We named our son Emmett because it means "universal." We want him to be a well-traveled, well-rounded global citizen. As he gets older, I don't want him to just go to different places and see the sites; I want him to learn from his travels. So I have been thinking of ways to make vacations educational. Below you'll find strategies for transforming your family vacations into enriching educational experiences for your children.
Read more to learn how to turn your family trips into learning opportunities for your kids.
Toddlers, Preschool, Kindergarten
Toddlers are tricky to travel with, but also so much fun! They have short attention spans, they often still need mid-day naps, they're often picky eaters, and their "learning" is really mostly learning through play. But they also get excited about the most mundane (to us) things, and their excitement is infectious! Here are my suggestions for making travel educational even for your young travelers.
1. Children's Museums - Children's museums are perfect learning centers for toddlers! Most children's museums have various activities that help your child's fine motor and gross motor skills, and they have a mix of art and science types of displays. My toddler is a big fan of anything mechanical in nature. Children's museums are perfect venues for learning while traveling.
2. Art Museums - Even little kids have opinions on art. Start by simply asking your pre-schooler, "What's your favorite painting in this room?" Kindergarteners may be able to answer questions like, "What do you like about it?" (Answers may include "the doggy" or "the bright colors." They don't have to be in depth. The idea is to get them to notice things and engage with the painting.) Don't try to spend too much time at any one piece of art, and don't try to see every single piece of art. Adjust your expectations and take what you can get! If you're traveling on a budget, opt for art museums that are free or inexpensive all the time, or go on a day when it's free (if that's an option). Few things are more frustrating than spending an exorbitant amount of money for admission only to have your toddler cranky and ready to go after 12.5 minutes.
3. Elevators - Let your toddler push the button for the correct floor. It may sound silly, but for little ones who are learning to recognize numbers, every chance they get to recognize a number in a real life scenario is a huge stepping stone toward success.
4. Stairs - Count them. Every time. Whether you are climbing 5 stairs, 15 stairs, or 135 stairs, count them. Unless you have a little math genius, if you're climbing 135 stairs, you'll probably need to count for them versus with them, but they should start to recognize the number patterns. Stop at every tenth step and say, "Wow, that was another ten steps! Let's keep going. Thirty-ONE, thirty-TWO, thirty-THREE..." (Pro tip: This will also give you a chance to catch your breath every tenth step!)
5. Zoos and Aquariums - My toddler LOVES animals - mammals, marine animals, reptiles. All. The. Animals. And he can name a lot of them, partly because we take every opportunity we can to visit the animals at various zoos and aquariums. We name them, we talk about their sizes and colors, the sounds they make, etc.
6. Language - Teach your tiny learner how to say, "hello," "goodbye," "please," and "thank you" in the language of the country you will be visiting.
Some of these ideas for elementary students simply build on and expand the ideas for toddlers.
1. Art Museums - Let them pick their favorite painting and then discuss the basic elements of art, like value, color, and texture, used in the painting. Ask them what they like about it, and if there's anything they would change or add to it to make it better. Ask them what they think the painting is about. If there are people in the painting, ask them what they think the characters are saying to one another and what their relationship is. As they get older, you can discuss what they think the picture means versus what the artist intended.
3. Travel Photo Diary - I'm not a fan of young kids being on social media, but there are apps like TinyBeans that are designed with littles in mind. Your kiddo can upload their photos from the day into their TinyBeans account, and only specific people that you offer access to can see the photos. This is a great way for you to see the world through your child's eyes and also allow your child to share their favorite memories with grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and best friends. Once they are old enough to read and write, make sure they write their own captions.
4. Cultural Museums - Many cultural museums are relatively small and hyper-local, which makes them nice for younger learners to not get overwhelmed. Your little learner can discover the history and traditions of the area. Ask them what historical fact was most surprising, what display they liked best, and how they think the city/region has changed over the years.
5. Zoos and Aquariums - Make your visits to zoos and aquariums educational by taking the time to read the placards denoting the origin of each animal and the fun facts about them. Have your elementary-aged child choose a continent before arriving at the zoo and make note of all the animals they see that are native to that continent. Discuss the various classifications of animals - Primates, Rodentia, Reptilia, etc. Ask them which animal was their favorite and have them find three additional facts about that animal that were not included in the information that the zoo offered. If you are able, do the behind-the-scenes tours and as many of the zoo talks held by the animal caregivers as you can, as these are great opportunities to get more information about the animals and for your little learners to ask the questions on their minds. For older elementary kids, you could also add a creative/artistic project by having them choose two or three animals to combine into one "super animal," using each animal's greatest strengths. Have them draw it and discuss what it can and can't do.
6. Nature Walks - Nature walks are a great way to not only get some good exercise, but also to explore various ecosystems and learn about the local flora and fauna. Use a birding app like Merlin Bird ID by Cornell Lab or a nature app like Seek by iNaturalist to have your child identify and classify their findings. Remember to take only photos and leave only footprints. If they overturn a rock to see what bugs are underneath, make sure that rock is replaced before moving on.
7. Navigation - Let your elementary student man the GPS while walking through the city. Have them determine the best subway route to get to your next destination.
