Traveling with Kids: Building a Foundation of Learning

Rainer Jenss was a Vice President and thirteen-year veteran of National Geographic. As the Publisher, he helped transform National Geographic Kids into the most widely read consumer magazine for children throughout the world. In the summer of 2008 he decided to put his professional expertise and personal passion to the ultimate test by traveling around the world for a year with his family.

Rainer continues to report on family travel as a Special Correspondent for National Geographic Traveler’s Intelligent Travel Blog and shares with us why traveling is a great way to build a foundation of learning in your children.

Kyoto, Japan

If you’re reading this post, you’ve probably fantasized about quitting your job, packing a suitcase, and leaving town for a while to travel the world. When we first got married, my wife Carol and I often contemplated taking the leap — sometimes seriously, sometimes not. There always seemed to be some excuse why we couldn’t, wouldn’t or shouldn’t. Our careers, responsibilities, and commitments had to be considered, and how about what our friends and family would say? It was always something. Then after the birth of our sons Tyler and Stefan, all this talk about packing our bags seemed to suddenly fade away. After all, you can’t possibly do something like this with kids, right?

If we teach our children to travel, we thought, then they will travel to learn –
a foundation that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

In January 2004, it all came roaring back. I had just returned with the family from Europe after visiting relatives for the holidays when Carol and I started reflecting on how much the boys (then seven and four) seemed to enjoy the experience of being in another country. Couple that with the post-9/11 mood of a country that was getting deeper into a war in Iraq and isolating itself more from the rest of the world, and suddenly it dawned on us that taking a year off to travel the world might actually be more sensible now that we had children. Increasingly, we found ourselves looking at taking a year off to travel not from the perspective of what we had to lose, but from all the benefits we could gain.

It dawned on us that nothing could probably better prepare the kids more for their future than traveling and experiencing what life is like outside the U.S. If we teach our children to travel, we thought, then they will travel to learn – a foundation that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. So after more than four years of saving and planning, we sold our house, put our careers, lives, and possessions in storage, and left for an around-the-world adventure that would cover 28 different countries in just over a year.

If you are a parent who might be contemplating something like this, it pays to consider some of the benefits your children will gain from traveling. Gathered from our experience, I’d like to share some advice that might help make your travels just a little more meaningful.

An Opportunity to Learn and Gather New Experiences

Elephant Ride in ThailandFirst, I’d like to recommend that you look at your travels not just as a time to relax and get away, but also as an opportunity to learn and gather new experiences. If you consider that the true function of education is to enable children to successfully navigate the world around them, than travel probably does this better than any other single activity because it embraces such a diversity of subjects.

Remember, kids are incredibly curious, so when you expose them to new things, you’ll be amazed at how quickly they forget about their electronic gadgets and watching television. For example, we visited museums in China and Rome, toured monasteries in Bhutan and Thailand, and explored archeological sites in Peru and Greece that offered up history lessons far more engaging than any textbook. For a dose of science, the geysers at Yellowstone and Costa Rica’s Arenal volcano gave them a real-life demonstration no classroom could ever simulate. There was no worrying about missing a year of Spanish class either. Six weeks in Central and South America took care of that.

Terracotta SoldiersLearn New Life Skills

Traveling also affords kids a chance to learn new life skills, so don’t be afraid to let them try something different and challenge them with activities they’ve never tried before. Our youngest son learned to surf in Costa Rica, play cricket in Australia, and make sushi in Japan. His older brother rode a horse for the first time on a dude ranch in Wyoming, picked up the art of origami in Japan, and snorkeled on the Great Barrier Reef. But we discovered that photography was what he was most passionate about. While traveling may have opened his eyes to a whole new way of looking at the world, a camera became his outlet for expressing it.

And one other major piece of advice: make sure everyone in the family has their own camera! Not only will this keep your kids thoroughly occupied, but if you share a camera, you risk possibly missing that perfect sunset shot because another member of the family is off somewhere with yours taking pictures of who-knows-what.

Making Personal Connections

African VillageMaking personal connections is another wonderful side of traveling that we sometimes take for granted. We learned that meeting people and talking to them about their lives was the best way to really understand a place and appreciate its culture. Despite the language barriers, this wasn’t hard to do in countries like Greece, Japan, and Peru, especially if you have a guide.

But even here in the U.S., there are some fascinating regional differences to explore and learn from. In South Dakota and Montana for example, it was refreshing to see how strong its people are connected to the land and the history of its Native American heritage.

So don’t think you can’t take a career break just because you have children. The opposite is really true: the kids are the reason why you should go – if not for your sake, for theirs! Check out the following articles and resources to help plan your family getaway:

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4 Comments on "Traveling with Kids: Building a Foundation of Learning"

  1. Tweets that mention Traveling with Kids: Building a Foundation of Learning | Briefcase to Backpack - Travel Advice for Career Breaks or Sabbaticals -- Topsy.com on Mon, 17th Jan 2011 9:58 am 

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sherry Ott, BriefcasetoBackpack. BriefcasetoBackpack said: If we teach children to travel,they'll travel to learn–a foundation they'll carry w them for the rest of their lives http://ow.ly/3F4e3 [...]

  2. Atse on Mon, 17th Jan 2011 12:44 pm 

    What did you do with schooling while traveling with kids? That might be one of biggest concerns for parents who have been thinking about this.

  3. Michaela Potter on Mon, 17th Jan 2011 7:21 pm 

    Many families who travel tell us that travel offers up a much greater education for their children than what they are exposed to in a classroom. Here are a few posts discussing homeschooling on the road:
    - http://briefcasetobackpack.com/2010/02/homeschooling-on-the-road/
    - http://briefcasetobackpack.com/2010/03/on-the-road-traveling-with-kids/

    And here is a great reflection by a young man who traveled with his family and siblings:
    http://briefcasetobackpack.com/2010/07/reflection-morgans-tale/

    Plus with the internet these days, children are still able to connect with friends from back home as well as share their personal road experiences.

    If you are thinking of traveling with your children, be sure to check out some of these inspiring families:

    4Suitcases Family Adventures in Lifestyle Design
    Cooney World Adventure One Family, Five People, One World, Infinite Dreams
    Family on Bikes Bicycling the Pan-America Highway with Children
    The Q Family Adventures Inspire Family to Travel One Adventure at a Time
    Six in the World A Family of Six on Their Round the World Journey
    WanderMom Resources for Independent Family Travel

  4. Talon (1Dad1Kid) on Thu, 20th Jan 2011 1:16 pm 

    AMEN! Experiences that can not only last a lifetime but shape it as well.

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