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Traveling as a Family: The Ultimate Educational Family Field Trip

by Dr. Wayne Lance

With advance planning, any family trip can become a valuable learning experience. Most children anticipate travel with considerable enthusiasm, are motivated to experience new things, and are open to learning about the people and places they visit. If your children are old enough, include them as you plan your trip and build on their natural enthusiasm.

It is probably wise not to overemphasize the educational benefits of travel as you plan with your children. Sometimes we put a damper on natural curiosity and creativity by making an activity such as travel too much like a classroom. The types of activities you plan need not be a burden for you or for your children, but rather should be enjoyable and stimulating.

Planning Your Trip

Write a letter

When corresponding with relatives or friends to make arrangements prior to a trip to your home country or somewhere else, encourage your children to enclose a letter to peers or cousins. Perhaps your children will want to share a bit of information about themselves and ask some questions to help establish or renew friendships.

If you have photographs of the people you plan to visit, show them to your children. Some children become anxious about meeting new people, especially other children their own age whom they think might find these visitors from overseas to be out-of-touch with the home culture. Seeing a photograph and corresponding ahead of time can help to offset some of these fears.

On a globe or map, locate the places you plan to visit and trace the route you intend to follow. Talk about how each of these locations is alike and different from where you live. If your children are old enough to understand the concepts of time and distance, work out travel time and estimated arrival times and dates. Help your children prepare a calendar to indicate when and where you will be for the weeks or months you will be away.

Have each child collect inexpensive gifts to share with some of the children they will meet along the way. These gifts might include postcards or photographs from the country in which you are living, inexpensive articles of clothing or crafts, unusual shells, rocks, or dried leaves, and flowers and butterflies--if these can be transported across national boundaries. Even items clipped from a magazine or newspaper published in your host country may be of interest to the folks back home.

Preparation should include lists of things to discover. Each child should make his or her own list. For those too young to write, you can jot down the items as they think of them. Here is one way of categorizing their discovery lists:

  • people I want to see
  • places I want to go
  • things I want to eat
  • things I want to find out
  • things I want to photograph
  • items I want to buy or collect

Assemble a traveling kit that is appropriate to the age of your children, suitable for use on a plane or train, and usable in a car after arrival in the country of destination. Your traveling kit can help ease the discomfort of hours in a car or plane with the restriction of a seat belt.

Include at least one read-aloud book, preferably one suited to the entire family and of such length that it can be serialized over a period of days or weeks. Other items in the kit might include pads of paper with a firm backing; pencils; washable markers; non-melt crayons; play dough; small games without parts to get lost; cassette tapes [CDs] with a tape [CD/mp3] player, earphones, and extra batteries; healthy snacks; and containers for water with non-spill lids. Include a few surprises to pull out at those times when a change of attitude is warranted.

Activities to Encourage Learning

A personal journal provides opportunity to practice writing skills. Young children may draw pictures or have an adult or older sibling act as recorder. Even preschoolers can make a record of the trip. If children say they don’t know what to write, give leads such as:

“How did you feel when you first saw the forest?”

“What were the names of each of the children in the family we stayed with last night?”

Encourage them to write a brief paragraph about what they liked about Grandpa or how the old house looked different than they expected it to look. You may find it helpful to set aside a few minutes each day for journal writing.

Help your children “get a feel” for the places they visit. From the highway, most cities and towns may look the same. Take occasional breaks to visit a small-town museum or to walk through a neighborhood or along a riverbank. These times of experiencing aspects of the local culture are when children can really practice higher-order thinking skills if you guide them in the techniques of observation and critical thinking.

Other activities to make the most of your travel time might include the following:

Trace the route traveled each day

  • Write letters or postcards to friends back in your host country.
  • Prepare a family tree or genealogy and add to it as you meet relatives.
  • Use travel time to tell your kids about your childhood and what it was like while you were growing up.
  • Make a game of seeing who can come up with ways in which the people and things you see are alike and different from those in the country you just left.
  • Help each child make a collection of something: postcards from each place visited; a photograph taken in each location; a leaf, rock, or pine cone from various locations; a list of license plates to see how many cars they can spot from different states, countries, or provinces.
  • Use a marking pen to trace on a map the route traveled each day. Figure out the miles traveled and the estimated driving time for the next day.
  • For children old enough to read a travel guide, rotate the chance to read about the places to be visited and then pick out a museum or historic site to visit.

Follow-up Activities

Following your return to your host country, use the experiences of the trip. Write letters to friends and relatives to express thanks for hospitality and to share information about the trip home. Items and photographs collected can be categorized and labeled. Maps used on the trip can be referred to during future units of study on weather, climate, culture, geography, and history. Experiences can serve as a rich source of information for creative writing. And much of what was learned can be shared with friends and neighbors back in the host country.

Permission is granted to copy, but not for commercial use..