Incorporating Learning into Family Travel


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I am always saddened by reports in the media of parents being fined or discouraged from taking their kids out of school to travel.  In fact recently I read about how police are being deployed to airports in Germany to look for parents taking their kids on holiday outside of school holidays.

There is no question in my mind that travel is one of the best forms of education out there and most teachers I know are extremely supportive and encouraging of family travel. As an educator myself, I am encouraged by the way education is changing and modernizing for the 21st century.  But it is a slow process and we still think of education traditionally as something that happens within four walls, by classes, led by a teacher, from 9 am to 3 pm.

Our kids have gone to school in both Canada and Australia and we have never had any problems taking them out of school for longer periods of time (1-6 months).  However, I know there are many countries were it isn’t nearly so easy.

Home schooling, world schooling, road schooling and un-schooling are all increasing in popularity as parents seek alternative forms of education.  There is increasing recognition of less-traditional forms of education that are child-led, flexible and integrated.  It is this type of education and learning that travel naturally and organically cultivates as it is driven by curiosity.  Read this post for more about what school looked like for our family when we lived on a boat in the Bahamas for 5 months.

We have always thought of school field trips as the natural application of what children are learning at school; a way to connect their learning to real life.  Travel really is the ultimate field trip.

No matter if you are travelling halfway around the world with your children or a few hours from home, there are educational opportunities.  In this post, we share our ideas of how you can incorporate learning into your trips based on our experiences with family travel.  Of course, family holidays are not just about learning; they are also an incredibly important time to spend time together as a family and re-connect.

How We Incorporate Learning in Our Travels

1. Research and Talk About a Destination Beforehand

No matter how old your kids are, they can be engaged in a family trip.  Get books out from the local library about the country you are visiting, and watch Youtube videos or documentaries. Plan weekend activities that get the kids excited about the destination.  For example, you could learn how to do origami (Japan), make home-made pasta (Italy) or create henna designs (India).  Eat out at international restaurants to get the whole family excited about the foods of that region before you go.

food to eat in Japan

There are lots of great destination-specific books for children that introduce them to the culture of the country they are visiting.

Before we visited Amsterdam, we introduced the kids to the Holocaust and the World Wars.  This got them very curious and gave them a foundation to learn about what they were seeing.

2. Museums, Cultural Shows, Festivals and Holidays

Thankfully museums are changing and are much more interactive than the museums I encountered as a child.  In addition to visiting museums, science centers and art galleries, we seek out cultural shows like local dances or plays.  When we were in India, we watched a kathakali performance, kalari martial arts show, and theyyam religious ritual.

Before you leave, check and see if there are any holidays or festivals while you are visiting.  On our first visit to India, we were there for the Onam festival and next year we will be in India for Holi.  The kids loved looking at the elaborate flower patterns and watching the host at our homestay prepare the elaborate Onam meal.  When we lived in Malaysia, the kids loved watching the Dragon dances at Chinese New Year and the breaking of the fast each evening during Ramadan.

Our kids love cultural activities where they can get involved.  One of my favourite activities we did this past summer was a batik making course in Jogjakarta in Indonesia.  In a small group setting in the guide’s home, they helped us create our own intricate batiks with wax and dye.  Throughout Indonesia the kids learned the importance of batik to the culture and loved being able to create their own art.  Now that we are home, we are all so proud of our batiks hanging throughout our house.

When we were visiting Uluru in Australia, we did a dot painting workshop with an Aboriginal artist.  It was the perfect blend of culture with a hands on art component.  Again we have these beautiful paintings and memories from that experience.  Maruku Arts dot painting

As our kids are getting older, we are finding food tours are a great way to combine cultural learning and local foods.  In Penang we tasted our way through the diverse street food and in Athens we sampled so many delicious Greek foods.

3. Answer their Questions

I love how curious our kids are and we don’t shy away from tough topics.  Travel will often lead to discussions about terrorism, war, environmental destruction, political topics like gun control, poverty and privilege, blights in history like Holocaust and Apartheid and so many more.  While we try to answer their questions in age appropriate ways, we believe knowledge is power and we don’t try to shelter them from these hard topics.

