After taking a few big trips with our daughter, I’ve learned a few tips for preparing for vacation with kids to help them really get the most out of the experience. I noticed when we went to Spain last summer that all the preparation we had done in advance of our trip really resonated with my daughter. We weren’t just wandering around an art museum, she knew what museum we were in and was thrilled to see a painting from her art book in person (it was almost as exciting as spotting a celebrity). Climbing on a statue of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in Plaza de Espana in Madrid was that much more meaningful after reading Don Quixote and getting caught up in the eccentricities of these two characters. If only we had time to go to La Mancha and tilt at a few windmills!
She was excited to try tapas, jamon, pan e tomate, “real” manchego and so many other Spanish specialties. She was introduced to these foods at home but also by watching the PBS special (available on DVD from our local library) of On the Road Again with Mario Batali. Although she was reluctant to try the whole suckling pig at Meson de Candido in Segovia…she did…and we still have a family joke about the way the pig is served sprawled out on a platter and tender enough to cut with a plate. And ordering for herself in Spanish was worth the hours of listening to Coffee Break Spanish podcasts in the car.
Maybe you are looking at your next trip as a way to supplement your child’s education or simply want to see something new. Either way, if you are preparing for vacation with kids and want them to get more out of it, better appreciate what they are seeing, and hopefully remember it longer, then here are some tips for you.
- Read, read, read. Buy or borrow a few tour books. Online content is great but there is nothing like flipping back and forth between maps and descriptions and pictures to try to get a feel for the place and what you might want to do. In addition to traditional tour books, consider immersing yourself in the culture through literature or historical fiction. For example, if you are going to Spain, you might want to read Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. If you are traveling to Europe, you might also want to consider Rick Steves Europe 101: History and Art for the Traveler.
- Listen. There are some great travel podcasts out there that give behind-the-scenes tips and insight into local culture. Rick Steves has a great one.
- Watch. Want to get a feel of a place? Think about renting some movies set in the locale you are interested in, or see if there are any documentaries of interest. I remember when we were going to Spain I did a search at the local library and came up with DVDs about some of the cities we were visiting but also about cultural activities such as Flamenco dancing (and the Mario Batali special I mentioned earlier, which was invaluable in seeing the food and landscape.) Traveling to Tuscany? Rent Under the Tuscan Sun. You get my drift.
- Go online. There are so many ways online to get acquainted with what you are about to do and see from reading family travel blogs to using sites like Trippy or Gogobot to get suggestions, reading reviews on TripAdvisor, searching Google Images or Flickr for pictures, and zooming in on locations using Google Earth.
- Brush up on your language skills. This is something that is fun to do with your kids, no matter what their age. When going to Spain we listening to many episodes of Coffee Break Spanish in the car on the way to and from school. You could also consider something like Rosetta Stone or Mango Languages, which is available through many library systems.
- Get App Ready. Make sure you check with your mobile carrier to see about their international plans if you are traveling overseas but I would suggest looking for and downloading a variety of mobile apps for your smartphone that work even when not connected to WiFi or the cellular network. These would include Metro/Subway maps, Language dictionaries and translators, City guides, and great apps like MTrip or Mobily Trip that let you build custom itineraries per city and then provides offline walking maps to get from place to place. MTrip Barcelona and MTrip Madrid were life savers for us.
Preparing Your Kids:
- Read! There are so many great fiction, historical fiction, and non-fiction books that can introduce your child to the geography, history, and culture of your destination. For example, for Spain, my daughter read: Don Quixote, The Royal Diaries: Isabel: Jewel of Castilla, and also devoured my tour books. The Magic Tree House series can be a great place to start for younger kids, or for National Park visits, try National Geographic’s National Park Mysteries.
- Watch. Just like you, there are plenty of kid friendly movies, TV shows and documentaries set in all sorts of locations. If a simple search doesn’t give you some good ideas, just ask your Children’s Librarian.
- Look. Show them pictures about the places they will go to from books or online. Be sure to pull out some maps and don’t be afraid to highlight the routes you will take as you travel around to provide some perspective of where you are going and how you are getting from place to place. National Geographic Kids can be a great resource as well as the Beautiful Planet iPad app.
- Play. If you have a tablet or iPod Touch, see what games and apps are out there for your kids to play and learn about various places. My daughter is a huge fan of Stack the States and Stack the Countries, as well as Pop Geo US Geography. Plus, if you are taking a road trip, it is a great time to add apps like License Plate finders or Road Trip Bingo.
- Learn. If you are traveling to another country where English isn’t the primary language, consider having them learn a little language with you. This can be through the podcasts or language learning mentioned above, or even simple mobile apps or foreign-language workbooks.
- Report. You might want to encourage your child to begin work on a report that they can present to their class upon their return. Getting a jump on the research will help put things into perspective once they are seen in real life. Then the real-life commentary will add color and visual pizazz to the presentation later on.
What do you do to get your kids ready for a big trip?