Can travelling make one smarter? Child psychotherapist Margot Sunderland believes so, as travel experiences can help activate two systems in the brain that are prone to being underutilised—the systems dedicated to exploration and play.
“The amazing thing is that these systems are like muscles: the more you use them, the more they become part of your personality,” she says. “So when you take your child on a holiday, you are supporting their explorative urge, a vital resource for living life well, and their capacity to play. In adulthood, this translates into the ability to play with ideas, essential, for example, to the successful entrepreneur.”
Apart from visiting educational attractions such as museums, try these strategies to open up a world of possibilities for children before, during, and after a family holiday.
#1 Develop map skills.
The vastness of our world can be difficult for children to grasp, and maps can help them to appreciate humanity’s diversity and interconnectedness. There are many picture books to introduce children to maps, and one example is Maps by Aleksandra Mizielinska, where each of its 52 country maps features an assemblage of symbols and icons that shape a country’s identity. Kinaesthetic learners may derive satisfaction from completing map puzzles, especially if pieces are shaped like individual countries, while older children may enjoy the challenge of committing the names and locations of countries or states to memory—use online quiz sites to put their knowledge to the test. For motivated or advanced learners, work together on some higher-level geography activities, as recommended by the New York Times.
#2 Read, read, read.
The classic This Is… series by Miroslav Sasek highlights prominent attractions in popular travel destinations, and such books are useful for exposure both before and after your vacation—they may even inspire children to create their own vacation memories with a journal or sketchpad. The Lonely Planet has also released a series of guidebooks pitched at the interests and reading levels of children. To find fictional works, use the search string “kid literature around the world” to locate booklists such as this one by the New York Public Library. For planning purposes, check out ZigZag City Guides, which presents kid-friendly, city-specific information in the form of cards that list fun facts and activities.
#3 Spend time with a local.
It’s the most authentic way for you and your children to be exposed to the sights, sounds, and stories of a place. If you don’t have a local friend to call upon, you can join a free, donation-based, or low-cost walking tour; popular options in your destination should turn up easily in a quick Google search. Alternatively, consider booking a family-friendly guide for a customised tour, such as these options for Paris and San Francisco. You can also look to travel sites like Withlocals, which list food and cultural “experiences” that you can sign up for.
#4 Create growth opportunities.
In a new environment, a simple task such as ordering food or asking for assistance can be intimidating, but it’s important to encourage children to face the challenges of being away from one’s comfort zone. While on vacation, children may also notice differences in the way things look (or are run), which can lead to discussions about the merits or drawbacks of these differences.
#5 Keep curiosity alive.
This requires commitment from both parent and child, but leaving your gadgets behind could be the simplest—and hardest—thing you do to stimulate curiosity, spark conversations, and promote learning while on vacation. There’s no better time to focus on real life, so don’t let it go to waste.