Three strategies for mixing travel with homework

New school, new challenges on the road.

New school, new challenges on the road.

Now that L is a Kindergartner, she has Big Girl responsibilities such as homework. When we’re home, Powerwoman and I make it a priority to build the post-school afternoon hours around these tasks. When we’re away, however, working in her assignments can be a little trickier.

At this point, her “assignments” comprise practicing her letters, studying Spanish words and solving rudimentary math problems on a program called iXL. Still, in terms of logistics, getting the kid to do this homework can be difficult, especially when we’re in a new place and/or a fancy hotel and she’d rather be exploring/lounging/playing with her sister/gorging on room service.

We’ve deployed a trio of tactics to keep homework a priority.

  1. Sticking to a schedule. By far, the most successful way to prioritize homework on the road has been to write it in to a schedule—literally. When we travel, we sit down with L to come up with a schedule, write down our plan, and post the resulting calendar on the wall for L to see. Her kindergarten teacher does this every day in class, so she’s used to it. What’s more, if ever she (or one of the rest of us) deviates from the schedule, it’s easy to refer to the plan and get back on track.
  2. Bring it with. Especially on road trips—or when I’m reporting a story—it can be difficult to stick to a plan. On these occasions, we tend to be a bit more flexible with homework time, and allow L to do her work on the go. Sometimes this means impromptu stops at Starbucks and other coffee shops for 30 minutes of math practice. Other times it means some time on a blanket in a park. While this strategy is not optimal (there always are distractions when we’re out and about), it’s better than nothing.
  3. Clustering. The third strategy we’ve implemented to mix travel and homework has been to cluster busy work into multi-hour sessions at the front or back ends of a trip.  The benefit to this approach: We don’t have to scramble to get L homework time every day. The downside: Sometimes (especially with writing, for some reason), it can be hard to get her to focus for more than 45 minutes at a time.

Because L only has been in kindergarten for something like 50 days, I’m guessing this is just the beginning of our efforts to try and match homework and family travel. The bottom line: Both remain a priority for us, and we’ll continue to try new strategies as she gets older (and as we travel more during the school year). If you’ve got additional suggestions, we’re all ears.

What are some of your techniques to get your kids to do homework while traveling?

Preparing for an ‘Expert Roundtable’

Sisters. North Lake Tahoe. Summer 2014.

Sisters. North Lake Tahoe. Summer 2014.

Over the course of my professional life, I’ve spoken in front of standing-room only crowds of journalists, packed lecture halls of marine biologists, and giant auditoriums of car salesmen (really; don’t ask). None of these gigs has given me as much pride as the engagement I’ve got lined up for Wednesday morning: I’m the featured speaker for the “Expert Roundtable” in L’s kindergarten class.

The gig is part of a monthly series during which parents come into the classroom and chat with students about what they do and the tools they use to do their jobs right.

The last speaker was a veterinarian. I’m chatting about being a journalist.

Because I can’t bring kittens (let’s face it: A vet is a tough act to follow), I’ll be bringing newspapers, magazines, keyboards and steno pads for the kids to touch and feel and share and (in the case of the pads) keep.

Beyond that, my plan is simple: I’ll chat a bit about what kinds of stories I tell, explain how I collect information for my stories, have the kids interview each other (for a sense of what that’s all about), then I’ll share the process through which I put the stories together. (HINT: The process involves bowls of pretzels and M&Ms.)

I’ll conclude with some examples—a retrospective of some of the most fun stuff I’ve done over the years. Naturally, because I specialize in family travel (and because family travel comprises the bulk of what I’ve written since L was born), I’ll share a bunch of anecdotes about that.

Like that piece about the time L and I traveled to Beverly Hills so she could sketch haute couture. And the piece about the time we crossed the Thames River, in London, in an underwater tunnel. I’ll share a story from our family trip to Yosemite this past spring, and the piece from last month, about R’s birthday walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.

I’ll also share my favorite anecdotes from the month we spent living in Hawaii—the ones about the goats that jumped on the picnic table, and about the time when Blue the horse stuck her white fuzzy nose in through the car window and nuzzled my kids.

I might even show them some of the stuff I reported on our August trip to Walt Disney World Resort.

No, I’m not expecting more than half of the kids to pay attention. And I’ll be happy if one or two (beside L and her BFFs) even remember my name. But maybe, just maybe, one of those kids will hear my stories about my life telling stories and be inspired to become a journalist herself (or, I guess, himself). The mere chance of that is reason enough to do it. Which is precisely why I’m so stoked.

