Combat brain drain while keeping the “fun” in summer trips.
A recent U.S. News & World Report article on educational family vacations opens with the popular notion that teens have to be dragged kicking and screaming on family vacations. The author goes on to suggest ways to sneak in teachable moments, all with the underlying assumption that adolescents don’t want to learn while off from school.
But it doen’t have to be that way.
Kayla, a typical teenager who is better known for flaunting extreme sports scabs than bookish pursuits, eagerly anticipates cultural family vacations and is already making plans for a Czech-language immersion in Prague next summer. And while my kids rarely greet proposed museum trips with great enthusiasm, sometimes they surprise me. Just this week, my daughter begged to go to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
Our experience is not unique. I’ve rounded up the Albany Kid team to share how they inspire lifelong learners on their family vacations. Try these tips to enrich family travel – even with young children – and you might be surprised by just how much kids love educational trips.
Tips For Educational Family Vacations
#1 – Introduce new places through books and films.
Adrienne Veglia Mazeau – When traveling with young children, one way to truly enrich the experience is to get them pumped up for the trip with books about the area or a related topic. Similar to the way parents want to learn more about a destination prior to traveling, children benefit as well from learning about a location or culture before leaving. My children are young (almost 2 and 5) and we try to find age appropriate books for all of our trips – even the day trips.
Our summer plans are filled with a lot of local day trips and we’ve been reading E is for Empire – New York Alphabet which focuses on historical and iconic destinations across New York State. When my daughter was 2 ½ we went to Puerto Rico and brought along several pirate related books. She was too young to understand the historical significance of Old San Juan, but we still read the same pirate books now and talk about what we saw in Puerto Rico. Books are a way to heighten anticipation of a trip to come but also serve as a great reminder of the memories made on family travels.
Adrienne writes about educational family travel with young children, her articles can be found here.
#2 – Learning together is fun for the whole family.
Beth Levine – As a child, I remember going to fun destinations while on long road trips with my family. Walking in the houses that presidents lived in (Mount Vernon and Monticello), seeing colonial villages, and standing where Martin Luther King Jr gave his infamous speech were some of the highlights. My parents wanted to make sure that we learned about history as we traveled to places like Busch Garden in Williamsburg and Walt Disney World. We also went to a lot of museums to learn about science and animals. It was only when older that I realized just how much this hands on experience made an impact on my life. Never once did I feel like I was being dragged on vacation. It was fun learning with my family about new destinations as we traveled.
This love for travel and learning passed along to the next generation. As a classroom teacher, I planned field trips that mixed educational extensions and fun experiences. The Boston Museum of Science, Duck Tours, Tenement Museum, and Bronx Zoo are several favorites. As my boys have grown, my husband and I seek locations by relatives and on vacations that provide enrichment. My eight-year-old son could tell you the entire history of Niagara Falls after visiting there. Seeing the wonder of the falls spurred him to research about it and read books that incorporated the falls within the plots. The teacher in me adores seeing my children explore through play in destinations like the The Strong Museum, Buffalo Museum of Science, and the Atlantis Long Island Aquarium. If we know we will be traveling to a location, I try to find books to get everyone excited and involved in the planning. Involvement is crucial, especially as our children get older.
Even when we travel to Walt Disney World, learning is always involved. My five year old son was able to see how hydroponic vegetables are grown and used within all of Disney thanks to our tour of The Land. Sure, we spend a lot of time checking out characters and going on rides, but there is so much more. The boys adore looking for hidden Mickeys by following scavenger hunts. Just walking around Epcot, they learn a lot about the cultures of countries that one day they may travel. The best part of Disney and all enrichment filled vacation is bringing those memories home. Once back at home, you can use the knowledge to further investigate something, plan your next getaway as a family, or use it to journal and share with others.
#3 – Give everyone a chance to do what they love.
Marianne Russell – Because we homeschool, I hesitate to put too much in the way of “learning” into our vacations (except for one crazy thing we routinely do, even when not on vacation, and that is all try to guess at the total bill when we go out to eat, to see who is the closest!) We have been taking yearly “family trips” since our first two were 3 and 1; now they are nearly 9, 11 and 13. For our yearly Hilton Head trip, I let each of them pick a dinner site, plus every year I add “one new thing we did not do last year” – that is how we started kayaking as a family, now even adding in dolphin hunts to our kayaking adventures.
This year – parasailing will be the “added adventure” for the oldest, and horseback riding for the younger two. I think it just takes some thought, but to me, it’s worth the extra effort to not have someone feel their voice didn’t matter. But, then again, that is how we operate on a daily basis, so vacations aren’t any different! Even when we went to Disney World a couple years ago, we did different parts of the trip geared to different ages. So the little one had to sit and sip lemonade while the older one and my husband were on the rockin’ roller coaster, and the older one played some arcade games while the youngest was on Dumbo. The effort has always been worth the rewards of vacations that all family members enjoy.
Marianne, the newest member of the Albany Kid team, will be writing about family travel in Cleveland, Ohio (as soon as she finishes unloading packing boxes!)
#4 – Look for the angle with the most kid-appeal.
Gina Martin – The worst traveler in our family is my husband. The kids are pretty interested in things in general, and like exploring. They are ages 10 and 13 now, so when we go I do involve them in the planning – from picking the hotel, to figuring out an itinerary. We always end up with more things we’d like to do than we have time or energy for, which then inspires us to continue traveling. My 10 year old loves animals and baking and cooking exotic foods, and anything to do with those subjects wins her approval. My teen is into gaming, zombies, horror and internet memes, so there’s a lot of quirky stuff we find to do in real life that he can enjoy.
