you’re not city dwellers, take them to a nearby city and show them how to maneuver in a busy environment. Even crossing streets can be daunting, and sights such as homeless people offer lessons they won’t get in the suburbs. Help them be comfortable in an overwhelming setting.
- If you’re up for it, give the kids a journal, so they can write or sketch about each day. Save the journal between trips so it doesn’t get lost. When they graduate to independent travel, give it to them.
How has my 15-year effort gone? Remarkably well, I’d say. Both kids have passports. And they have a better understanding and tolerance for different cultures. They’re open to new ideas and experiences.
Saedy went to the Dominican Republic last summer to volunteer. Payton has flown by himself. I like to think that our early trips really did turn them into travelers. (Although packing light is an ongoing lesson. But that’s true for most of us.)
Both are looking forward to 2020, when we’ll be off to London. They already talk about studying abroad when they go to college.
As for me, I miss our early adventures. I believe I may have had a better time than they did. But I can’t wait to get postcards from their future travels…
Do you have any tips for turning kids into travelers? Please share them in the comment section!
More trip ideas for how to turn kids into travelers: