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Family Vacations Can Be Early Education Adventures
By Sharen Hausmann

No matter where you and your family travel for vacation, time away from the everyday routine will lead to new learning adventures for your young children.

Visiting new places, meeting new people and trying new things away from home are all part of the learning process for children, especially for those under the age of five. Getting the most out of your journey requires some planning, not only to help avoid boredom and whining, but to encourage different ways of thinking and looking at the world. With the proper planning, family vacations can be a wonderful opportunity to promote positive social interactions among family members.

For most parents, the most dreaded part of any vacation is getting there. Hours spent in airports, in the car, on the plane or in the train can feel like days without proper planning.

But, if organized correctly, this family time can be well spent with activities and games designed especially to enlighten and educate young travelers. Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your family vacation:

Involve your child in planning: While planning your trip, involve your children in the process. Look through travel magazines, guidebooks or brochures with pictures of your destination and talk about what looks fun and interesting. Go to the library and check out books about the place you have chosen to visit. Even if you’re just going to see family in a nearby state, ask your children what they’d like to do and see there, and create a child-friendly itinerary. This will help your children to feel more secure in their new environment and decrease stressful situations.

Let your child pack an activity bag: Pack a bag that includes crayons, paper for drawing, stickers, snacks, drinks, puzzle books, a deck of playing cards and brochures about your destination. To promote positive communication between siblings, take out the bag and use these items to encourage sharing and creativity. Books are an essential bring-along item, too. Consider including large picture books, which are great for letting your child tell the story when you can’t comfortably or safely read to him or her from the front seat of a car.    

Play games: Playing games like “I Spy,” finding license plates from different states and spotting letters of the alphabet on road signs are all great ways to pass the time and work together as a family—and help your child learn at the same time. 

Spend time outside of the car: When planning a car trip, schedule time for breaks. Try to keep driving time to a minimum and stop frequently to let children move around. Bring along a ball and play catch. Take a break to have a picnic. Spending time outdoors can be as critical to the learning process as activities in indoor environments. 

Talk about the scenery: Discussing what’s going on outside is a great educational experience for children. Point out a herd of cows, horses in a pasture or a hawk circling above and talk about the animals. Count things you see along the road, such as silos or water towers, cattle crossings, motorcycles or boats being towed. If you are near a major landmark like the Rocky Mountains, share the importance of the landmark. Talk about the color of the trees or the sky – anything to get your child thinking about his or her surroundings.

Don’t overplan: Young children thrive when they are allowed to explore and discover at their own pace. Rather than spending a lot of money and effort trying to constantly entertain your child, set aside time in your trip for rest or unscheduled activities. This will give you and your child time to reflect on the vacation and provide a more relaxing environment. 

Keep a daily journal: Not only does a journal help you remember your trip for years to come, it’s also a fun activity for younger children who can draw pictures or collect interesting souvenirs (flyers, menus or paper placemats, or even interesting candy wrappers) to decorate the pages. Set aside some quiet time each afternoon to add to the journal and talk about your day. 

Pack some disposable cameras – or bring your digital: It's fun to see what children view as important memories of your trip, so let them be the vacation photographers. Cameras can also reinforce the importance of counting and numbers—when 12 or 24 pictures have been taken, that’s it!   

Wherever you visit this summer, be sure to relax and enjoy the time you are spending with your family. These memories will stay with you and your children for a lifetime. 

Sharen Hausmann has dedicated her life to improving the quality of care for all children. Prior to Smart Start, she served as a consultant, lecturer, teacher and trainer, empowering teachers to promote healthy growth and development in young children. In addition, Sharen is affiliated with a number of state and national early care and education professional organizations nationwide.