Around here, we think it's never too early to become a traveler. But it's one thing to say you're taking the toddlers to Tokyo; it's another thing to figure out how to do it — and get them to like it. Contributing editor Christina Ohly has been taking her kids around the globe for almost a decade. She knows how it's done.
It's a tough balance: your love of a faraway casbah vs. your child's love of the hotel entertainment system. How can you show your kids the world — and create curious, flexible, well-rounded individuals in the process? I've been figuring this out as I go and I've picked up good tricks on the way. Let's start with ground rules and move on to techniques.
As with everything, moderation is the way to cultivate a world traveler. Go for a hi-lo mix when exposing them to new places: The latest installation at the Tate Modern in London works best when juxtaposed with a day trip to Legoland in nearby Windsor.
Never let them see you sweat. If your child senses your fear of jet lag or new cuisines or the immigration line in Buenos Aires, she will pick up on it and be anxious, too. Teach kids from a young age (and I mean really young — as soon as they've had their first immunizations) to board a plane, a train, and sit in a car and go with the flow. Resilient people are made, not born, and seeing different cultures, places, and perspectives will only make them stronger in the long run.
There is great value — and lots of humor — in travel disasters. Remember this as you tour the globe and your child experiences everything from foreign bug bites and unidentifiable foods to rubbish removal systems (my kids still talk about Rome's fascinating setup). The best part of traveling with kids is the bonding you'll do on the road, second only to seeing the world in a whole new way through their eyes.
For now, focus on fun, and a love of travel will surely follow. They'll have time to scale the peaks of Nepal and explore the Guggenheim in Bilbao when they're older.
On to techniques.
Set the Stage
The first step in creating a great global adventure is setting them up to succeed. Get kids excited about the places they'll see and the smells and tastes they'll experience by introducing books, films, and apps that highlight specific destinations.
Apps and Websites: Get kids interacting with the world around them with the best online resources: National Geographic for Kids, Travel for Kids, and Abercrombie & Kent's app with videos of everything from gorilla trekking in Uganda to birding in Galapagos.
A happy child is an amused, well-fed child. For kids who are old enough to carry their own backpacks, include an assortment of toys, electronic devices, and snacks that will stand up to the long haul. Granola bars, nuts, fruit leather, and the occasional sweet (M&Ms travel well) won't get squashed or stale on an arid airplane. As for hand-held devices, skip the donut-making/Angry-Birds time sucks, and opt for Travel Bingo, National Geographic's National Park Maps, and PicPocket Books where you can download favorite books.
Successful travel toys are reusable and won't roll off tray tables: triangular crayons, mini Lego sets, washable markers and drawing pads, and digital cameras for the over fives. Travel activity books like Rand McNally's Are We There Yet? and Mad Libs on the Road will get them excited about explorations both large and small.
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The flights you pick can make the difference between joyful travelers and jet-lagged disasters. Depending on the age of your child, an overnight flight when traveling from west to east can be a friend or a foe. Babies generally do well, as they sleep through noise and movement, but older kids have a tougher time missing a proper night's sleep. Sitting upright, falling asleep for a few hours, and being rudely awakened makes for one seriously cranky kid. If time allows and you don't want to ruin your first days of vacation, opt for a day flight. Flights leaving major US east coast cities for Europe leave early in the morning and land after dinner local time, just in time for a good night's sleep.
If you take a red-eye, hit the ground running. Napping will only further throw off schedules, so keep kids moving, out in the natural light, well fed, and hydrated to reset their clocks.
A few other jet lag tips when flying from west to east: start resetting kids' internal clocks three days in advance with earlier bed times, opt for carbs in-flight to induce sleep, and go for a protein-laden snack upon landing. As a general rule, allow one day per time zone crossed for a full jet lag recovery. Flying east to west is much easier on kids, as the body adjusts to the new time zone more easily and there isn't as much lost sleep.
When booking long-haul flights, opt for bulkheads with bassinets for babies and consult Seat Guru for the low-down on everything from legroom to in-flight snacks. And always pack a change of clothes for the flight. There is nothing like a cold night flight with a juice spill (or worse) down junior's front. Eight hours feels like an eternity when you're soggy.