8. Language - As a family, learn several common phrases in the language of your next destination. In addition to the basic words already mentioned, phrases like "May I have two cups of coffee?" and "Where is the washroom?" are excellent phrases to learn.
9. Geography - I have always been a huge fan of geography, and I hope my kiddo takes after me. Have your student locate the country you're headed to on a map or globe. Learn the capital of the country and its relation to the city/cities you are visiting (if different). What continent is it on? What currency do they use? How close is it to the equator? What's the climate? Is it land-locked?
10. Postcards - Have your older elementary student practice their writing by sending postcards to their family members and friends. This is a quick and fun way to practice writing complete sentences while also keeping in touch with loved ones.
Once the kids are in middle school, expand on some of the elementary school activities.
1. Art Museums - Discuss multiple paintings, determining the artist's use of art elements, like line, shape, form, and space. Compare and contrast works of art from different eras and genres. Later, have your middle schooler recreate their favorite painting by either creating a 3D scene in a cardboard box, writing a script for the scene, or some other creative outlet.
3. Travel Photo Diary - Upgrade your middle school student to a digital scrapbook app like Digital Scrapbooking or Project Life - Scrapbooking. These robust apps will still allow them to keep track of their photos and add captions, while also making collages and using their creativity.
4. Nature Walks - Nature walks for middle schoolers can be similar to nature walks for elementary students, but a little more vigorous in terms of duration and elevation. Make sure they document and photograph what they see. Later, have them create a "brochure" encouraging people to explore this particular city or area because they are "likely to see the following natural elements," including photos and captions (or a similar project of your choosing).
5. Literature - Have your middle school kid read age-appropriate literature written by a local author or about the country you are about to visit. While there, discuss the time period that the book was written about and how things have changed since then (if at all). Read a local magazine or newspaper together, if you are able to read the language, and discuss current events. Visit local bookstores or find pre-loved books in local charity shops.
6. Cuisine - Take a family-friendly cooking class. Visit restaurants at different price points (street vendors, casual eateries, fine dining) and compare and contrast the foods.
7. Navigation - Before your trip, have your middle schooler map out the various sites you want to see to determine which ones to do on each day to make the most of your time there. (This is a form of "batching" and it is a priceless skill.) Let them determine the best method of transportation, man the GPS while walking through the city, and choose the right subway or bus route.
8. Language - As a family, learn several common phrases in the language of your next destination. In addition to the ones mentioned, learning how to ask how to get to the hotel where you'll be staying, the closest restaurant, the airport, etc. will be beneficial. Learning to count from one to ten in that language can also be helpful.
9. Geography - Take this a step further than the elementary level by learning about neighboring countries, and what its major exports are and where they go. What are the major geographical features (major rivers, mountains, canyons, etc.)?
10. Interviews - Interview a local religious person, political figure, school teacher, or mom. Find someone their age and ask them questions about growing up in that country. Have your student write a report about the similarities and differences of the respective countries.
11. Historical Sites - Don't just see the sites. Make sure your kids learn about their history. When was the site built? Who built it? What was its original purpose? Has its purpose changed? What organization takes care of it now? What is it made of?
12. Currency Conversion - I am not a math whiz. You will never hear me say, "Gosh, I miss Algebra class." But the ability to do currency conversion in your head is an invaluable skill while traveling. Look up the current conversion rate and practice with your child ("1 Chinese Yuan is about $.14 and 15 Chinese Yuan is just over $2 so 50 Chinese Yuan is approximately how much in USD?").
Much of what you do with middle school students can be done with high school students, but in a more robust and vigorous way. I won't reiterate those here, but below are a number of other things that you can add to your high schooler's repertoire.
1. Architecture - I have never studied architecture, but I have always wanted to. If you are like me, learn the basic features of various architectural designs along with your high school student and point them out to each other as you visit various historical and modern buildings. Have your teen write an in-depth study of the architecture of their favorite building they saw on their trip. Make sure they take plenty of close up photos of various architectural elements to refer back to later.
2. Adventurous Skills - If your teens are adventurous and at least somewhat coordinated, give them the opportunity to learn new skills like snorkeling and scuba diving, snow skiing and water skiing, canoeing and kayaking, and boogie boarding and surfing.
3. Volunteering - I think it's so important for young people to give back. Though you could start this earlier with a middle schooler or even an elementary kid, high schoolers who have the privilege of not being required to work a part-time job definitely should be given opportunities to volunteer as they travel.
4. Art - Again, this can be started earlier, but give your high schooler a chance to learn a new artistic skill, like stone carving, origami, pottery making, basket-weaving, or whatever else you find in your travels. One of my favorite experiences from my travels was making a clay vase with a lovely little woman in the hills of Honduras. I still have that vase. Is it beautiful? Not particularly. But I loved that experience and have fond memories of that trip, so that vase will stay with me till I die.
I hope this gives you ideas for seeking and creating learning opportunities for your kids as you explore this wonderful world. Delve into the benefits of visiting historical sites, museums, and cultural landmarks to ignite curiosity and expand your kids' knowledge. The next time you travel, dive into these strategies for integrating learning activities seamlessly into your travels while keeping the fun alive.
Side note: While I did not create this post specifically with worldschoolers in mind, many of these strategies can be used for those who travel full-time and worldschool their children.
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