Expressing excitement on family trips

Both girls got pretty excited about this Play-Doh booth.

Both girls got pretty excited about this Play-Doh booth.

We humans express excitement in different ways. Some of us get smiley. Others get giddy. My wife likes to eeek. I, a verbal person, like to scream, “POWER” repeatedly. Then there’s the Big Girl, who conveys *her* excitement by jumping over and over again and stuttering uncontrollably.

I noticed this tendency of my daughter’s on a recent daytrip to San Francisco. She already was excited to be there—my kids have grown up in the country and they love any opportunity to see tall buildings and public transit and trappings of an urban center. Then we came upon a brand new playground off the Embarcadero. The kid nearly flipped her lid.

She was so cranked up, so stoked at the notion of sliding down a new slide and swinging from new monkey bars that she bounced around like a kangaroo.

When we asked her what was up, she couldn’t respond without fumbling over her own words.

As she played, it dawned on me that I’d seen these behaviors before, almost religiously, on every single family trip we’ve ever taken. That’s when it dawned on me that the get-up wasn’t a temporary bout of insanity, but instead just my kid’s way of expressing and dealing with travel excitement.

The incident got me thinking—where do we learn behaviors for expressing travel excitement? It’s not like Powerwoman or I jump up and down and stutter when we’re on family trips. Why doesn’t my older child eeek like her mother? Why doesn’t she scream, “POWER?” From whom did she get the whole hopping thing?

This, of course, got me thinking some more. How fun it would be to swap excitement expressions a trip! How odd it would be to see a grown man jumping around and stuttering at the sight of the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles. How silly it would be if my kid actually did scream, “POWER.” Or eeek.

We’re headed out in the next few weeks on a number of different journeys and I plan to mention the subject to the kids then. If you see me jumping around and stuttering at an airport, you’ll know why.

How do your kids express their excitement on your family trips?

Proof that family travel trumps video games

They'll remember this hike forever.

They’ll remember this hike forever.

Family travel zealots (including yours truly) have argued for years that experiences lead to greater happiness than material things. Now, apparently, there is scientific data to prove this point.

A recent article on the Fast Company website details much of the latest research on the subject. You can read the piece for the nitty-gritty details. The gist: While the happiness from material purchases diminishes over time, experiences become an ingrained part of our identities.

The story notes that, “rather than buying the latest iPhone or a new BMW…you’ll get more happiness spending money on experiences like going to art exhibits, doing outdoor activities, learning a new skill, or traveling.” Another particularly relevant section spotlights how experiences are paramount even when we think they weren’t that fun—a situation to which traveling parents can relate after their kids have been particularly troublesome on a family trip. Here’s a snip:

“One study…even showed that if people have an experience they say negatively impacted their happiness, once they have the chance to talk about it, their assessment of that experience goes up. [This is attributed] to the fact that something that might have been stressful or scary in the past can become a funny story to tell at a party or be looked back on as an invaluable character-building experience.”

Personally, I am delighted to read this news. I am a HUGE fan of experiences over material items—not only in my personal life but as a parent and as a traveler as well. On a day-to-day basis, Powerwoman and I reward the girls with daytrips instead of goodies or toys. In the longer term, we value travel and education through travel above all else.

(By the way, I just completed my taxes and Schedule C expenditures for 2014 demonstrate this point clearly.)

Read the story, think about the message, and discuss it with friends. There’s a direct relationship between happiness and new experiences, people. Don’t you want your kids to be happy?

No toys? So what!

When life gives you leaves and sticks, make fairy houses.

When life gives you leaves and sticks, make fairy houses.

One of my favorite things to do when traveling with the girls is put them in a situation that forces them to be creative—then sit back and see how they roll.

Sometimes they’re too tired to play along and they whine for crayons and paper (or, more commonly, pens and pages from my reporter’s notebook pads). Other times, however, they’re totally into it, scouring the area for twigs and rocks and any other “treasures” they can use to entertain themselves (and, of course, us).

During a recent weekend excursion to the Big City, I needed the kids to kill about 20 minutes in a park while I interviewed a source on the phone. I set them up in a (safe and) particularly vibrant corner. Five minutes later, L had found enough grasses and leaves to fashion a fairy house.

On another trip, a few weeks back, R was disappointed that I didn’t have any sidewalk chalk (because, you know, I don’t travel with that), so she improvised with a Starbucks stir stick and some water.

