What parent has never had to take a journey with their children, especially in the early years, and been totally overcome by feelings of anxiety and dishearten?
Small children can’t manage to sit still for long on the plane or train seat or even in a car seat. It couldn’t be any other way, of course. It is entirely in the nature of things.
But to make matters worse, there is the sense of embarrassment when a child starts to fuss and cry, disturbing everyone around. All of these drawbacks are enough to put parents off travelling for good.
Yet experts claim that travelling boosts child development to a remarkable extent, making it easier for kids to adapt to changing circumstances in later life, helping them to be more accepting of cultural differences and increasing the likelihood that they will try out new flavours, customs and landscapes.
However, some parents see no point in travelling when children are very small because they think it only creates problems and brings no benefits. They are often convinced that the child will not be able to remember the experience later on anyhow.
But this is not the case at all.
Experiencing certain situations, especially in the early years of life, is the exact cultural equivalent of the bedtime story that we read to our children every evening before they go to sleep. The abilities acquired and the memories built during such experiences are invaluable.
Robin Hancock, director of the Guttman Center for Early Care and Education at Bank Street College of New York says that: "Travel has the potential to create a new narrative that teaches children about the similarities with others [and] lays a strong foundation”.
Brain development in children is at its fastest over the first five years of life, but is particularly intense in the first three. And surrounding them with people who are different to them as soon as they are born “normalises” this experience in their minds. A paper published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology some years ago even held that children who travel a lot become more respectful towards others.
This is why even trips that might seem inconsequential to the educational process have huge potential if experienced properly and could lead to a generation that is able to happily coexist in the midst of diversity. Travelling inevitably makes children more open-minded and rids them of bias, but it is also an excellent opportunity to meet different people and develop new skills.
How can a trip become a useful educational experience before you even leave home?
First of all, talk to your children about the place you will be visiting (and if they are old enough, you could also involve them in the choice of destination). Travelling could be an excellent pretext for showing them a useful and intelligent use of digital instruments. There seems to be general agreement amongst experts that it is better for children to find out about tablets, computers and smartphones with their parents rather than working it out alone and without supervision.
So, there could be no better opportunity than this! Do some initial research into interesting places to visit and look for satellite photos and images that show you what the place looks like. In an indirect manner, you will be getting across the idea that technology provides us with valuable opportunities.
Check distances and routes, find out which roads to take and schedule your pit stops. Check the weather forecasts on specialised websites so that you are properly prepared for the trip. This information will allow you to pack clothes that are suitable for the climate that you might find at your destination. You may well find out that two cities in the same season may have quite different temperatures and this will make a difference to what you put in your suitcase. You could draw up a list of the most interesting attractions to pay a visit to. Both children and parents will pick up new skills during the trip and grown-ups will enjoy the experience more, aware of what they are sharing with their kids. Experiences like this generate abilities that are retained for the rest of our lives and come in very handy for the future.
A cultural experience and shared time away from home creates a strong bond and improves family relationships, especially when kids are seen to be an integral part of the whole process even from an early age. Travelling is a time when families leave behind the daily grind and enjoy time together; when experiences are shared, relationships are felt more deeply during holidays and enduring memories are built.
What is more, travelling can also be remarkably useful for schooltime learning because, through real-life events, travelling renders tangible all those topics presented at school and read about on books.
How can we maximise the educational value of a trip?
One of our main priorities on a trip is to see the main attractions and all those symbols and monuments that a place is famous for.
But, if we want a trip to trigger growth and lead to personal engagement, we should work in a nice relaxing stroll through an ordinary neighbourhood which may have nothing special to recommend it, but gives us, nevertheless, a meaningful glimpse into everyday life.
What are the local shops like? Do people live in skyscrapers, bungalows, terraced houses or huts? What scents waft through the air and what means of transport move passengers through the streets?
All of these questions could even become an entertaining game to help children remember this time more clearly. Each time they are in an unfamiliar place, they must name at least three things they have never seen before or which are done differently (like driving on the left-hand side in England).
Another good move would be to take our children to the local park where they can meet and play with other kids; it will soon be apparent that the other youngsters play in different ways and speak another language, and, although this might initially cause children to be shy, they will overcome their bashfulness and think up ways and means of communication to join in the fun and games. Could there be anything more valuable than this for acquiring new skills and bolstering their development?
Travelling as a way to teach values and patience.
Parents are sometimes more daunted by the thought of long waits, sudden hitches and changes of plan than anything else; they fear that young children will be unable to cope with all the uncertainty that is an inevitable part of even the best organised trip. But maybe we should ask ourselves whether the message we want to impart is: “only be in places where everything is under control” or “go out of your comfort zone and address your limits”.
Children observe every tiny thing we do and they learn from our actions and behaviour, not from our words. And if we are the first ones to stretch our comfort zones by trying to organise a trip that seems tricky to us, we will be sending them a clear and eloquent message.
Clearly, everything must be taken one step at a time and if we think that our children are not patient enough or too small to be away from their daily routine, our first attempt should just be a short trip out of town that will be a challenging enough not only for them, but especially for us.
Because we are the ones who need to be ready, not our children. Often adults have excessively high and unreasonable expectations of children.
Patience and knowing how to wait has to be practised and learnt a bit at a time. We cannot expect our children to succeed in doing things all of sudden if we don't give them a chance to experience the sense of frustration that having to wait generates.
Often, we are only half an hour into a journey when the first questions start: “how much longer?” “are we nearly there?”, or “is this it?” How should we deal with these questions seeing as they are highly dependent on a child's understanding of the passage of time?
Until children are 6 years old, they cannot grasp the notion of time because their minds only conceive that which is concrete and tangible. Of course, they know that time goes by, but only in relation to given experiences. If we gain insight into their needs, we can help them to cope with waiting better and, consequently, we will feel more at ease as well.
For instance, if we have to undertake a trip that lasts for one and a half hours, we could organise set activities that punctuate the journey. We could find a thirty-minute podcast for kids to listen to in the car and when the podcast is over, they will know that half an hour has passed. Then, there could be a subsequent stage half an hour later when the kids get to eat something. This way children will know after their snack that only half an hour is left to the end of the journey.
Travelling, but especially our approach to travelling, reflects many of the values that we have decided to transmit to our children day after day. Because it encapsulates our belief system and tells of our respect for other cultures or customs as well as a sense of curiosity about that which is unfamiliar and unusual, however similar it might initially appear.
But, the best part of travelling is the welcome we are reserved when we are away from home because it shows us how hospitable other people are to their fellows.