10 Out-of-the-Box Things Kids Learn When They Travel
When we travel, I see my kids transform.
Away from the comfort and routines of home, my kids are not just thinking about their latest school assignment, how to delay doing a dreaded task, or when they will get to play video games next.
When we travel, my kids come alive – full of curiosity, observations, and a new level of confidence and connections.
They wonder how things relate.
They take on new roles, asking how I know the way around an airport (“Did you know there are signs almost everywhere you go telling you how to get to your next place?”, I ask them), then being given the opportunity to navigate us using those new skills.
They wonder why it’s harder to figure out where we’re going, buy things, order food, and more when in one place versus the other (“It’s much easier to communicate with people when we can speak in the same language,” we explain).
They step up to interact with new people, seeing themselves more as peers amoungst others, whereas at home they fall into their role as children whose parents do more of the talking (Why are the monkeys following us around town, they ask).
They notice and observe what makes places and people the same or different wherever we go (“Why do more people in this country wear head scarves?” they’ve asked).
How Family Travel Enables Experiential Learning and Global Citizenship
More and more families are choosing long-term, enriching travel experiences as a way not only to enjoy quality family time together, but to foster a sense of cultural understanding, awareness, and provide hands-on experiential learning for their children, even when the tradeoff involves homeschooling, selling of the main family home, or nomadic travel.
The increase in these new forms of family travel begs a further, deeper question. This is a question increasingly posed by those who wonder about the pros and cons of taking younger kids on trips that may seem extravagant (or perhaps unrewarding).
What are kids really taking away from travel experiences?
Is travelling with kids an actual investment that has long-term benefits for the child? Is it more than a simple luxury for parents for their own enjoyment?
What Travel Teaches Children
Research shows a confounding amount of support that travel has long-lasting and important benefits for children.
Travel can play an important role not just in creating precious memories, but in strengthening family bonds, contributing to a child’s leadership skills, and increasing a child’s performance in school.
1. Travel helps increase a child’s intellectual capacity
In a recent study involving over 20,000 students from Kindergarten through 5th grade, the U.S. Department of Education identified a significant link between academic achievement and taking a family vacation, even after controlling for correlations such as the economic standing of the participants (i.e. the control group and kids who travelled were of the same economic standing).
The study found that
- Children who traveled with their families scored higher on academic achievement assessment tests than those who did not travel.
- The number of days spent on family trips positively affected academic achievement.
- Children who spent time at museums, historical sites, state parks, and even the zoo and the beach had significantly higher academic achievement scores than those who did not.
2. Travel strengthens family and sibling bonds
When my kids were very young, our family had the pleasure of spending an evening with our friends Keith and Angela, and their two teenage kids. I’d never seen teenage siblings – a boy and a girl at that -so courteous and friendly with one another. When I asked them what they thought contributed to their kids’ great relationship, they immediately shared how, every summer, they all take a month long camping trip – just the four of them – and how the sibling bonding that took place during those trips helped them learn to rely on one another and grow together.
Strong sibling relationships have benefits well beyond the time that kids are living in their parents home; it’s something that will solidify their relationship throughout their lives.
“Travel as a family creates time and space for interpersonal bonding unlike almost anything you can do at home. Strip away the tangles and pressures of everyday life and you suddenly find yourself able to appreciate one another more fully and live life more deeply, all as a step in creating a robust family dynamic. The result is a more understanding and self-supporting family intimacy,” said Ethan Gelber in an article on International Expeditions.
Spending time as a family unit creates opportunities for parents and siblings to interact in new ways, growing through shared experiences.
When in school, my children find comfort and form close bonds with their peers, which is fantastic for them socially, but also takes away their interdependence on each other. Spending time together as a family during travel, they strengthen the bonds and interdependency on one another. My son and daughter learned to surf side by side; the three kids discovered that they could bring hermit crabs back t our beach house, and set up little homes for them to crawl between; we’ve gotten lost a hundred times, jumped into oceans across the world, and discovered new foods together. These are both shared memories we can draw on as a family, side-by-side growth experiences, and a places where they’ve been tested and learned to rely on one another.
“Travel defines who you are as a family,” says Laura Manske, editor of Family Travel: The Farther You Go, the Closer You Get (Travelers’ Tales Guides) “The more time you spend with your children, the closer you get.”
3. Travel creates real-world connections to other people, places and cultures
Go somewhere new with your family, hang out in a place where other kids are playing as well, and no doubt your kids will make some new friends.
When you’re traveling, these friends can bring a whole new set of diversity and cultural perspective your kids may not normally get.
When travelling in Europe, our kids made friends with two Slovenian girls, and two Dutch boys, and spent hours comparing stories and playing games with one another. They laughed as they shared “American” peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with their new Slovenian friends, and got to taste some of the Slovenian family’s food. Upon returning, their feeling of connectedness to these two countries, due to their direct interactions with people from there, was so much richer. They’ve had an opportunity to write to their friends and continue the friendship as well.
