Night in the city without a phone

We’re in San Francisco for the remainder of the holiday weekend, and tonight I found myself alone with the big girls and no smartphone. Instead of panicking, the three of us got resourceful and saw a movie, found and booked a dinner reservation, and got around just fine.

The takeaway: Technology is awesome but grossly overrated.

The phone snafu was a pretty dumb mistake on my part. The five of us drove down in our minivan together, but Powerwoman and G dropped the big girls and me off at our hotel before continuing down to see some family members in Silicon Valley. When we arrived at the hotel, I was so fixated on getting L and R out of the car safely that I forgot to take my phone. We didn’t realize it was in the car until Powerwoman already was effectively out of the city.

This could have been a disaster. We were planning to Uber all over town, find a movie theater showing Moana at a reasonable time, then use Yelp to find a good restaurant before the show.

Instead, we did it the way I did it when I was a kid and the way countless others did it when they were younger: We winged it, we flew by the seats of our pants. And it worked. Masterfully. Almost without a glitch. (The glitch: NO PICTURES TO DOCUMENT THE NIGHT.)

To meet the challenge of picking a movie theater, we fired up the old laptop and I wrote (with pen on paper) some options down. To find a good restaurant, we used our voices to ask the concierge. Finally, to physically get ourselves from one part of town to the other, we shot our left arms into the air and hailed taxis.

Admittedly, the girls were a bit confused. HOW ARE WE GOING TO GET FROM HERE TO DINNER, asked a befuddled L, the Uber addict, when she learned Mommy had my phone. R was more concerned about no music.

But we did it, people. And you can, too.

Poetically, our night in the big city without a phone came on Black Friday a day when REI and other big companies encourage people to ditch technology and “opt outside.” We opted outside all right. Not internationally, but we did. And it made for a holiday gathering I’ll remember for a long while.

Wandering Pod debuts in Businessweek

Family travel isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you think about the magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek. Yet a few months ago, a friend of mine who is an editor there approached me to see if I’d contribute to a section they were doing about traveling with kids.

Naturally, I jumped at the chance. The resulting story appears in the May 2-8, 2016 issue, which hit newsstands this week.

My piece is short and sweet; it appears as a three-panel, illustrated “as told by” piece near the back of the book. In the graphical account, I (re)tell a story I first shared on the pages of this very blog–a piece about how Powerwoman and I kept L and R occupied with paper chains on a flight from San Francisco to Maui. Want the scoop? Check out the Instagram pic below.

A photo posted by Matt Villano (@mattvillano) on

Making travel games their own

Yahtzee!

Yahtzee!

Little R has been under the weather this week, and Powerwoman and I have been scraping the bottom of the barrel of activities to keep the girls busy. This afternoon’s game was a real zinger. I like to call it, “Look through Daddy’s Old Camping Stuff!”

It was a curious scene. The three of us took over the garage. The girls opened up two lawn chairs. Then they sat and waited to “inspect” my old bags for “treasures.” Over the course of the new Taylor Swift album (this is how we measure time), we found a 10-year-old water filter, about 12 corroded AA batteries, an unopened canister of bear spray, and my long-lost Leatherman.

We also found a box of some old travel games, including magnetic Tic-Tac-Toe, magnetic checkers and travel Yahtzee.

Not surprisingly, this was the stuff the girls liked best of all.

R couldn’t get enough of the magnetic goodies; she kept taking the tiny pieces, putting them on the metal frame of the lawn chair, and watching them stick. L, on the other hand, was all about the Yahtzee. She asked me how to play and listened intently as I explained the rules. Then she announced that she didn’t like the official rules, and was making up her own.

What followed was a tutorial in “Yahtzee According to L,” or YAL. Forget playing for a Yahtzee or a Full House; in L’s game, you rolled the dice, counted them up, and practiced writing your numbers on the scorecards.

Over and over and over again.

At first I tried to help her understand the REAL rules, reviewing them here and there to see if I might catch her interest. After about 10 minutes, I realized this sort of instruction was a waste of time; L loved the game, but she only loved it on her terms, and that was the way it would be.

By dinnertime, my older daughter was talking about how she was going to bring YAL on our next road trip (to Lake Tahoe), how she was going to play it “for the entire drive,” and teach it to everyone we met at rest stops along the way. Joking, I told her she could introduce the game to everyone in and around the lake. Her response: “How many people live there, Dad?”

