Learning a new language, packing their suitcase, and trying new foods are just a few of the benefits kids gain from travel
With the post-pandemic travel bug that everyone seems to be catching, some parents might be asking themselves if taking the kids on a big trip is even worth it. It turns out that traveling with kids (no matter their age) is a great opportunity for them to pick up new skills and reinforce other ones.
Dr. Betsey Martinez Noboa, Psy.D., says that when traveling, children have “to problem solve constantly to adjust to new expectations, environments, routines, etc and this would contribute to cognitive development.” We asked the Bébé Voyage community of traveling parents what skills their children have learned while traveling and here’s what they came back with.
Travel Skills for Babies and Toddlers
While many parents think there’s no point in traveling with babies and toddlers because they’re not going to remember anything, it turns out that this is a ripe time for introducing some important life skills.
“My kids are highly adaptable to any environment,” says Alex Neophytou who started traveling with each of her four kids when they were months old. “They can sleep anywhere, with any noise or light, adjust to jet lag pretty quickly, and usually are more open to trying new things whether that’s food or experiences when in a new city or country.” Her kids’ adaptability tipped the scales in favor of taking up a professional opportunity abroad.
Sleeping in different environments
Parents of infants are often afraid of messing up their child’s sleep cycle by traveling. But travel can help them cultivate better sleep habits. We traveled extensively with my older kid from 6 weeks on and so he got used to sleeping in different environments and has always been a super sleeper. My younger son was born early in the pandemic, so we couldn’t travel as much with him but he’s become a much better sleeper as our travel has increased.
On a recent road trip, I noticed that my 3-year-old’s language skills exploded. I remember seeing similar growth in my older kid when he traveled as a toddler. According to Dr. Martinez Noboa, the enriched environment children are exposed to when they go someplace new could contribute to this phenomenon.
Using an elevator and escalators
Airports, train stations, and hotels give many tots their first exposure to elevators and escalators. Anyone who has taken a new walker on an escalator knows that it can be intimidating. But the more practice they get the easier it becomes.
Travel Skills for Preschoolers
Trying new food
In addition to expanding a child’s palette, trying new foods while traveling can also be used as a learning opportunity. “When we were in Jamaica my preschooler was obsessed with mango,” adds mom Stephanie Quesnelle. “We got to talk through why it’s not as good where we live and why it’s a lot easier to get fresh ripe fruit in the Caribbean where it grows.”
Walking a ton
“My almost 6-year-old walked almost 20,000 steps a day with us in Europe,” comments Carol Johns. “I reckon it’s double our step count with his small feet!” Again, the more they practice, the easier it gets.
Flexibility and resilience
Building on adaptability, Liz McEachern Hall shares that due to a scheduling snafu, her family ended up in a regular car, instead of a sleeper car, on a Swedish overnight train. That meant that her child “played Uno in the train seats at midnight, slept in my lap for three hours, and still managed to smile at the 6 am arrival in a brand new city.”
Recognizing flags (and logos)
Before kids can read, they pick up on visual patterns and flags are a great way to reinforce that. Flags are ubiquitous in cities and airports. Curious kids will ask about ones that are new to them. Because my older son also likes to spend a lot of time looking out at the runway, he learned to recognize all the different airline logos. (He still calls Lufthansa the “fork airline” because that’s what their logo looks like to him!) This has also now expanded into recognizing soccer jerseys, car logos, and different types of road signs.
Excitement to try new things
“When we were in Geneva recently, both my kids wanted to climb to the absolute top of the cathedral as they wanted to see the view. I can guarantee that wouldn’t have happened back home!” exclaims Rebecca Redfern. “Also they will excitedly try any food put in front of them when away from home. If I try the same tactic at home, absolutely no way!”
Managing their own luggage
Especially if it’s a scooter carry-on or a ride-on kids’ suitcase, little ones are often excited to haul their own suitcases through the airport. But because they also want to mimic their caretakers, they may try to manage your carry-on!
Packing and organizing their bags
“My daughter is 5 years old now and only needs me to tell her for how long we’ll be gone,” explains another Bébé Voyage member. “She’s learned how to decide and select what is needed and how to deal with limited space.” Usually, kids can do pretty well with packing, especially if you start them off with a list. Later you can just tell them what the weather is like and what activities to pack for. But you may want to check to make sure they didn’t forget anything… like underwear or toiletries!
