Taking a Family Trip

Some thoughts about how to help make a family trip a learning experience for your child

A Parent’s Guide From The Chelsea Detrick Experiential Learning Center Webster Groves High School

1. Overview: Choosing a destination

2. Planning prior to the trip

  • Different possibilities for different age groups
  • Knowing your kids
  • Having objectives for the trip (or not)
  • Pre-trip reading (for some types of trip)
  • Discussing expectations before leaving

3. During the trip

  • Asking questions (but not too many)
  • Having kids keep a journal or diary
  • Structure vs. Spontaneity
  • Ideas for “down time” (rain, car, plane) and possible responses to “This is boring!”

4. After the trip – What happened?

  • Informal debriefing
  • Focusing on highlights and lowlights
  • The possible impact of this trip on future trip planning
  • Post-trip activity

5. Special opportunity – International travel

6. Summary: Traveling can be a great opportunity to learn from experiences

© 2010 by the Chelsea Detrick Experiential Learning Center

The Webster Groves School District is committed to the academic and personal success of all students. We believe that there is significant potential for students to learn, grow and mature based on the experiences they have outside and beyond the structure of the academic classroom by focusing and reflecting on the value and impact of their experiences. One of the most potent ways to learn and to grow is by considering and understanding experiences. Of course we are all shaped by our experiences, but rarely do kids receive thoughtful, systematic, informed guidance regarding how to most effectively consider and assimilate all that they are doing and going through outside the school’s academic setting.

Kids are constantly in the process of self-discovery – they just don’t usually recognize it as such. The purpose of the Chelsea Detrick Experiential Learning Center is to enhance the self-discovery process and the personal, interpersonal, social and emotional development of students throughout the Webster Groves School District by helping them learn from their experiences.

Traveling (whether individually or as a family) can present an excellent opportunity for learning. The purpose of this publication is to assist parents in helping kids maximize the learning potential of traveling.

1. Overview: Choosing a Destination

Often there is not an opportunity to involve children in the choice of a travel destination. You are going to visit relatives or friends and the destination is fixed. That’s fine and to be expected. But sometimes, particularly as kids enter their teenage years, there is or can be family discussion about where to take a vacation and/or the type of trip the kids might want to have. It may be that parents choose the type of vacation (e.g. camping, sightseeing, canoeing, “National Parks”, a special city, etc.) and provide a list of alternative possibilities with the kids then getting to have input into the final destination selection. Or you may ask kids what they want to do as well as where they might want to do it. Whenever it is possible and reasonable to involve kids in the decision making process, they are much more likely to respond favorably once the trip actually materializes.

Key is for parents to have done initial homework and decided what they view as within the range of possibilities from the point of view of time, cost and their own interests. Circumscribing the initial family discussion is important so that you don’t end up with, “You asked where I wanted to go. I want to go to California. You’re not listening to me!” Parents are well served when they have done some preliminary thinking and are able to establish general parameters and/or specific alternatives for discussion. It also helps to have considered some of the +/- of each alternative before the discussion begins. (Perceptions of +/- may obviously vary among both adults and kids). Lay out, as best you can, what you see as the relevant variables so kids can most effectively consider their options.

Once kids are in high school, adventuresome parents may want to really put the ball in the kid’s court and say something like, “Ok, we have 2 weeks (or five days or whatever) next summer; you figure out where we are going to go. It can’t cost more than $‘X’ and it has to be within ‘Y’ miles of home, but within those constraints, we’ll go wherever you want. Hit the Internet and bring us some alternatives to talk about.” There are many possible variations on this theme, but the basic idea is to have the kids do the homework and think about what it is or might be that they want to do. It puts responsibility with the kids and gets them thinking about possibilities. At the beginning of this consideration, be clear that you want to see multiple alternatives and give a “due date” so that there is time to talk it over and make reservations, if needed. Often times the planning of a trip can be half the fun – and doing the research can certainly be a learning experience.