Both kids loved the trip to the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop and Toy Tokyo in New York City, and in Philly we went shopping at I. Goldberg Army & Navy Store where they found some interesting military surplus gear that they bought as fashion statements (that post is upcoming). If you’re going somewhere that may have some popular culture connection, exploit it mercilessly! For example our visit to Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia was a huge hit with them because they’d seen episodes of ghost-hunting “reality” show Ghost Adventures that was set there, and they got a big kick out of seeing Al Capone’s jail cell.
Even high-brow places, like the Metropolitan Museum in New York have things a tween and teen will like – in our case, they both loved the medieval armor and Egyptian pyramid section. Because they have something that they relate to there, it makes future visits to stretch horizons more palatable for them, and because I have some street cred with them, they don’t fuss about my suggestions. Now if only I could get their father to follow suit!
#5 – Learning can happen in unexpected places.
Cie McCullough Buschle – Don’t equate educational or enrichment travel with stuffy museums and dull tours – learning can happen anywhere. You can even be sneaky about it. Try to combine the interests of the child with something educational and they might not even notice. We just spent some time in Salem and my 13 year old daughter was fascinated. She learned more from a few witch museums than she does in history class, because she wanted to know more. Our upcoming trip to Lake Placid will be a great way to not only learn about the Olympics, but talk a bit about the Cold War, the rivalry between the US and Soviet teams, and maybe watch the movie Miracle as a family.
Have a sports nut? Go to Cooperstown, but don’t let it just be all about Baseball; while there make sure to see the Pride and Passion exhibit and talk about a time when sports were segregated. Or see the Diamond Dreams exhibit about women in Baseball, and maybe watch League of Their Own. Is your kid studying Spanish? Subtly point out ¡Viva Baseball!, a bilingual exhibit, in English and Spanish, that celebrates baseball in Latin America.
Where ever you go, make sure to check out the gift shops – there are always great books and games available that are hard to get elsewhere. And bringing home a souvenier leaves an impression on a young mind. Seeing something in their room, day after day, will remind them of that great time they had, and what they learned when they were there.
Start with what you and your family loves – the enrichment will follow.
Cie writes about culture and historical family travel with two teens, her articles can be found here.
#6 – Provide opportunities to pursue interests.
Sandra Foyt – Now that my kids are into the teenage years, they have strong opinions and interests that they want to take to the next level. Family vacations offer unique opportunities to pursue those passions, even if it requires a willingness to compromise so that everyone get their heart’s desire.
So, for example, my daughter is crazy about skimboarding – a sport she discovered on a day trip from Orlando, FL to Anna Maria Island. In the years since, she has signed up for lessons and even week-long skimboard camps. Her little brother isn’t as obsessed about hanging out at beaches as she is, but he follows along willingly. Alex’s obsession with building video games is easier to accomodate, he just brings his laptop along. But when he wanted to attend the ROBLOX Game Conference in San Francisco or a computer programming camp at UC Irvine, we worked that into our summer travel schedule too.
As a result, I’ve learned more about skimboarding and online video games than I ever imagined possible. And yet, I treasure that knowledge because it’s what connects me to the individuals who are my children.
Sandra Foyt writes about thematic family travel and enrichment here.
#7 – Educational activities build intergenerational bridges.
Diane Thompson – As an elementary school teacher, I’m always looking for educational extensions and primary source material to use in the classroom. My kids have benefitted from this research, joining me on many enriching outings from childhood to adulthood. Now when we gather the extended family – our kids and their spouses, in-laws, and other relatives and friends – we choose adventurous family vacations like ski or diving trips that everyone can agree on. Nevertheless, somehow educational activities creep in.
On a recent visit to the Bahamas, we toured the Graycliff Hotel which included a hand-rolled cigar making demonstration. One of our family members, an up and coming young attorney, was able to get insight into the process that he was later able to share with an entrepreneurial client. And our large, intergenerational group was able to enjoy a fun outing – together.
Learning doesn’t end when the kids leave the nest.
Diane will be writing about Baby Boomer travel as soon as she retires from a demanding teaching career.
Enrichment Does So Much More Than Combat Brain Drain
Because educational activities can be shared across age-levels and generations, enriching family travel is a great way to nurture family bonds. The same cousins who might have nothing to say to each other sharing front parlor couch, suddenly find themselves working cooperatively at a hands on museum exhibit. Engaging minds in complex challenges is a tried and true secret of team building, and of rewarding family vacations.
Find many more articles about educational family vacations – with tips on enriching trips to explore interests such as food, fossils, or children’s book settings, sorted by subject, on the Albany Kid Travel Enrichment page.
Sandra Foyt | Sandra Foyt is a storyteller, photographer, and road trip junkie. A veteran of six cross-country road trips, she drove Route 66, the Lincoln Highway, the fossil freeway, the extraterrestrial highway, and even “the loneliest road in America.” Find her on GetawayMavens.com, an award-winning destination guide to extraordinary travel in and from Northeast USA, on her portfolio site at SandraFoyt.com, and in freelance gigs on Family Travel 411, Minitime, Huffington Post, and Matador Network. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter @SandraFoyt.