Regardless of whether our Big Girl becomes the next Milton Bradley (I’m not talking about the former Cleveland Indians’ centerfielder here, people), the YAL incident reminded me of a valuable lesson: When it comes to kids and travel, we parents need to allow their imaginations to run wild.

Put differently, the rules by which my kid wants to play Yahtzee don’t matter at all. What does matter is that she actually wants to play, and that she’s excited about doing so on our next trip.

This means she’s already looking forward to our next adventure. Which is a win from the start.

Maximizing fun for family adventurers

Terra Darts. Just one of the many cool things about the REI Kid Pack.

Terra Darts. Fun!

Earlier this year, a friend of mine hipped me to some family-friendly excursions from REI Adventures. I did some digging and it turns out the tour operator has a handful of trips specifically designed for families. These multi-day trips go to a handful of faraway places including South Africa & Botswana, Thailand, the Greek Islands, Machu Picchu, and the Great Smoky Mountains (to name a few).

Every kid on these trips also receives a custom REI Kids Adventure Pack.

I’m not going to write about the trips themselves—my kids are too young to experience them (with one exception, the minimum age starts around 8) and, quite frankly, you can learn plenty about them by clicking through the outfitter’s site.

After obtaining a sample Kids Adventure Pack, however, I am delighted to share more about the awesomeness of that.

First, of course, is the pack itself—an REI-branded Flash 18 minimalist daypack that turns inside-out to double as a stuff sack and has a safety whistle built-in to the sternum strap. Inside, my sample came with an REI kids active wear t-shirt, a travel journal, REI-branded postcards, and an achievement award that is presented to kids upon completion of their adventure.

My sample pack also had two kick-ass games: 1) Terra Darts, a Seattle Sports lawn darts game (you fill the darts with pebbles) that you can play just about anywhere, and 2) Pass the Pigs, a craps-like game in which the dice are tiny pigs (you get points based upon the positions in which the pigs end up after you toss them).

Apparently, games vary per pack, though I’m not sure any other games could possibly be cooler than the ones I received. I also really liked the pack itself; I used the sample as a daypack on a hike with L and R this week and it worked great. To be fair, however, I found the postcards to be pretty lame. Isn’t the whole idea of postcards to purchase cards from your faraway destinations and send them to folks back home as souvenirs?

Bottom line: The REI Kids Adventure Park kits are a win.

I admire REI Adventures for offering family-oriented excursions in the first place. Beyond that, equipping kids who take these trips with special backpacks designed to maximize fun is genius. I only wish my girls were old enough to take on one of these adventures. We’ll just have to wait until 2019.

What do you bring with your kids on trips to help maximize fun?

The Best Family Travel Product Ever

We. Love. This. Game.

We. Love. This. Game.

After four years of searching, I have found the single best family travel product in the history of family travel products: Rory’s Story Cubes.

Yes, the game/activity is something that can fit in your pants pocket or a stocking (HINT, HINT). Yes, it comprises nothing more than nine dice (or, in the app, nine virtual dice). But the “Cubes” rock because 1) they are so simple and 2) they spark endless creativity in both you AND the kids.

Here’s how the Story Cubes work. Every side of each die has an image. When you roll the dice, you get nine different images facing skyward. Then you have to tell a story that incorporates each one.

According to the official game rules, it doesn’t matter which image you choose to begin your story, so long as you touch ‘em all before you’re done. And, of course, the wackier the story, the better (which is particularly why 4-year-old L loves this game so much).

The company behind the product, Belfast-based The Creativity Hub, also regularly publishes suggestions from fans and customers of alternative ways to play.

(Also, for the record, the game comes in two other versions: Actions and Voyages.)

Because the parent company is based in Ireland, it’s fitting that we discovered the game at the cottage we rented last week on the Connemara coast. We had plenty of games from which to choose, including Ker-Plunk, Operation and more. Time and time again, we went for the Cubes.

When we returned to London, I purchased the app (for Android; no Apple products in this family). Since then, none of us has been able to stop playing. (Also, since then, I’ve connected with the game creator, Rory O’Connor, on Twitter.)

Because I’m not a fan of unnecessary screen time for kids, I prefer the dice you can shake in your hand and throw. That said, I admit that the Smartphone and tablet versions are great because you can play them in environments that aren’t exactly conducive to throwing dice (namely, on planes during long flights and in cars on road trips).

Whichever version you choose ($7.65 on Amazon.com; $2.25 for the Android app), consider this sucker a must-buy. And have a blast.

What are your favorite games/products to bring along when you travel with the kids?

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