Whether you are celebrating summer holidays in the Northern Hemisphere or winter vacation in the South, the spring may find you making plans for travel. As parents, I think we’re all familiar with the duality of travel with children: the privilege of visiting a new place coupled with the challenges of being outside of our “natural habitat.” You know the challenges I’m talking about: the disrupted schedules, the enclosed spaces, the unfamiliar foods, the embarrassing moments.
Between long-distance relatives and my husband’s work trips, our family has had the opportunity to travel together on a frequent basis, and so I have an intimate knowledge of the ups and downs of family trips. I share here a few suggestions—things that I have learned help us connect as a family and help our kids function at their best while away from home; I hope they’ll help your family too. Because for every missed nap, for every on-train diaper blowout (minus wipes, of course), we have shared equally beautiful moments in abundance. The ones where we stretched our arms and our vision. The ones where we stepped outside our area of comfort and into an area unexpectedly playful and joyous. The ones where we spent uninterrupted days in each other’s company. The ones where we saw that home is around every corner, wherever we make it—wherever we look and find it. Those are the moments I want to remember, and those are the reasons we travel.
Travel can be as ambitious as an international voyage, as familiar as a visit to extended family, or as enlightening as exploring a hometown destination you never managed to get to before. Journey is a mindset and a perspective; travel lets us see home in new ways. Taking time to cultivate this attitude in the days and weeks before your trip, and to maintain it during your travel, will go a long way in shaping how much you enjoy the experience. Be open to accepting help from “travel angels”—those people who hold the door, entertain your toddler as she hangs over the plane seat, and offer directions when you’re lost and tired. And look for ways for you and your kids to be angels, too—performing a good deed makes you feel more connected to a place and community, even when you’re far from home.
On a practical level, you might choose library books set in your destination (as specific as “Toronto” or general as “the beach”,) visit websites or flickr groups dedicated to it, and involve children in planning activities. My five-year-old is a big fan of scavenger hunts of all sorts, and you could use this research to create some very specific hunts for older kids, though ours now are more ad hoc. For example, we encourage our son to look out for national flags during an international trip, and museum visits are always more fun when we create a makeshift list of items to find (dinosaur, water fountain, painting of fruit, three people wearing hats, etc.) While you’re on your trip, make notes for projects you might do at home that will echo some of your travel experiences: baking muffins from your sister’s recipe or making a painting in the style of an artist you encountered.
A small folder or bag of well-chosen art/making supplies will provide much more and longer-lasting fun than a suitcase full of toys. Some items to consider: bound paper (premade journals or simple homemade booklets,) loose colored paper, blank cards/postcards, double-sided tape or glue sticks, a crayon or pencil roll, scissors (don’t pack in airplane carry-ons!) stickers, string. With these supplies, you have the makings for collage, jewelry creation (string found items or make paper beads into necklaces,) correspondence, tracing, daily scrapbooking, paper airplanery, origami, puppetry (don’t forget the airsick bag!) and more. For novelty’s sake, I do like to supplement this kit with one or two new or special choices—new reading material and perhaps a coloring book for my older son and a toy car for our youngest. And we are always on the lookout for ways to use what’s already provided: unplug the phone from the wall in the hotel and play “receptionist,” use a grandparent’s measuring cups as bath toys, gather and sort items in a park, pick up stones and save them to toss in a creek later on.
The other area where novelty and specialness will go a long way is in your choice of travel snacks. Again, choose to pack just a few and acquire more when you reach your destination. For us, trips are both a time to enjoy and explore new foods and to relax a little bit about nutritional “standards”—we’re lucky to have adventurous eaters and have enjoyed choosing new fruits and baked goods at local markets on international trips, but we’re also aware that well-spaced bags of fruit snacks make a long car trip go more smoothly, and that learning what flavor potato chips kids enjoy in Spain is as much of a cultural experience as the Prado.
Of course, “packing light” with kids is always a relative term—but with all the room you’ll save by packing light on toys and snacks, you’ll have plenty of space for things like a little bit of handwork for yourself and, of course, extra baby wipes.
Most parents think about ways to maintain sleep routines while travelling, and this is certainly critical to your kids’ happy experience of a trip. But beyond sleep, be mindful of the other routines that mark your day. Does your family practice meal rituals like blessings or table setting? You can continue these habits even while eating take-out at a highway rest stop. Do you take time each day for reading together, self-directed play, or other “quiet” activities? What about outdoor play and exploration? Think about how you might integrate these times into your travel day, whether through a visit to a new-to-you local library or a search for an awesome playground (and if they’re seeing it for the first time, it’s guaranteed to be awesome.) Stop for a while on the grounds of that famous landmark and let small kids check out the gravel. Older kids may want some downtime in a hotel to draw or read.
Don’t forget your own routines, either—if knitting or reading or blogging or showering (ha!) is a key part of your day at home, try to find moments to continue those habits on your trip. You’ll all be happier for the continuities, even as you modify and let go of certain aspects of your routines.
This may seem like a strange recommendation in a piece on family connections, but we’ve found there can be great joy in going our own ways at different moments of a trip. In families with more than one child, trips can be the perfect chance for one-on-one (or –two or –three) time that might not happen in the busyness of daily life with siblings. These “dates” could be as simple as taking separate trips to the hotel breakfast buffet or as intricate as planning different age-appropriate routes through a museum.
And don’t forget the importance of self-care! Enlist your partner to watch all the kids while you take time for a slow visit to a cultural site or a kid-free coffee with a relative (and be sure to return the favor, too.) Slip out alone during naptime for a photo walk. Or, if circumstances permit, plan a real date with your partner. Enjoy these moments with and without kids as chances to build memories and relationships.
The thread that runs through all the sections above is the importance of shared daily creativity in our family lives—even or especially when our lives-as-usual have been interrupted. As our family gets older, I’m hoping to incorporate more journaling into our travel days. This practice, I hope, will complement what we already do in terms of recounting our day to one another on travel evenings. Maybe your family has a nighttime prayer or gratitude ritual that you could tailor to travel, or maybe you could start one on your trip. If you are traveling with or to visit extended family, consider what creative practices you can perform as a group, with your kids—cooking, storytelling, crafting, building, and pretending are all possibilities.
When you return after your period of travel, you’ll feel simultaneously relieved and overwhelmed by the process of resuming your home life. If you maintain your travelers’ eyes, however, your family is likely to find that the spirit of journey will bring patience and joyfulness to the everyday. Just as your trip opened space for play, innovation, closeness, and letting go of expectations, your daily life can make way for fresh perspectives and renewed connection.
Mary Frances is mama to two- and five-year-old boys and wife to a remarkably good travel companion. Her parenting is influenced by the family she grew up in, the wonderful community of parents among which she now lives, and her son’s Montessori school. You can find her photographs, words, and projects at This is Marzipan.