2. Planning Prior to the Trip

  • Different possibilities for different age groups

This may seem obvious, but is often overlooked. Taking young children on long hikes or for daylong museum visits is not going to make anyone happy. Don’t be afraid to ask children to “stretch” in terms of endurance or attention span, but be realistic. It is obviously more difficult to plan a trip with multiple age groups involved, but it is not impossible to do so. Be sure to take into consideration the needs/desires of both the kids and the adults. Trips that are totally “kid focused” can end up not being much fun for the adults, and vice versa. Be certain everyone knows that they need to have some tolerance/consideration for doing things that are not necessarily their favorites because they are fun/interesting for others. This also means reasonably including activities geared to differing interests. Think about this before the trip as it may influence where you go or how long you spend in any one place.

  • Knowing your kids

In trip planning it is very important to know your kids. Some crave the outdoors while others will cling to their video games or computer. Some will relish seeing new places and meeting new people while others would rather stay at home. Some will look forward to the trip and others will try to find ways not to go. The value of getting kids involved in the planning phase is that you give them an opportunity to shape – and least in some ways – what they will be doing. Kids will surprise you with their creativity and imagination. Don’t let them say, “I don’t care” or “whatever” if there are substantive differences in how time may be spent during the trip. A trip to Orlando, for example, has an infinite number of possibilities once you get there. Knowing your kids, you can plan not to waste time on activities that are likely to be of less interest because you can’t possibly do everything that is available. Take into consideration each member of the family and, at least to some extent, their personalities and preferences.

  • Having objectives for the trip (or not)

Sometimes it’s great to let everyone in the family do what they want, in a different environment and location. Few plans, no objectives. Everyone deserves a break and the family vacation can be just the time to do nothing (in particular) or to let everyone “do his or her own thing”. Maybe you want to plan (all or part of) the trip in this way. But maybe you want to consider the trip (or parts thereof) as an opportunity to get kids (and/or adults) out of their “usual mindset”. Maybe it would be good for the couch potato to get out on the trail or the video game junkie to put down the X-Box and take a look at the trees or the museum. It doesn’t have to be either/or, but if in the planning stage you don’t think about possible objectives, kids will revert to the familiar on the trip. That may be OK, or it may be a missed opportunity. Think about it as you plan the trip.

What kind of objectives might be considered? Presume that having fun and learning something is (almost) always a primary objective for everyone. From there, objectives can and should be tailored to meet individual personalities. For the outgoing kid, meeting new people and being assertive (but not aggressive) in new surroundings may be easy, but it can still be an objective that is encouraged. For the shy child it may be an objective to meet new kids/people and to try things that may initially seem scary or “new”. It may be an objective to return home more knowledgeable about a city or state or area and/or its history and culture. It may be an objective to draw or read along the way or to keep a journal or diary to develop writing and thinking skills. It’s always an objective to get along well with others.

The important thing in the planning phase is to consider if or what objectives might be worthwhile for each member of the family. If there is a conscious decision not to establish any specific objectives, that’s fine. But don’t pass up the opportunity just because you didn’t think about it.

  • Pre-trip reading (for some types of trip)

Sometimes it is fun to just get someplace new and see what it’s all about, to be surprised by whatever it is you find. But often a trip can be significantly enhanced with a small amount of reading being done by the kids prior to the trip. This is especially true for international trips (see later section of this document), but can also be true for trips closer to home. If you are going to a cave or the mountains, geologically how were they formed? There are books for all ages on these topics. If you are going to a new city, what is its history? What kinds of attractions are in the city or surrounding area? Are there authors from the area that are well known? For example, the home of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the “Little House” teen books, is in Mansfield, Missouri. Reading the “Little House” books or about Ms. Wilder prior to a visit makes the trip much more meaningful.

  • Discussing expectations before leaving

Many, many problems in life develop because people have differing expectations. This is particularly true when it comes to traveling. Some of these difficulties can be at least short-circuited by having a family pow-wow prior to leaving on the trip to discuss various expectations. How many times have you had this conversation: “This isn’t what I thought it was going to be!” “Well, what did you think it was going to be?” “I don’t know, but not this!”

Start with a map. All ages can identify with this. Indicate on the map where you are going and what route you will take. If it’s a car trip, how many hours or days, and hours per day, do you expect to be in the car? When will you leave and when do you expect to get there? (Always give the longest time you expect; if you’re early, it’s a bonus.) What stops will you make and what will you likely see along the way? Approximately when will you stop for lunch or a bathroom break? At what type of place will you eat? When you get there, what will you do? (Go to the pool, eat, meet someone, watch TV, put up the tent, etc.) Lay out the same kind of information and expectations if you are going by train, bus or plane and discuss what will happen at security check points, baggage claims, etc.

