Are you headed off to Grandma’s in Idaho, taking in museums and culture in New York, sailing to an exotic island or going camping close to home this summer? Whatever your family vacation, don’t forget to include educational opportunities and teachable moments as part of your plan.

“Non-school times are wonderful for showing your child that learning happens anywhere and everywhere, and is, in fact, an integral part of life that can be fun, and can be shared,” says Susan Perry, a Los Angeles–based social psychologist and author of Playing Smart: The Family Guide to Offbeat, Enriching Learning Activities for Ages 4-14. “Don’t over-structure the learning, rather let it happen naturally. And be assured, it will happen if you expose your child to new sights and new experiences.”

Here are some simple ways to include education in your summer vacation:

Enlist the services of your junior travel agent.

Why not include your child as your junior travel agent in the trip planning? He can learn how to compare costs of airplane flights or rental car companies and do research about the places you plan to visit on the Internet or in books at the library. Teach him how to use a map to find cities and tourist attractions in the places you plan to visit. If you are traveling out of state, look up information about the state, such as the state flower, state bird and interesting attractions. Have your child write to the state tourism bureau to ask for information.

Make reading part of your vacation.

Reading helps to prepare your child for the trip and to pass the time while on board and when waiting for trains and airplanes. Are you going to Idaho, Pennsylvania or a foreign country? Go to the library or your favorite bookstore to find a tour book, and read a story or novel that takes place in the spot you plan to visit. If you are going to a foreign country, start to learn common phrases in that country’s language.

Get out the maps and globes.

Work with your child to locate where you are going on a map or globe. Measure the distance between traveling points in inches and then translate into miles.

Incorporate what they’ve learned and what they will learn.

Did your child study the Civil War or the American Revolution last year? What will she be studying next year? Try to incorporate visits to the battlefields of Gettysburg, the Freedom Trail in Boston or other places she’s studied or will study in your vacation plan.

Learn how things are made.

Wherever you are traveling to, seek out factories that have tours so children can learn how things are made. For example, in San Francisco, you can visit a teddy bear factory; in Arkansas, a glass blowing studio; and in Hawaii, a macadamia nut factory. For more ideas of places to visit where things are made around the country, check out Watch It Made in the U.S.A. by Bruce Brumberg and Karen Axelrod (Avalon Travel, 2006).


Take a museum treasure hunt.

When visiting a museum, head first to the museum gift shop. Allow your child to purchase five or more postcards of works of art on display in the museum. With postcards in hand, find the works of art in the museum and then have your child write something about the work on the back of the postcard, using these questions as a guide:

  • Were the colors vivid?
  • What was the artist trying to say?
  • How did you feel when you saw this work of art?

Trace your family history.

If you are visiting Grandma or some other relative, take the opportunity to pose questions about your family and where they came from. Have your child make a family timeline or family tree, or write a family history. For more ideas, see Take the Genealogy Challenge: Do You Know Your Family Tree?

Create a trip scrapbook.

A family vacation is a perfect opportunity to create a trip scrapbook that will be a lasting souvenir for years to come. Encourage your child to take photographs, collect postcards, brochures and menus from restaurants and tourist attractions. Have your child write descriptions of the places you visited and write stories about your family’s escapades.

Become eagle-eyed observers.

As you travel, talk about what you see with your child. Count the number of horses, cows or birds that you see when looking out the car window. Talk about how the terrain and the way people dress is different or the same as what you are used to seeing at home. Try to be patient with children who ask seemingly endless questions. By being patient, you will encourage their budding curiosity. And a child whose curiosity is encouraged will be more likely to engage in learning.

Susan Perry suggests looking for opportunities when you are traveling to appreciate cultural diversity: “Seek out everything that’s different in a new place you’re visiting. Different sidewalk design, more or fewer trees than you’re used to, height of buildings, different clothing styles, unfamiliar foods in shops and restaurants. Notice place names and discuss what languages they came from and what you can learn about the history and geography of the locations.”

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