School might be closed for the summer but your kids’ brains are still open for business. Summer travel is a great way to stretch they ways we learn. As a child my family drove all over the United States and eventually travelled to farther flung locales around the world. Learning was inherent in the activity but my sisters and I also knew that my father would expect us to remember and be able to explain quite a bit about what we had seen and observed. As a kid I was always a fast reader and as a result I often finished a given museum exhibit before my father did. Each and every time that happened I knew that he would quiz me on a few facts because he didn’t believe I had actually read the signs. –In fact, he continues this habit even today! As an adult having been both a Project Week trip leader and parent, I have experimented with a variety of ways to capitalize on and focus the way kids learn while traveling. Learning on vacation need not be a form or torture. Here are 10 ways to help your kids learn more on this summer’s vacation and have fun doing it:
1. Map it out: Oftentimes we just tell kids “we’re going to drive Washington DC!”. Instead, get out a map and show them where you will be driving, where you might stop and then look at a map of your destination and discuss the neighborhoods you will go to. Help them to get familiar with distances and the relationships between the various places you will go. Discuss the changes in scenery you expect and why the scenery changes. Then, when you are driving they can compare predictions to reality.
2. Make big sites manageable.. When going on a big trip with lots of important sites make up a mini guide for your child. Highlight one or two major sites for each day with a question for them to answer or a feature for them to look at. Be sure to follow up in the evenings and ask them about it. It you are out looking at nature, make them a mini guide book with pictures of the key animals, birds, or plants you might see so they can identify them and become ‘experts’.
3. Food always helps. When I traveled for project week a favorite activity was the evening quiz game. Kids collected interesting facts about what we saw and after dinner took turns asking questions with skittles as the only prize for correct answers. You would be amazed at how intense the competition could get to be the quizmaster and earn the biggest pile of skittles.
4. Being in charge is fun. Let your child be the tour guide. This means that they get to choose the route for the day (or partial day) of a driving trip. Getting out a real map of the interstate and a guide book, they plot the route, figure out what stops they want to make (and how long it will take to get there) and then, guide book in hand, get to lead you around their chosen stops.
5. Use your resources. National Parks always have a junior ranger program with engaging tasks for kids and families and usually some small reward for completion. We have a great collection of buttons and badges from our nations parks. Smaller museums often also have treasure hunts or other activities for kids. On spring break my daughter earned glass marbles and a postcard at various museums near Boston. Just ask.
6. Encourage metacognition. Give your child a journal and leave time in each day for writing down what they saw and did. Encourage them to write about what they thought and noticed as well. Sharing observations and comparing family responses can spark a deeper understanding of the meaning of what they saw. More tech savvy kids might prefer writing a blog. If they take digital pictures along the way as well they could end up with fodder for a digital travelogue or even a movie.
7. Encourage creative thinking. Maybe your kids don’t want to keep a journal. Give them a sketchbook. Stopping a couple times a day to allow sketching will build the other parts of their brain and encourage slowing down and taking a closer look. Comparing what family members chose to draw from the same spot can lead to great conversations about point of view etc. Not an artist? How about taking pictures of the same thing from five different angles? Or having them make up a story behind the famous site they just visited—what was it like for a child in this town 100 years ago or a servant in this famous mansion etc.?
8. Be an anthropologist. Ask every family member to try to talk to one local every day and ask a few questions about daily life where they live and record their findings. Compare their lives to your own and to the way others in the same town/city live. This not only lets your kids practice talking to others but also improves self-awareness and a true understanding that while lives might be vastly different on the surface, hopes and dreams are mostly the same.
9. Get off the beaten path. Try to eat in a local diner, drive through a residential neighborhood, play in a local park etc. See how the people who live where you are tourists live their lives. How is it the same? How is it different?
10. Be reflective. When you get home, have the family create a greatest hits collection. Vote on the top 10 things you saw, weirdest food you ate, or most interesting thing you learned. Pretend you have to move– which of the places you visited would you choose and why? Going over what you did and learned once you return home cements the learning—and the fun.
By Claire Concannon, Upper School Humanities Teacher