Travel Skills for Early Grade Schoolers (7-9)
Learning how to read brings with it opportunities for additional travel skills.
Following the GPS and learning basic orientation skills
While we parents probably first encountered maps in their paper form, the reality is that our kids aren’t going to see much of those. Even if you haven’t yet given your child their own phone, they can follow the map on the car GPS or on their individual plane screen. Explaining to them what N, E, S, and W mean and showing them the different views will help them gain more fluency.
Learning to read the departure table
This is a great opportunity to practice reading and analytical skills. Eager readers will keep you posted not only on your own flight status but also that of every other departure.
Being open-minded and respectful of different ways of doing things
As mom Nadia Schoch commented, “There is not one right way of doing something. Acknowledging the culture you find yourself in or people you meet and trying your best to be respectful to and interested in it/them. From dressing to eating habits to greeting, expressing yourself, etc.” While this skill can be introduced from the youngest ages, it can be reinforced in older children. Schoch continues, “As soon as they start being interested and notice differences or have questions about why we do things differently, it is a great conversation to have and go deeper as to how we all are different and how we are similar.”
Especially if staying in a resort or out in the countryside, kids love growing into their independence by being able to explore a new place by themselves. Even being able to explore all the hallways of a hotel alone can be an important step. Some resorts with kids clubs give families the option of an “autonomy bracelet,” usually from around age 8. This gives kids the option of going in and out of kids club activities as they please and being able to meet up with friends or family members around the resort. For kids who aren’t used to this level of independence, this can be a big confidence booster.
Travel Skills for Tweens
As kids harness more math, reading, and reasoning skills, they can participate in more aspects of organizing a family trip.
Participating in trip planning
As kids get older, getting their buy-in becomes more and more critical for a smooth family trip. One way to do this is to get them involved in trip planning. They can do research online and/or read a guidebook. Have them research activities or destinations that interest them. Ask them to help flesh out the itinerary. Not only does it take some of the mental load off of you, but it also makes them feel like they have a decision-making voice in the family.
Currency and time zone conversion
Putting math skills to work in a context that clearly demonstrates its relevance can get kids more excited about math. Time zone conversion is easier to start with and fun for kids to wrap their heads around. (“Wait, if Paris is 7 hours ahead of Chicago, that means that when we’re having dinner on our trip at 7:30 pm, our friends back home are having lunch at 12:30?!?!”) Older kids can dive into currency conversion, although depending on what the rate is, they may need to access a calculator or a currency conversion app.
Making new friends
While this is a skill that can be worked on at any age, if tweens can master it, the usually socially awkward teenage years can go a lot smoother. Practicing this skill while traveling can reinforce the skill at home, making joining a new after-school activity or switching schools more easy.
Travel Skills for Teens
Foreign language skills
Most teens will have had at least a few years of foreign language education at school. Depending on the intensity of the foreign language program, their skills may range from deciphering a basic menu to acting as your personal translator. But even if you’re going to a country whose language your kids haven’t learned yet, learning basic phrases like hello, please, and thank you is a good place to start.
As Lydia Machová points out in her TED talk, the best way to learn a new language is to make it fun. So you can help your child find music they like in the target language, or maybe watch a series in that language. Machová shares that she learned German by watching her favorite TV show, Friends, dubbed in German.
Kids have to learn to manage their laundry when they travel alone for an extended period, whether it’s camp or an exchange trip. This may mean learning how to handwash some items, asking their host family to show them how to run the washing machine, or going to a local laundromat.
When teens start going on school trips or teen tours, this is their opportunity to try on autonomy. All of a sudden, they are in a new context and get to make all kinds of choices without any input from their parents. This is also a growth opportunity for parents to work on trust—both trusting their child to make appropriate decisions and trusting the trip leaders to keep their kid safe.
The expansion of cognitive schemas (or mental frameworks) as kids are exposed through travel to new cultures, social roles, customs, and more, has benefits at home too. “Being exposed to new places and things help kids be more flexible, be more aware of how our world is different, and more accepting when something is in fact different,” concludes Dr. Martinez Noboa.