Family amenities coming to European charters

A Thomson Airways family booth. Photo from Skift.

A Thomson Airways family booth. Photo from Skift.

At a time when U.S.-based airlines continue to squeeze family travel passengers, the world’s largest charter carrier, based in Europe, has announced plans to make the flying experience more family-friendly.

The company, Thomson Airways, this week revealed plans to create family booths on board certain flights. This concept, still just in the design phase, would allow parents and children, or friends, traveling together to sit face to face, enjoying conversation and a shared dining experience with a folding table between them.

As noted in a Skift article earlier this week, this isn’t the first time family booths have been tested; Southwest offered the same sort of family-friendly perk years ago, but discontinued it due to outcry from passengers who were NOT families traveling together.

This time, however, the message is clear: The booths are for families, and they likely will stick.

They also aren’t the only family-oriented perks Thomson has discussed and/or promised. Some of the other benefits include:

  • On-board kids’ club with childcare
  • Triple seat with folding middle seat (for which, presumably, you’d still have to pay)
  • On-board snack bar with kid-friendly items

If some of these perks (ahem, on-board child care) sound familiar, that’s because Richard Branson also has talked about implementing them in the future. Whenever these sorts of family-friendly improvements happen—really, regardless of whether they happen or not—I’m just glad people are talking about them at all.

The importance of hands-on learning in family travel

L and her BFF, petting a baby chicken on the class field trip.

L and her BFF, petting a baby chicken on the class field trip.

Traveling can be a scary experience for my Big Girl. She’s terrified of hand driers. She can’t stand those toilets with automatic flushers. She panics at the mere sight of escalators.

Yet on today’s field trip (to Tolay Lake Regional Park) with her school, she had no problem petting a boa constrictor or a tarantula.

At first, the reality seemed almost incomprehensible to me—I was a chaperone on the trip and quite simply could not believe my eyes as I saw her stroking the snake’s head. Then, it hit me: L, like all kids, simply cannot resist the appeal of hands-on learning when she travels.

This concept is one I know well; Powerwoman and I opted to send both girls to a play-based preschool because we believe in the power of learning through doing and having fun. (I’m actually on the board of said preschool.) Still, it’s easy to forget the same realities apply when you’re with the kids away from home.

Think about it: Of all the museums you ever have visited as a family, the ones your kids remember most fondly likely are the ones that enabled them to interact with the exhibits. Your kids also probably love touch tanks and petting zoos. Almost all kids do. Because they are KIDS.

What does this tell us about the kinds of trips we should be taking?

For starters, we should be putting our children in positions where they can use their hands with the stuff they’re seeing. This doesn’t necessarily mean monument tourism, art museums, or guided tours from the top of a moving bus. It does mean (guided or unguided) hikes in nature, art or cooking classes, and up-close-and-personal interactions.

It also reminds us that, often times, those trips with the least amount of structure are the ones that end up being most memorable.

I’m not saying you have to wing everything. Instead, I’m saying that those parents who set aside a few hours a day on a vacation for kids to engineer impromptu play usually are amazed by where the days lead.

Some days the kids might build a pillow fort out of couch cushions in a hotel; other days the kids might find a herpetologist and pet a boa.

The more you craft your vacations to allow your kids to do—the more you give them the freedom to do these things at their own pace—the better off everyone will be. In our case, a kid might even surprise you every now and again. And someday, she’ll punctuate her good mood with a ride down the escalator or a nice and lengthy pee in a public pot.

How do you ensure that your family vacations enable kids to be hands-on?

The end of lap children?

Enjoying my lap while she still can.

Enjoying my lap while she still can.

Thanks to fellow family travel blogger, Shelly Rivoli (she of the fantastic Travels with Baby blog and Travels with Baby book, which I’ve yet to review), I learned recently about a petition circulating to ban the practice of lap children on all commercial flights in the United States.

You can read the actual petition here, and can read Shelly’s post on it here.

In short, the formal petition effort charges the FAA to end the practice of lap children on all commercial aviation flights by mandating children under the age of 2 to be restrained safely and properly in an FAA-approved child-safety restraint seat/system, much the same way they are required to be restrained when they are traveling in a car.

