Much More Than Memories: How Travel Impacts Child Development

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

Seen as an opportunity to do something fun with their kids, and also enjoy time together away from the demands of work and school (i.e. chores, homework, bedtime routines and the like) many families will hit the road this summer. But what parents may not realize is that travel can have a major developmental impact on kids — with huge long-term payoffs. Don’t fret, you don’t have to travel far to reap the rewards for your kiddos. Traveling to places both far and near can positively impact your child, so start packing that overnight bag.

Hit theaccelerator

  From a developmental standpoint, travel — whether a day trip or longer vacation — benefits children of all ages in many ways. These benefits can extend well beyond exploring new places and meeting new people; travel can shape who our children become as they grow.

   “Traveling builds flexible thinking, resilience, self-regulation skills, patience, organization, and responsibility,” says Donna Denette, co-founder and executive director of Children First Enterprises, a non-profit childcare organization in Granby. “And that is all before you have arrived at your destination!” 

  She says travel also promotes evaluative thinking, helps children practice responding to disappointment, and instills in all of us the importance of having a “Plan B.”

  “When we travel, we are constantly having to imagine what might be (Will it rain while I’m there?), plan accordingly (I will pack a rain coat), and then adjust to the reality once the experience occurs (I need to find another activity to do today because the zip line course closes when it rains),” she explains. “The younger the child, the more naturally the adjustments are made.”

  Denette, an avid traveler, credits her parents for her love of travel. When she was very young, her parents took her, along with her five older siblings, to Europe for eight weeks. Twice. In a Volkswagen camper van. 

  “That tested and refined our ability to get along,” she notes, which speaks to another point — cooperation. While traveling, siblings must learn to adapt to their travel environment and be able to depend on each other.

  Beth Knodler of Belchertown says she and her husband love going on long, cross-country trips with their two children, Morgan, 10 and Ben, 12, because as parents, they get to see the best of their children emerge while traveling.

  “The kids learn to depend on each other and watch out for each other in an unfamiliar location. We will see Ben grab Morgan’s hand to be sure she doesn’t get separated,” Knodler says. “There is very little bickering and a lot of cooperative team work. They become each other’s best friend.” 

  Denette strongly believes that travel also develops bravery and instills self-confidence in children. As parents, we all want our children to be confident and brave, but these are traits that cannot be taught, but rather, develop over time with experiences.

  Denette and her husband, Marek Ludkiewicz, have put this into practice with their own three.

  “We have presented many opportunities for our children to test themselves, always giving them the message that we believe in them and their abilities,” she adds. “When they accepted the challenge and tackled something new, they were visibly proud of themselves and more confident in tackling the next challenge.”

  Amanda Norman, 24, of Granby, credits childhood travel for her love of travel today as an adult. 

  “My parents made sure that we took a trip every year,” she says. “As a kid it was just fun to me, but as an adult I began to really value it more and I started traveling internationally and learning more about other cultures and seeing different parts of the world.”

  Norman has traveled to Alaska, Romania, and Nepal, and will head to the Philippines this summer. She notes that though always challenging, her travel is very rewarding.

Get outside the box

  Inarguably, school and classroom learning is important, however, there is a different kind of education to be had while traveling. Imagine learning about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in school, and then actually sitting in a pew at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where King, his father, and his grandfather preached — all within walking distance to King’s childhood home. 

  “This kind of learning is a valuable companion for classroom learning,” says Denette of a travel-based education.

  “Children practice map-reading, are exposed to different languages, different foods, music, art, and styles of architecture,” she adds. “They use math when they convert currency [when traveling abroad], adjust time zones, and keep a budget during their trip. They experience history by walking the grounds where that history took place.”

  “Nothing gives a child better perspective of the world than to take them out of the world in which they live and teach them that the world is a big place,” says Michael Saklad, father of three children ages 9-13 in Belchertown.

  Saklad recently took his 13-year-old daughter on a road trip to Florida. He says during their long journey by car, they talked for hours and shared great regional foods — stopping for Philly cheesesteaks, NYC delis, boiled peanuts, and Low Country cuisine.

   “She got cultural lessons in both people and food and how it differs throughout the country — or at least that small part of it,” he adds.

  His daughter, Althea, agreed: “It’s important to travel, to get out and see things — new things. You get a better perspective of the world.”