The best part: She called it “painting.”

These moments, these examples of my girls using nothing but their imaginations, are wonderful reminders that less can be more—especially when we travel. Sure, it’s always nice to have traditional entertainment methods on hand for our kids when we’re away from home. But it’s even nicer to have kids who reliably can create their own entertainment, no matter what.

How do you cultivate this proclivity? Necessity, I suppose. The first time L and R used their imaginations on the road, they had no choice, as Powerwoman and I had left traditional “toys” at home.

Since then, our other secret has been practice—we make sure the kids entertain themselves at least one afternoon on every trip. The more they engage in creative play, the easier it becomes, for everyone involved. Don’t take my word for it, though; try it yourself.

What sorts of creative play do your children like when you travel?

The aftermath of a family trip

The aftermath of a TFP, on my bed.

The aftermath of a TFP, on my bed.

We family travel bloggers spend a ton of time writing about what happens on and before our adventures. Often, we overlook the stuff that happens AFTERWARD.

I’m not talking about the recalibration of sleep schedules or the return to normal eating habits (“No, honey, you may no longer have French fries with every meal”). I’m talking about the process our children go through as they reintroduce themselves to the stuff they left behind.

In our house, the routine is almost always the same: The morning after a big trip, the girls gather in one room for what Powerwoman and I like to call a Toy Refamiliarization Party (TFP). They set up a bunch of blankets on the floor as if they are about to have a big picnic. Then they collect all of the very best toys that stayed behind. And they play with all of them. At once.

You can imagine how chaotic this can get; the girls have a fair number of toys.

Sometimes the TFP comprises mostly dolls and stuffed animals—these are my favorite iterations because they’re pretty quiet (and they involve a healthy dose of imagination). Other times—such as this past week, after a 6-day jaunt to Walt Disney World—the TFPs feature musical instruments. And, as you can imagine, these can get f-ing loud.

My wife and I endured a good 20-minute chunk on Monday (we got home Sunday) during which neither of us could hear ourselves think.

The girls, however, had a blast, banging on xylophones, keyboards and drums.

No matter how loud they are, we love the TFPs in this house. For starters, they are a great way for the girls to re-acclimate to their surroundings after being away. They also help Powerwoman and me save money; by rediscovering toys they’ve had for years, the girls feel as if the old diversions are new again, thus postponing our need to buy additional stuff.

Herein lies the rub. Next time you’re on a family trip and your kids bug you about souvenirs, resist. Instead, quietly remind yourself how much they’re going to love spending Q.T. with their “old” toys once you get back home. Any family can have a TFP, you know. Thank goodness for that.

With which “old” toys are your kids usually most excited to play upon returning from a big family trip?

The disposable travel toy hall of fame

Destined for the dump.

Destined for the dump.

My name is Matt Villano, and I’m a travel toy waster. Sometimes on family vacations I buy toys with the express intention of throwing them out when the kids are finished. And I don’t really care how wasteful that sounds.

I know, y’all—I’m a certifiable lunatic for doing this. And I’m certain all of this waste is not great for the environment. But I’m willing to bet hundreds of thousands of parents do the same thing, too.

Especially at the beach.

For us, perhaps the most egregiously disposable toys have been the sand-toy sets that we purchase during our annual Hawaii trip (which we’re on right now). The sets are pretty elaborate—each has a bucket and a variety of shovels and other digging implements. Still, because the toys get so sandy and because they’re bulky as all hell, we never actually take them on the plane with us back to the mainland.

It’s not like we just throw them out; on most visits, we find another family with young children and had it over to them.

Still, we buy them. And we don’t use them once our vacation is over. We are wasters.

The sand toy sets aren’t the only demonstration of this bad example; we’ve had other “vacation toys” that we have disposed of during previous vacation, too. Across the board, these have been toys that—for whatever reason—“have decided” to “stay” in our destinations when we’re ready to leave. Among them: A die-cast airplane set to pass a rain delay at SFO; a deck of San Francisco landmark playing cards, a redwood seedling from Disneyland, and little pocket-sized packets for markers and other writing implements.

I’m sure this list will grow exponentially with my experiences as a parent. In the scheme of vices, I guess this issue could be a lot worse.

What are some of your favorite disposable travel toys?

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