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?

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