  She notes it was fun getting to know her father better in an environment away from their home, explaining that he shared his interest in cars with her by teaching her all about the cars they passed on the road, while she taught him all about her favorite pop songs that played on the radio during the trip.

  “I got to see another side of him — relaxed and chill. And he’s pretty fun when he’s chilled,” she says with a big smile.

  On the way home, father and daughter took in historic locations associated with the Civil War, stopping in Charleston, South Carolina and Gettysburg.

  “She learned valuable lessons about how slaves were treated, how and why the Civil War happened, and the difference between how the South and the North perceives the war,” he says.

 “Classroom environments are controlled, expected, regulated, and regimented. Travel experiences are anything but!” Denette adds. “Learning is more experimental, more hands-on, more unexpected. And the learning and benefits happen before, during, and after the travel experience.”

  For example, Denette explains that before travel, children can research destinations, make choices and compromises, plan, budget, and pack, laying a foundation for their future experiences. During travel, children practice patience, flexibility, make adjustments, and enjoy new experiences.

  “During travel, children make connections with what they researched, cementing that learning into their minds,” she says.

  Also, after taking a trip, children have powerful shared memories and increased closeness with their families, having enjoyed new experiences together while traveling, she explains.

  Saklad says he decided early on that each of his children would have a one-on-one trip with him. This stems from his own travel experiences as a child.

  He explains that his father took him on a cross-country road trip when he was 10 to help a relative move a house full of furniture. The trip was an adventure for him in many ways — replete with engine trouble, sleeping on the side of the road, a state trooper, and cattle.

  “I never forgot the experience and determined that there is no better trip for a child to take but one that involves miles and miles of highway…” he says. “I remember my trip as vividly as if it was yesterday and it was nearly 40 years ago.”

  Denette explains that travel experiences can be powerful and often have this type of impact on a child.

  “Whenever we tackle something new, something outside of our comfort zone, outside of the everyday, we experience heightened sensations and, due to those heightened sensations, the experiences are all the more powerful and influential on us,” she says. “As a result, our children can often recall minute details of travel experiences — sounds, smells, tastes, colors, textures — in ways that they cannot recall in their everyday experiences.”

Put them in the driver’s seat

  Many parents will agree that their kids are much more capable, resourceful, and responsible than we, as parents, typically give them credit for. What better way to send them this powerful message, coupled with the benefits of travel, than by letting them plan the family vacation? And I don’t mean just simply allowing them to pick a destination. Why not let them do it all? Put them in the driver’s seat. They are capable.

  Denette and her husband have done so with each of their three children, Marus, 16, Ania, 14, and Kasia, 12.

  “My husband and I decided to mark the year each child turned 10 (double-digits) by allowing them to choose, plan, and run the family vacation,” she explains. “Each child had to research the best activities, [travel] distances, plan travel times, plan transportation, lodging, menus, and pack lists. They had to do the map reading and be the guide for the entire trip.”

  Denette suggests buying or borrowing some travel books to kick off the idea, and then help your child choose a location that fits within the family budget while also providing fun activities for each member of the family. 

  “We were dramatically sending them the message that we believed in their abilities and recognized that they were ready for a new level of responsibility and involvement in our family dynamic,” she adds. 

Exit ahead: Travel tips for parents

Planning is key for any type of travel, but even more so when traveling involves kids, especially the younger set. Here are some tips from Denette on how to make travel more enjoyable for everyone involved — parents included.

• Involve your children in every aspect of the trip from start to finish. Allow them to help you research, plan, and pack for the trip.

• Talk about expectations prior to the trip. Remind them there may be times when they have to be flexible or wait for their needs to be met.

• Plan, plan, plan! Pack snacks and small games. Brain games related to the trip destination can be fun.

• Less is more. By being less dependent on things, we are more dependent on relationships, environments, and experiences, Denette says.

• Break up the day into a kid-friendly schedule. For example, do an activity in the morning when young children are most attentive. Find a place to picnic for lunch where kids can run around, then drive to another location during naptime. Visit a second location after naptime.

• Be flexible. If we wanted all of the comforts and familiarity of home, we could have just stayed there.

• Consider camping or renting a house rather than a hotel stay. This can allow your day to be extended without having to “shush” children.