4. Travel enriches historical and cultural learning
Seeing and experiencing historical sites up close can make history come alive for young people and help them to make sense of the names, dates and events that they learn in school. Learning a new language or about another culture, in a classroom, can only pale in comparison to hearing a language firsthand, participating in a conversation in a different dialect, or experiencing a new culture by walking the streets in a foreign country.
Most of school learning is done through books or in classrooms. Travelling, on the other hand, gives children real-world applications to what they study in school. Children can stand where battles were had during the Civil War, see the creations of Native Americans, explore a castle and the treasuries of a royal family, or stand where walls once divided empires.
5. Travel increases kids’ flexibility and resilience
Travel gives children the flexibility to cope with unfamiliar surroundings and learn to thrive in them.
“The world is moving so fast today that by the time our kids graduate, everything will have changed,” Matthew Upchurch, Chairman and CEO of Virtuoso, said in a Yahoo! Travel article. “You’d better teach them how to be creative thinkers, how to collaborate with other human beings, and how to fuel their passion.”
Whether it’s adjusting to a new time zone, operating with less clothing and creature comforts than one is used to, or dealing an unexpected detour in a travel itinerary, there’s no doubt that travelling teaches us how to adapt to new situations.
Any traveler can easily tell you of one if not many bumps in the road on their journey.
The lessons, for kids, come from pushing through the challenges – how do we use the limited resources we have to solve this problem? How do we call upon our patience when a flight is delayed or cancelled? How do we work with others to help us understand something when we don’t speak the same language?
Our kids’ resilience was tested when we found ourselves stranded in Venice last summer. At 9pm, after a full day of walking around the streets of Venice, we were anxious to get back to our rental car and return to our “home” for the night. Unfortunately, the car key was nowhere to be found! My husband and I went into problem-solving mode, was it locked in the car? Did it fall out of a pocket while we were at a restaurant? If we couldn’t find it, what could the rental car company (based out of Denmark) do to help? Two hours later, with an exhausted 5, 7 and 10 year old falling asleep in my arms and holed up in a hotel lobby that we were considering just booking for the night, my husband returned from his search around town – cell phones nearly out of power – without a key. Finding a cab to take us an hour away was yet another challenge – the cab drivers spoke very little English and we ended up relying on an American in line who was living there to help translate our request. We ended up safely back at our resort, but had to delay our next travel for two more days while we worked on securing a replacement key from the rental car company in Copenhagen. And, all the while, I kept thinking what an amazing life lesson this was for our kids.
They learned how to deal with uncertain circumstances, problem-solve, rely on others, be flexible with changes to travel plans, and how to make the best of it. I may not wish this sort of travel trouble on other families, but I certainly can say that the lessons we all learned from the experience helped us grow. And, as I often thing when one deals with difficult circumstances, it teaches perspective for ongoing troubles. Now, when we have a little bump in our plans on an outing, we can all call up the trouble we had in Venice and understand that this little bump, is not such a big deal.
6. Travel encourages appreciation and openness to differences
In many American cities, an interesting phenomenon is taking place where our tourist experience is widely being shaped by a conglomerate of retail shops that dominate many commercial areas and public landscapes. Travelling to new and diverse destinations helps kids understand and appreciate diversity, cultural uniqueness and historical significance.
Tasting foreign foods, hearing different languages and visiting homes in other countries can be an eye-opening experience. It helps kids broaden their depth of understanding about the differences in the world – the variety and range of life circumstances, cultures, geography and people is much broader than most children can imagine or be aware of without seeing it for themselves. And with awareness, comes understanding.
“The one thing parents tend to do is underestimate what their kids will like,” Rainer Jenss, former publisher of the magazine National Geographic Kids and founder of Family Travel Association says. “That goes for food, for places to visit…It’s often the parents who are hung up on ‘well, kids want routine. When kids are taken out of their comfort zone it feeds this curiosity that kids have. And it’s important to do that while they’re young, because eventually that curiosity fades a bit.”
Malaka Hilton, owner of the travel agency Viruoso, lauds travel’s role in shaping the worldview of her two children. Hilton has taken her children to destinations including Zimbabwe, Egypt, Cambodia, India, and Russia. “They are more aware of the world and more accepting of race, religion, and culture,” she said in an article in Yahoo! Travel.
7. Travel fosters gratitude
Whether kids are in a place that is actually worse off than where they live, or is simply different, travel provides the perspective for kids to appreciate their own lives. Most kids, regardless of how much they’ve enjoyed their travel, are also anxious and excited when it’s time to come home. They appreciate the comforts and safety of the place they call home and can instantly feel gratitude towards and appreciation for their “normal life.”
For Malaka Hilton, owner of Florida-based Admiral Travel, travel has unequivocally shaped the worldview of her two children, 13 and 11. Hilton has taken her kids to destinations such as Zimbabwe, Egypt (where they had family connections), Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, India, and Russia. “They recognize that they are extremely fortunate to have the lives they have here.” said in an article in Yahoo! Travel article.
They’ve no doubt also seen or experienced something unpleasant along the way – whether it be simply the difficulties of travel, weather they don’t like, or an activity they weren’t fond of – or if it is actually getting a taste of a place or people who are less fortunate than them – either way they gain a sense of gratitude for what they may have other wise taken for granted.
Experiencing adversity firsthand builds perspective and strength of character.
8. Travel teaches responsibility, confidence and independence
One of my favorite things I see in my children when traveling, is how their freedom from typical roles and routines allows them to step outside their comfort zone in so many ways. None is more astonishing to me, than how they become more like peers in our family adventure, equally willing to ask questions of others around them, walk up to a shopkeeper to buy something, or converse ideally while waiting for a train, just like us adults.
Often, merely because the sheer work of schluffing items back and forth from car to train to plane to hotel, the kids are asked to step up and take on more work, such as packing their own suitcases, or reviewing a place before we check out for any forgotten items. They take on many more roles and responsibilities than would be asked of them at home.
Kids learn how to navigate new places, and as they put these new skills into practice, they gain confidence.
“Travel allows these role breakouts because everything is new and fluid. You’re in a different place, trying new things and expanding boundaries,” Jessie Voigts said in a Family Travel Association article
9. Travel increases mindfulness and a sense of awe
In our modern society, we can’t help be trying to think one step ahead on a daily basis. At work, we may be thinking about what we’re going to cook for dinner. While taking the kids to activities, we’re wondering when the kids will have time for homework, or planning our weekend. Our kids see this in our behaviors and actions – we may be distracted when they tell us about something they created at school, or we may be checking our cell phones in between activities.
Jessie Voigts said in a Family Travel Association article , “Whether it’s a monthlong road trip or a visit to a beach, near or far, it is a change of pace and view that teaches us to live in the present – a rare gift in today’s ultraconnected world.”
But travelling takes us out of our routines, and allows us each to focus more on the present. Our kids are always seeing and modelling our behaviors, and when we slow down to enjoy the present moment on our travels, our kids learn from and model that too. Everyone in the family is able to be present, and enjoy the moment more during the special quality time that is created during family travels.
Travel also increases more possibility that we feel a sense of awe, through our encounters with new and amazing pieces of geography, culture or history. Recent studies show that feeling a sense of awe elicits one’s increased interest in volunteering time to help others, preferences for experiential goods rather than material goods, and a higher satisfaction with life.
10. Travel shapes children’s worldview as a global citizen
“One reason why I love traveling, especially with my family: it expands our worldview, global knowledge and experience, and offers unlimited learning opportunities.” Jessie Voigts said in a Family Travel Association article
When it all comes down to it, I believe that the more interconnected we are, the more we can see ourselves as part of more than just a piece of any one small community. The more that we are shaped by the perspective that we are part of this diverse and complex world, the more we can see ourselves as a participant in contributing to solutions on a global level, that we can be part of change that can shape the world. When we travel and see how others view us, how rich and diverse life’s experiences are, we understand how we fit in to a very exciting story of life that is beyond one person’s experience, and we find ourselves more connected and strong through this perspective.
“Don’t travel with young kids. Wait until they’re older. They won’t remember it anyway,” some parents say. Think again. Their adult selves might not remember the trip, but their developing brains and personalities feel the effects. “There is a lot of formal research that shows so much is being absorbed at a young age,” Matthew Upchurch, Chairman and CEO of Virtuoso, said in a Yahoo! Travel article.
Says Jessie Voigts said in a Family Travel Association article, “The old saying about walking a mile in someone’s shoes is true; once you’ve seen how other people live, the world becomes smaller. We are all neighbors, co-workers, and citizens of the world. Travel displays this in glorious color, and can work toward reducing ethnocentrism.”
While our children might not remember the details of any one trip, the experience and what they learn when they travel is like a building block for the future. for more connections. They may not remember the ride on the quad through the jungle, but from it, they learned that they can go new places without fear, and that helps them do something similar in the future. They may not remember the details of the Berlin Wall Memorial, but from the visit, they learned that not all people are treated fairly, and that those of us who are more fortunate are in a powerful position to help those with less freedom, empowering critical thinking and perspective in the future. They may not remember the names of the kids they met playing in a foreign country, but they remember that they have made new connections and new friends in places outside their small world, allowing them to feel a sense of interconnectedness and desire to continue to reach out and connect to others throughout the world.
It is our little contribution to helping our children become more globally-minded, interconnected citizens of the future, who can look beyond their privilege and safety, and want more, believe in more, and feel a sense of ability to create more as they grow up and take our place as the leaders of the future. In this ever-changing, radically interconnected world, I couldn’t imagine raising my children any other way.