The petition goes on to say that “Laptops and luggage are required to be secured/safely stowed for take-off and landing therefore more so should a vulnerable infant or toddler be safely secured in a plane traveling 500 miles an hour,” and that “turbulence occurs frequently and without warning, turning a lap held child into a potential missile putting other passengers at risk and flight attendants unable to do their job of safety for all passengers.”

In case you glossed over that last paragraph, let me reiterate that an official petition on the actual White House website calls for a ban on lap children because turbulence can turn “a lap-held child into a potential missile.”

Thankfully, as of today, the petition had fewer than 3,000 signatures and was more than 97,000 signatures short of the requisite 100,000 for review by President Obama’s administration.

Still, the gall of anti-family passengers never ceases to amaze me.

First, beyond crying or puking or stinking up the cabin with a smelly diaper, what REAL risk does a lap child present? One could argue that overstuffed carry-on bags clogging overhead bins present more of a risk to become “missles” than tiny humans do. Also, after last month’s news about aggressive passengers, I’d say grown-ups are the safety threats.

Second, at a time when airlines already are nickel-and-diming passengers for everything from baggage fees to sodas in the cabin, the petition seeks to give airlines the right to charge families for every single member who flies, even those members who weigh 20 pounds or fewer. Aren’t we giving these companies enough of our hard-earned money already?

Finally, as Shelly notes in her post, if we’re going to mandate that all kids under the age of 2 be strapped into car seats, the FAA first must get on the ball about which car seats are acceptable for airplane travel; currently there are suggestions but no formal guidelines, largely because there is no uniformity among airplane seats into which the car seats must be strapped (in many cases, especially when car seats are backward-facing, it’s impossible to recline the airplane seat in front).

Don’t get me wrong here; I support buying babies their own seats, especially when the kids in question are squirmy and make you sweaty. But every family traveler, especially those with young kids, deserves the right to bring our kids as lap children until the kids are 3. And whether or not we parents want to take our kids as lap children should be up to us.

I don’t know J.B., from Schaumburg, Illinois, the person who created this petition on September 17, 2014. But I can tell you this: J.B. either works for an airline, or he/she needs a cuddle.

UPDATE (as of 10/16): It has been brought to my attention (by the fantastic family travel blogger, Beth Blair) that J.B. actually was Jan Brown, a flight attendant on a flight that crashed in Iowa in 1989. Apparently the only passenger in Jan’s section to die from the crash was a baby who was flying as a lap child. According to Brown and a number of experts, the infant likely would have survived if he had been strapped in. Obviously, with this in mind, I’m guessing Brown isn’t actually anti-family travel. Furthermore, what happened to that little baby in that crash is horrible, and I can’t even begin to imagine the guilt his parents have had to endure over the years.

I certainly didn’t intend to offend anyone with my post. If I did, I apologize. Still, I stand by my take, and I bristle at the language of Brown’s petition (specifically, babies as “missiles”). Furthermore, there *are* alternatives between lap children and children in car seats; namely restraints and harnesses such as CARES, which can strap lap children to Mom or Dad. At the end of the day, taking your baby as a lap child is a calculated risk; without the child strapped in, something always could go wrong. But if you’re looking at the stats, even WITH your child strapped in, something could go wrong. The lap child option is an important one for some families. Banning it across the board, whatever the impetus, seems a bit over the top.

How would you react if lap children became illegal?

Sticker heaven

On the tour.

On the tour.

My kids, like just about every kids under the age of 6 (or, maybe even 10), REALLY like stickers. They’ll stick the things just about anywhere. On the inside of the backseat windows in my truck. On our furniture. On each other. On me.

Sometimes, if L and R are feeling particularly creative, they’ll use the stickers as characters in make-believe worlds, and move the stickers from spot to spot as if they were alive.

It’s cool to watch. It’s even cooler to encourage. That’s why I’ve been jonesing to visit Mrs. Grossman’s.

Mrs. Grossman’s, as in, the last remaining sticker factory here in the U.S. The place is located in Petaluma, California, (next to Camelbak world headquarters and) just about an hour from our front door. And they host four tours every day between Monday and Thursday. So, last week, on a day when R didn’t have preschool, I took her. And we loved it.

