I love to travel, and started my own personal traveling when I was 14 and went on my first solo trip to visit my Grandparents in Arizona. In fact, a luggage set was my 14th birthday present. When I was 21, I began my backpacking career, after being inspired by people I saw sleeping on the deck of a boat on a previous journey along the Alaskan coast line when I was 16. This is the way I wanted to see the world!
I always remember my parents saying that it was good to go traveling when I was young, because once real life started, travel would have to wait. Well, that didn’t sit well with me. I was determined to make traveling a part of my life, and a career, a house, a business and children were not going to stop me!
We live in a world where we are able to connect globally, and yet, often we are reluctant to do that in a real way. It is easy, and safe, to explore the world and its varied people from the comfort and safety of our homes, or in resorts that have all the comforts of home and give us controlled experiences that give us a small glimpse into another person’s life. Don’t get me wrong. I recognize the need for a relaxing holiday where no one has to worry about the day-to-day things, and the experience is hassle free. We all need this type of TLC from time to time.
Traveling without the safety net of a pre-arranged tour, and carrying your home on your back leads to a very different experience, especially when doing that with children in tow. Our family decided to travel in this way for most of our journeys. It wasn’t always easy. We typically arrived with a guidebook in hand and no reservations. We did not have an itinerary, just some locations in mind, and a flight home at the end.
Why would we choose this way of traveling? Well, because our goal was to explore, and follow the paths that we encountered along the way. We wanted our children to experience people and places as they were presented to us. We wanted them to learn about cultures of the world through direct experience. We decided to use exploring the world as a canvas for learning about life, both the way other groups live their lives, and as a way to make decisions, form opinions, and recognize similarities and differences between the global community.
Travel is often seen as a way to bring a family together. This was true of our method as well. We each had our own roles and responsibilities. Each for their own packing and carrying of clothes and personal items. When we would arrive in a new location, I would have some possible places marked in our guidebook, and we would split up – two staying with the packs, and two checking out lodgings for the night. When we started exploring the following day, we had a list of questions that could be answered by tourist information, or a local such as a hostel worker or someone in a restaurant. When our kids were young, most of the decision making was left to the adults, but as they got older, they were increasingly involved in transit and route planning, navigating to locations we used in a particular city, finding a place to stay, and in the information gathering process. By our last trip, they would go to find our room, and find out important information independently. Of course, there were times when this was problematic. The first trip that we allowed the boys to pack for themselves resulted in a huge rope and grappling hook, shoes that were falling apart, zap straps, bungee cords and duct tape. Well, the rope was sent home, but the duct tape and zap straps saved our feet and clothing many times, and the bungee cords were used daily for attaching luggage to the tops of taxis so that we could stay together in a car rather than being split up.
If you have the chance to travel with children, it is so important to be flexible, and to add fun. I see traveling as a learning experience, but this does not always mean learning facts and dates, going to museums and taking tours. It means finding places to climb and explore, renting bikes, going bowling with the locals, renting ATVs and going zip lining. When we started, there were no cell phones or personal computers, so reading a family novel, playing cards and dice games, drawing and seeing movies in a theatre were our entertainment. Part of the beauty of this simplicity is that it removes distractions. It forces a family to work together as a unit, and siblings to rely on each other as friends. It requires problem solving, collaboration, and compromise.
Traveling teaches life skills that are really survival skills no matter what setting one finds oneself in. Recognizing dangerous situations, trusting your instincts, goal setting, facing challenges, developing tolerance, accepting differences, talking to strangers safely…these are invaluable lessons. I feel confident in the abilities of both my boys when they venture into the world, whether that be living independently in the lower mainland or living abroad.
From an educational point of view, there are a wealth of learning opportunities. Traveling should never be seen as ‘missing school’, it simply provides direct experiences that add to continually building our understanding of life and the world.
When exploring any place, be it at home or abroad, there are many questions to explore.
- What plants and animals live here?
- What are the homes made from?
- What does the architecture tell us about the local history and resource use?
- How do people get their food and what do they eat?
- How do families live, work and play?
- How do the locals travel and what do they pay? Are there differences between locals and tourists? (female only cars on the trains in Egypt, different fares for locals)
- What does the night sky look like?
- What are the environmental and social issues?
- What are the dangers in a particular environment? (pick pocketing, drug abuse, poverty, hunger, street safety)
- What writing, number and money system is used?
- What is the geography, and how has it changed? ( Erosion, volcanoes, canyons, deforestation, salinization, rock formation)
- How has history shaped a place and it’s people?
- How do nature and man interact?
When learning on the road, there is no need to formalize this learning. It can simply be used to start discussions, raise questions, and as the building blocks of memories and connections. I do work with families who travel through my work at Hume Park Homelearners who choose to formalize learning. Younger students may simply keep a travel journal as a scrapbook, adding photos, artifacts, collections, drawings and stories. Older students often use a computer, and create projects related to science and social studies concepts. They sometimes also read a historical fiction novel that takes place in the area of the world they are exploring.
Things to think about when on the road with kids:
- Pack lightly- only bring clothes you like wearing, but are not too attached to. You will wear the same things day to day, so bring things you can part with, and buy something new when you need a change. Your old clothes may be a gift for someone else.
- Pack toiletries in waterproof bags which can go into the shower if needed when in hostel situations
- Use a money belt or small purse that attaches to your body and can be worn under clothing when needed. Also, as adults, split up money, cards and passports. Keep a photocopy of documents in a safe place. This is for safety, but also, in some places, photocopies are expected even to buy a train ticket.
- Bring a separate day pack to carry water, snacks, cards, cameras, an extra layer of clothing, suntan lotion and bug spray
- Bring an extra stuff sac or fold up shopping bag for dirty laundry, and later to bring gifts home
- Buy things that will entertain and be a piece of home. For example, once we bought a small guitar for hours of musical exploration, another time we bought cheap skateboards which kept the lids active, where a point of interest with locals, and also helped with transporting packs and rushing to catch a boat
- Don’t be discouraged by ‘mistakes’- often these detours are gifts in disguise. Stay calm, don’t rush, and follow your instincts.
- Bring journals for yourselves and the kids. These can be a form of documentation, reflection, but also, give kids permission to use them as they wish- it might be drawings, collections, paper for keeping score of a card game, stories, and maybe it serves as a travel log, but not always
- Bring a book just for information, and that has rip out pages
- String for laundry, as well as a small amount of detergent or a multi-purpose bar of soap to do underwear and socks in your rooms if staying more than a day
- Pack a few cheap novels- most hostels have book exchange shelves so having some trades is a great idea. Also, look for family read aloud novels that take place in the country you are visiting
- Use a guide book- second hand is fine and can be abused if needed. You can mark places on maps, highlight information, rip out a map if needed, and serves as a souvenir of the trip later on. There are many on line options that can be useful when traveling, but a book is accessible on the bus or train and can be put in the daypack.
- A personal child’s camera of some form to capture images and memories on a personal level
Wherever your travels take you, remember to live in the moment and enjoy the journey!