Start at the Gift Shop
Seriously. It holds true for many ages and stages that if you get the souvenir, tchotchke, and postcard-buying out of the way at the beginning of the trip, you will have a more focused traveler on your hands. For little people (as for big people) it is often about the get. I've found that if I let everyone score a little something early on, the group is less preoccupied for the entire day.
Encourage kids stock up on their souvenir collections. An Alhambra key chain and a snow globe from Shanghai make great bedroom mementos. In my house, Christmas tree ornaments that get pulled out yearly serve are especially reminders of faraway places.
The Culture Club
If you want an excited explorer, don't take her on the Bataan Death March of culture. Travel is supposed to be fun, and four expansive museums in a day just isn't fun. Remember that art is everywhere — on street corners, in cafes, in parks — and keep the structured gallery-going in check. Again, this is all about personal thresholds, but I've found targeted cultural forays — a particular show at a museum, seeking out the Mona Lisa at the Louvre (and catching other treasures en route) is an effective strategy for engaging but not overloading.
If your child is old enough to have an opinion, let them do some of the planning. By encouraging your child's inner Vasco de Gama, he'll be even more invested in a good outcome.
Pleasing Picky Eaters
One man's tapas are another kid's tater tots. It is all about the sell. That many foods are universal — bread, rice, fruit, fish — holds great appeal for young kids who respond well to "this risotto is just like the pasta you eat at home" or "calamari fritti are a lot like fish fingers." Dumb it down if you have to — who cares? They will try new foods, they will savor them, and they will learn to love a whole new range of things. From bagels in New York City to freshly baked naan in New Delhi, encourage them to expand their palates in ways that they might not at home. The jamón ibérico that gets no play on your dinner table will be devoured when served in a bocadillo in a café in Seville.
As with jet lag, the key is to power through and UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCE cave and go for American chain food. Unless you're stuck at a water park.
Go for Local Color
My kids now roll their eyes at me when I bang on about the importance of local color, which I consider to be the real life of a place: coffee shops, food markets (more fun and educational than museums any day), buses and subways, busy playgrounds. These settings allow kids to observe how a place really operates. Let them find something to buy so they can use the local currency. A Euro, a Turkish lira, and a colorful Jamaican dollar are endlessly fascinating to kids — and they make for great souvenirs.
I am also a fan of foreign TV — cartoons in other languages somehow translate, and global news coverage is just different outside the US. You'll be amazed to see a kid with no understanding of the rules of cricket be transfixed by a match on holiday.
In markets and in nature, let them find and indulge in creatures and gross things. The leech vendor was by far my son's favorite thing of Istanbul.
Little Linguists Love Learning Languages
This is where apps come in handy again. Introducing children to new languages via the web and hand-held devices is effective because it turns the learning process into a game. LinguPingu introduces basic Mandarin; First Words: Spanish will have toddlers chatting en español in no time. From Romance to Semitic to Continental West Germanic languages (that'd be Dutch, Afrikaans), help your kid develop an ear for the languages they will hear before you land.
Even if all they come away with is "please" and "thank you," it's so important to show cultural sensitivity and good manners wherever you go. Por favor and efharisto will carry any kid traveler a long way. And you might find that once they get home, they have an easier time saying it in Spanish and Greek than English.
Muslim women wear burqas, Russian kids wear Valenki felt boots. The world is a massive, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic mix, and the sooner your child sees that, the more intrigued he or she will be to explore further. I tend to position things around other kids — the sports they play, how they go to school, what they eat, and how they worship. Kids are kids, and differences dissipate when soccer, Selena Gomez, and the local version of pizza (every culture has one) are involved.
Keep the Spirit Alive
Long after you've returned home, and you are craving new and different adventures, you'll want to find ways to incorporate what you've seen, heard — and eaten! — back into your lives. Kids will be the guides here — from particular pasta dishes they loved abroad, to TV shows they've learned about elsewhere, to favorite Swiss chocolates that are available at your local high-end market.
My kids often note wherever we go that life moves at a different pace than it does where we live. People take time for really long lunches (Italy), or they stay out late at night (Spain), or they are very helpful to each other when opening doors or lifting bags (Bahamas). They notice subtle differences in the way people live their lives — from St. Petersburg, Russia, to St. Petersburg, Florida. And this makes them kids who are curious about the world around them.