The $7 tour ran about 45 minutes. I give a light-hearted narrative rundown of the experience in my latest family travel column for the San Francisco Chronicle (the story will be published in Thursday’s paper), and you can read more about it there. The highlights:

  • A 5-minute introductory video in which we learned the staggering fact that, if all of the equipment in the factory were operational at once, Mrs. Grossman’s could churn out 5 million stickers a day.
  • A detailed explanation of how stickers are cut, painted, and packaged.
  • A stroll down an entire aisle of giant rolls of stickers. In a matter of minutes, we spotted everything from horses to wizards to sparkly frogs and princesses. R was in her glory, pawing at each of the rolls like a cat might paw at a hair tie.
  • A free, sticker-based arts-and-crafts project at the end of the tour.

Along the way, our tour guide gave us free stickers at each of six stops. She also pointed out some of the business-to-business work Mrs. Grossman’s does, noting that a significant percentage of the factory’s work at this time of year comprises labels for local wineries. (We saw lots of labels for Francis Ford Coppola’s winery in Geyserville, California.)

When our tour was over, when R had had enough of her arts-and-crafts project, we perused the modest on-site store and bought a bunch of other stickers to take home for L (and just to add to the stash). Part of this take: Two sealed (and $3.99) “Mystery Boxes” that comprised $20 worth of stickers apiece.

We took the tour more than a week ago and R still talks about it every day. This morning, as she was playing with a sheet of hibiscus stickers we bought that day, she asked if we could go back.

Based upon this assessment alone, I’d rate Mrs. Grossman’s as one of the greatest kid-oriented tours in the entire Bay Area. Throw in easy parking, friendly tour guides, all those free stickers, and proximity to an In-N-Out Burger restaurant for post-tour lunch, and the tour is a perfect activity around which to build an afternoon. Maybe we’ll even see you there.

What are some of the best kid-friendly tours you’ve encountered in your travels?

The best road trip snack ever

Mmmmm, GORP.

Mmmmm, GORP.

Today we celebrate a Wandering Pod first: A recipe for a treat that will be a hit with even the most reluctant child travelers.

The treat, of course, is trail mix. We’re big fans of the stuff in this house—a vestige of my pre-fatherhood life as a serious backcountry hiker and camper. We eat it as frequently as we can, and I try to cook up a special new batch of GORP (or GORP-inspired goodness) in advance of every one of our family road trips.

This past weekend, when we traveled into San Francisco to celebrate R’s third birthday, I outdid myself with what the girls are calling The Best Road-Trip Trail Mix Ever. Ingredients for this magic snack were simple: Dry-roasted and salted cashews, raw (and unsalted) almonds, Pepperidge Farm whole-grain goldfish crackers, and M&Ms.

If your kids like raisins, I suppose you can add those, too. And sunflower seeds. Without the shells.

Measurements for this kind of treat are totally dependent on what your kids like best; in our family, a 1:1 ratio of goldfish to M&Ms is key, and the nuts are almost secondary. You don’t want to make too much of the snack, because the goldfish go stale after about a week. I suggest storing it in a gallon-size Ziploc bag.

Oh, and to serve this treat, I like to portion out a half-cup for each girl and give it to them in their own travel cups (with lids).

What’s your go-to recipe for homemade road-trip snacks? What’s your personal mom/dad secret for trail mix?

Kid amenities worth every penny

Happy Birthday R, courtesy of Four Seasons SF.

Happy Birthday R, courtesy of Four Seasons SF.

We Villanos are big fans of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts brand. Yes, the room product is amazing. Yes, the service at these resorts—as a family, we’ve stayed at five of them—is second to none.

Really, however, what we like about Four Seasons is the way they welcome kids.

I’m not talking about greetings and salutations here (though the bellmen always are very nice with those). I’m talking about amenities, presents and an assorted variety of other goodies that Four Seasons properties give kids when families visit.

We stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco this past weekend as part of R’s birthday celebration (she turned 3 on Monday). This meant the folks at the hotel treated our girls like rock stars, with everything from San Francisco Giants dolls and hats to pre-dinner birthday cake and cookies from room service.

There were other treats, too. Like the “passports” each girl got upon check-in; they loved inserting pictures of themselves and information about personal characteristics such as eye color and hair color.

The “passports” also (could have) doubled as forms of identification when we were out and about.

Another highlight for the girls: the make-your-own sundae option at MKT, the on-site restaurant. We only managed to get to the restaurant for a late lunch, but that didn’t stop us from trying out this incredibly interactive form of dessert. (In case you’re wondering, both girls chose to douse their sundaes with M&M’s.)

On previous visits to Four Seasons hotels all over the world, the kids have enjoyed other amazing amenities, including child-sized robes, kids-only room service menus, in-room game kits, and more.

