Now that Alex is a sophisticated first grader, the challenges and joys of traveling with him have changed. On the plus side, he's big enough to carry his own bag, no longer needs a car seat on a plane or in most states, and has the stamina to walk from place to place on his own without demanding to be carried. As kids get older, they will remember more and more about the trips you take. He's old enough to hopefully remember some of our adventures. For many people, (myself and Frank included) family trips are some of their fondest, lasting memories of childhood.
On the negative side, we're now slaves to the school calendar, so our former care-free life of going wherever, whenever, is compromised by whether or not he will be missing school. If we travel during school breaks, there is usually more competition for flights, and the airports are more crowded. During kindergarten, we were able to take him out for two weeks, but as the years progress, we have be more mindful of what he might be missing at school.
To get the most out of your trip with your school-age child, try to make it a learning experience. Research the destination together at the library or on-line. If you're traveling to a non-English-speaking country, borrow or purchase some language tapes and learn the basics. You can even download language programs from iTunes onto your iPod or mp3 player and take your lessons on the plane with you. Knowing how to say, "hello," "goodbye," "please," "thank-you," "excuse me," and "where is the bathroom?" will get you farther than you think.
Let your children help plan some of the places you'll visit. They may find some off-the-beaten path museum or park that you might not think to go to. Let their interests help shape the trip, whether it's animals or stamp-collecting or soccer. Use the research as a way to understand more about the history, geography, and culture of the place you are visiting.
Have your child practice writing by keeping a journal. Alex kept a journal of our trip to Italy, Egypt, and Libya when he was in kindergarten. He wrote single-word labels for pictures and postcards, and glued in some local currency and ticket stubs. It's one of our most prized mementos of the trip. When we returned, he practiced his public speaking skills by showing his journal at his kindergarten Show & Tell, and even to his daycare group.
Another way to practice writing skills is to send postcards home to friends and family. Be sure to have your child write one to himself so he will have an exotic stamp and a postcard as a keepsake. My husband is a fantastic postcard sender, and will spend hours writing cards to friends all over the world. Make it a fun family ritual to find a cafe where you can soak up the ambience and write cards together as a family.
One of the great things about traveling to a new place is noticing how the most ordinary things differ from life at home, whether it's the bathroom or street signs. Give your child a disposable camera or an inexpensive digital camera to record some of the small details and to have a lasting memento of new friends and experiences. There is a new digital camcorder called the Flip Video Camcorder* that is simple enough for a child to use, and priced low enough so that you won't need a second mortgage to replace it if it's lost or broken. With this camcorder, you can upload your video directly to YouTube or e-mail it to your family and friends back home.
To hone math skills, have your child keep track of the budget and expenses for the trip in a small notebook. If you are traveling in a non-US destination, have him or her calculate the exchange rate every day by looking up the rate, tallying up your receipts, and figuring out how much you spent.
If you have to take your child out of school, you might have homework assignments to contend with while you are are on the road. If so, set a time each day to tackle the school work, and don't let it pile up until the end.
If a trip to an exotic location is not in the cards for you, do what Veronique of Little Elephants did with her family and take a virtual world tour. Write down the names of countries you and your kids would like to visit on slips of paper. Draw one each week and take a virtual vacation by studying the country, cooking native cuisine for a few meals, and doing art and craft projects related to the country. Who knows? It might inspire your kids to be world travelers some day, but at the very least, you will all participate in a fun family activity.
*Note: I received a free Flip to try out and will do a full review of it on my new review blog, The Silent I Speaks, as soon as I get around to launching it.
Photo Credit: Alex showing "unbridled spirit" in Kentucky, taken by Frank.