Last August, my four-year-old found himself crouched low in a tide pool on the coast of Maine, his younger brother beside him, as they plucked shells from the chilly water and gleefully lifted them to show me.
“I found a slipper shell!" squealed my four-year-old.
“And I found a scallop shell!" chorused his brother.
“Can we bring them back and keep them in our treasure pockets?" my older son wanted to know.
As the sun sank low, we returned to our boat, pockets jingling with treasures. We were on a weeklong family vacation, and the boys had been hunting for shells since day one, inspired by a book we'd brought along.
Vacation is a break for all of us. It's a break from the monotony of the normal work week. It's a break from laundry and housework and swimming lessons and home. It's a break from distraction, all in the name of family.
But around here, it isn't a break from learning. While I've never bought into the concept of meticulously planned summer homework and assigned projects, I've always made a conscious effort to maximize authentic learning opportunities as they arise.
Going to new places and experiencing new things are always great ways to foster a love of learning and to enhance your child's experience. And you don't need to do much planning or preparation to take advantage of it.
Here are five easy ways to make sure your family vacation is both educational and fun:
1 | Use paper maps
I was taken aback to learn that my boys thought any printed map was actually a treasure map from the “olden days."
Paper maps may now seem like a thing of the past with the prevalence of GPS and navigation apps, but you can print paper maps at home or source them from AAA or rest stops along your route. Get kids of all ages involved in planning your route by looking at maps of the area in advance.
For very young children, teach the purpose of a map by pointing out the basic features, like a compass rose, a scale, or the key. Show them how you use the map to help plan your trip, and refer back to it throughout your adventure. Also, point out how different maps have different purposes. Some maps show topography, other maps show charted areas of water depth, and still others show attractions or rest stops.
Show older kids the destination, and task them with figuring out the best route to get there and which maps will be needed. If their suggested route isn't feasible, no problem. Talk about why another route might be better.
2 | Let your kids design your budget
While the nuances of your family's vacation budget might not be great dinner conversation fodder, raising finance-savvy kids who know the value of a dollar is always worth a little extra discussion. Handing over the credit card and sending them off to book some flights may not be the best choice, but there are plenty of ways to involve your kids in juggling the finances of a family vacation.
For very young children, instead of buying them a souvenir or bringing them on a special excursion, offer them a set amount of money and allow them to choose what they'd like to spend it on from a few different choices. Discuss the pros and cons of each, or talk about what else your child might choose to do with the money, like save it for something later in the trip or donate it to an important cause along the way.
For older kids, let them design the itinerary for a day on a set budget, including activities, food, and transportation costs. Kids will appreciate the chance to have some say over their activities and will quickly figure out why you always say no to the $5 sodas on the beachside boardwalk.
3 | Supplement the experience with books
Bring a variety of books with a theme local to where you're visiting. Make it age-appropriate, and bring a couple different genres to keep kids engaged. Nonfiction books about local ecosystems or industry often pair well with fictional stories in the same setting.
On our recent trip to Maine, my preschoolers poured over their shell identification book before tide pooling themselves. Another day, we read “Blueberries for Sal" before we hit the local market for some blueberry pie.
4 | Collect brochures at every stop
My kids love shiny, free things, and tourist brochures are no exception. Let your little sticky-fingered friends stock up on travel brochures, which will usually run the gamut, from shiny ads for local amusement parks to educational pamphlets about the local ecosystem. Then, review them together before bed.
Challenge your kids to think about the types of activities and attractions common to the area, and question what that tells you about the local economy, industry, and businesses. Older kids might even be inspired to create their own travel brochure for a destination using what they learn from the brochures they've read.
5 | Make something along the way to remember your trip
Encourage writing and reflection with the use of journals, scrapbooks, or even a simple treasure collection for the youngest crowd. Provide a blank book or a special place to collect memories – both great ways to inspire thought and conversation.
Choose a focus for the book or collection, like nature or transportation, or leave it open-ended for little minds to stretch. Bring along a glue stick or tape so your child can add ticket stubs, brochure pages, or other souvenirs to remember the trip by. Older kids can journal about their favorite experiences, while the younger crowd can illustrate and dictate captions to commemorate them.
Family vacation should be a time for creating memories and savoring time together without the distractions of daily life at home. While the focus doesn't have to be all informational, there are plenty of simple ways to incorporate elements of learning into your family vacation, making the memories more relevant and engaging as they build upon one another.
By educating my kids about the places we visit, they appreciate them even more as amazing habitats, astounding feats of human engineering, or inspiring natural wonders.
Where will your family's adventures take you this summer?