It might seem odd that a hotel brand popular among luxury and business travelers makes families such a priority. The reality—at least as it seems to me—is that Four Seasons recognizes the benefits of establishing brand loyalty at an early age.

I wouldn’t have noticed this if not for a conversation I had with R earlier today. We were talking about her next birthday, and what she wanted to do. We tossed around ideas of visiting another great monument or a park, or just laying low for a fairy party.

“I want to stay at a Four Seasons, dada,” she said after some pose. Honestly, I don’t blame her one bit.

Birthday vacation in the Big City

The Birthday Girl on the Golden Gate.

The Birthday Girl on the Golden Gate.

We like to celebrate birthdays with panache in this family. When I turned 30, for instance, Powerwoman and I were living in Lima (in Peru), and we spent a weekend dining at some of the best restaurants in town. When L turned 4, we had a party with a cupcake-to-human ratio of at least 4:1. Last September, when R turned 2, we were living in London, she was obsessed with the London Eye, and all she wanted was to ride the thing (which we did).

Naturally, then, this year the pressure was on for us to take the fiesta to the next level.

After much deliberation, we decided to do what any San Francisco Bay Area-based parents of a tourist attraction loving-kid would do: We made plans to travel to the Big City and walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.

Because no Villano can ever do things half-assed, our plans comprised more than just a bridge walk. In addition, the itinerary included a) a Friday overnight at the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco, b) a family dinner party at Mel’s Drive-In downtown, c) a morning trek to the carousel at the Children’s Creativity Museum, and d) a picnic lunch in the Marin Headlands.

The bridge walk itself was hilarious. It took us about 45 minutes to find a parking spot at the visitor center on the Sausalito (i.e., the north) side, then another 45 minutes to walk out part of the way. We didn’t even make it from the northern end of the bridge to the first station before the Birthday Girl announced, inimitably, that she was “freezing cold” and that she wanted to go home. Still, she managed to enjoy herself (and Mom and Dad managed to snap a few pictures).

What preceded the bridge walk was special for other reasons. We were welcomed at the hotel with special check-in amenities such as chocolate cake, Panda (as in, Pablo Sandoval) hats, and stuffed San Francisco Giants dolls. We commemorated the start of R’s special day with room-service breakfast. Because we got to the carousel right after it opened, we had the whole attraction to ourselves.

Oh, and at the family dinner, everybody (at least everybody in our immediate family) got milkshakes.

Technically, all of this happened less than 100 miles from our house. Still, because we overnighted, because we “road-tripped” to get there, we all considered it a destination birthday. (Yours truly even made special “road trip trail mix” for the ride down.)

Like I’ve said before, you don’t have to travel very far to have the kind of vacation about which you’ll be talking forever. And for us, R’s birthday celebration was yet another vacation to remember.

What are your favorite ways to mix birthdays and family travel?

Part of something very special

FTA logoYou don’t have to read many of my posts to understand that a) I think pretty deeply about family travel and b) I’ve got ideas for how to change public perception about traveling families overall. You also don’t have to dig too deep to discern that even though I’m a man of words, I also am a man of action.

This is precisely why I’m proud to announce that I’ve joined the Board of Advisors for a brand new organization, the Family Travel Association (FTA).

The mission of the organization is simple: To inspire families to travel and to advocate travel as an essential part of every child’s education. In short, the FTA emphasizes the role of travel in the development of our children, and prioritizes travel as an important activity for family bonding and development.

These all are concepts I embrace wholeheartedly.

In the beginning, my role will be to help guide the organization in terms of policies and procedures. I’ll probably do some writing for the group, too, and hope to put together some original pieces for distribution through traditional channels. Over time, this role likely will grow (though I’m not sure how).

I’m honored to be on an all-star team of advisors; a team that includes Keith Bellows, senior vice president and editor-in-chief of National Geographic Traveler magazine; Laura Davidson, president and founder of Laura Davidson Public Relations; Lynn O’Rourke Hayes, editor of FamilyTravel.com; Kyle McCarthy, editor of Family Travel Forum; and Amie O’Shaughnessy, editor of Ciao Bambino (to name a few).

Of course I’m also delighted to work with the organization’s founder, my friend (and a former publisher at National Geographic), Rainer Jenss.

Stay tuned for more updates about my work with the FTA and some of the projects we’ll launch in the first part of 2015. In the meantime, check out this video that Rainer made to help newcomers understand what we’re all about.

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