There are logical reasons why touch tanks always are kids’ favorite part of the aquarium. The exhibits are at kid-level! They’ve got stuff kids can reach in and grab! Most important: They are one of the only places in the facility where kids can DO instead of just SEE.
This last reality is one we traveling parents often overlook. Yes, it’s amazing to expose our kids to international cities and world-class museums and great music and all sorts of cultural phenomena like that. It’s also a big deal to let ‘em get down on their knees, roll up their sleeves and interact with stuff for themselves.
Sure, the kids loved it when we hiked to Mirror Lake. And yes, they loved it when we traipsed around Yosemite Valley for different perspectives on Yosemite Falls, the highest measured waterfall in North America.
But they were happiest when they were able to get their hands on the nature around them.
The first example of this came during our hike (from The Ahwahnee hotel) to the lake. About halfway out, L and R insisted on wandering off-trail, exploring the granite boulders around us for “cozy hideaways” for fairies. I monitored these activities closely; technically they weren’t supposed to be off-trail at all, and the terrain wasn’t exactly easy to navigate. Still, amid the boulders, picking at moss and leaves and all sorts of other stuff around them, the girls played for hours (literally).
The second example of the importance of doing came toward the end of our visit, on a day when L and I went out to explore while R and Powerwoman napped back in the room.
My older daughter and I wandered out of the hotel and back toward the Merced River. There, along the riverbank, we spent 15 minutes tossing pinecones into the current and watching them head downstream. I could tell L was curious about something, so I asked her if there was anything else she’d like to do. Her response: “I want to feel the water, Dad.”
And so, I let her. I held her jacket while she leaned out from the side of the bank and dipped her hands in the Merced. Once her hands were wet, she pulled them back and wiped the water on her tiny face. As the droplets ran down her cheeks, she stuck out her tongue and giggled.
“It’s cold!” she commented. Then she dipped her hands in again. And again.
To be honest, I had no idea how meaningful that moment was until the drive home. Somewhere around Mariposa, my wife turned around and asked the girls what they liked best about our trip.
R’s answer was simple: She loved the waterfalls. L’s response, however, caught both of us grownups off-guard. “My favorite part was feeling the river,” she said. “It was fun to see the waterfalls but touching the water itself was amazing.”
I’m not sure I could have said it better myself.