Sometimes their questions can be incredibly tedious.  One time I remember being on a long hike in Australia and they were really curious about evolution and how it worked.  This conversation went on for much longer than Paul would have liked, but he answered their many repetitive questions.  We all know how tiring the “Why? Why?” line of questioning can get with young kids, but we have to remind ourselves that they are exercising their curiosity about the world around them.

4. Embrace Opportunities for Learning

Just like with everything we do in life, learning can be sprinkled in and incorporated.  With some creativity and effort, travel lends itself well to these casual learning opportunities:

  • Numeracy – calculating change, exchange rates, tracking distance, estimating costs, budgeting.
  • Literacy – reading menus, guide books, attraction signs, reading a map or train schedule, researching hotels or attractions. 

As you can see, these can be used in our regular lives without traveling as well.

5. Modeling Lifelong Learning

One of the traits I most want to instill in my kids is to be lifelong learners.  I want them never to lose that curiosity of the world and for them to believe that they can learn and master anything at any point in their lives, if they work hard enough.  I think one of the best ways to do this is by modeling what lifelong learning looks like.  We read books about topics that interest us, show an interest in historical and current events and learning about the cultures and traditions of the places we are visiting.  We seek our activities that are pleasurable, but also learning opportunities (food tours, art workshops).

When we visited the Red Centre of Australia, it made me want to learn a lot more about the history of indigenous people in Australia, the first European settlers and the current status of ingeniousness Australians.  I spent months soaking up every book I could get my hands on, which led to lots of discussions with the kids about what I was learning.

Uluru Cultural Centre

Sometimes not everyone is in a learning mood!

6. Read Books Connected to Your Travels

I love learning and when I travel I always seek out books about the region both before and during a trip.  I love a mixture of non-fiction, often with important social stories, and fictions set in that area.

Our daughter’s love of the Percy Jackson books set the stage for our visit to Greece last summer.  In preparation for our travels next year, I have been seeking out books set in the countries we are visiting.  She has already read the Rick Riordan Presents book, The Storm Runner about Mayan mythology for our trip to Mexico and the Young Reader’s Edition of Lion, set in India and Australia.  After our trip to Amsterdam, Ella was really interested in Anne Frank’s story and read the story in graphic format.

For younger kids, Lonely Planet has a great City Trails series on popular destinations.  We have used other destination-specific kids’ guides for Japan and picture books for Australia.

7. Don’t Overdo It and Let Them Take the Lead

We love to learn when we are traveling, but like everything in life, we have to strike a balance.  Kids need time to just play and we always build time into our days to go to a playground, hang out on the beach or at the pool and read and play games.  India with kids

We have also found that we get much more buy in on activities when the kids have a say in what we are doing.  Now that they are older, they will research a destination or plan an activity

8. Follow their Interests

When planning a trip, we have a vision of what we want the trip to look like.  But we are increasingly getting the kids more involved and invested and creating a vision together.  Our trip to Greece was 100% because of Ella and Greek mythology.  On our upcoming trip to Nepal we knew we wanted to do a trek, but weren’t sure which one.  Gavin really wants to see Everest, so that decided the trek for us.  When we visited London last year, we knew it was a fantastic opportunity for the kids to experience the world of Harry Potter.  We are trying to incorporate their interests more into our travels.  

A lot of times travel provokes curiosity and we then have an opportunity to learn together.  We might not have all of the answers, but now we can learn together.  We can read books, watch documentaries or Youtube videos and Google to find out more together.

Travel = Learning

With very little effort, you can organically incorporate learning into your family travels.  When I hear our kids talk about our travels, I am so proud of the global citizens they are becoming.  Kids are like sponges: naturally curious and eager to learn.  Travel gives them a way to learn in a completely different way and should not be underestimated.

How do you incorporate learning into your family travels?  Leave me a message in the comments below.

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