Discuss whether or not it’s ok to listen to music, talk on a cell phone or play video games in the car, camp or hotel room and for how long this may be acceptable each day. Be clear about expectations up front — this will save battles and turmoil during the trip.

Beyond transportation, discuss expectations about any objectives you may have set, people you will be meeting, “free time” that kids will have between activities and, in general, anything else that you think might be contentious along the way. Also indicate that when traveling, the unexpected sometimes happens. If it does, everyone needs to be flexible and go with the flow – there’s no sense getting uptight, particularly if there are things over which you have no control (missed flight connections, bad weather, etc.). Spending time discussing expectations prior to the trip is one of the most important things parents can do. And it forces you to think about what your expectations really are.

3. During the Trip

  • Asking questions (but not too many)

Kids (people) learn when they have to think. Kids (people) think when they are asked questions. Remember at least part of the goal when traveling: to help kids consider what they think and feel about the various experiences they are having. Of course this can be overdone. If four times a day a parent asks, “What did you think/feel about that?” it won’t be long before the response is, “I don’t know. Leave me alone!” As with most things in life, striking a balance between overdoing and ignoring an opportunity is essential.

The best time to ask questions is when an event or activity has just concluded, or at the end of a day. What questions? It obviously depends on the activity, but old standbys are: What did you like best about…? Why do you think that was so boring, or so awesome? If you had that to do over, would you do it again? Do it differently? How differently? Did you feel… (challenged, overwhelmed, ignored, happy, confident, self-conscious, angry, put-upon, etc.)?

Parents can only ask such questions so many times before becoming annoying, so pick your spots. The objective of such questions is primarily to get your kids to think about their experiences beyond a visceral level and secondarily to provide you with feedback for future reference. The “I really liked (or didn’t like) that!” is often an easy response to generate. The question of “why” encourages kids to think through their response at a deeper level.

  • Having kids keep a journal or diary

Writing is a tremendous tool for thinking – and learning. It is well known that having effective writing skills is essential for success in college and in many job settings. The more one writes, the better one’s writing and thinking skills develop. Summer, in general, and trips specifically, are a wonderful opportunity/excuse to write. Some kids will take to it immediately while others may fight it tooth and nail. If one of your objectives is to encourage the keeping of a journal be sure to discuss this in the pre-trip planning, particularly when talking about expectations. Make time for journaling at the end of each day, or every second or third day. Be enthusiastic about putting one’s thoughts on paper. Such an exercise is potentially most useful for those who want least to do it. In some cases parents may want to consider small rewards or penalties for doing or not keeping up with a journal. It’s not worth ruining a trip by pushing kids to do something they strongly resist, but most kids will do it if they see it is important to the parents and if they receive reinforcement and encouragement along the way. Modeling can also be helpful; parents may want to consider keeping a journal themselves — and/or consider a “family journal” in which everyone participates on a day-rotating or everyday basis.

One word of caution. Unless explicitly stated otherwise at the outset (which can be done), journals are usually considered by kids to be private and confidential. Respect this privacy. Kids may choose or be asked to read parts of their journal to family members and they are obviously welcome and encouraged to do so – but such a choice should be left up to them. Disrespecting this privacy and trust is likely to have negative long-term consequences.

  • Structure vs. Spontaneity

Some people/parents are inclined to plan every second of the day while others want to leave everything open to “just happening”. As with most things, balance is important. If you walk through the gates of Disney World and say, “Well, what do we want to do?”, you are in jeopardy of wasting a lot of time and/or missing some wonderful attractions. On the other hand, if you are a control freak and walk through the gates saying, “We have half an hour here, 45 minutes there, then we’re going to take a bathroom break, then…” you seriously run the risk of burning everyone out with your schedule and priorities.

It is generally a good idea to do substantial homework before you leave home and to have a game plan in mind. Once you arrive at a destination, pick up local and current information about timetables, activity or meal discounts, restaurants, possibly new (or closed) attractions, etc. Lay out (so everyone knows) what the general plan is for the next day or several days, or ask kids to choose from among various alternatives now that you are “on location”. By the time you go to bed the first night everyone should have an idea of what to expect going forward, hopefully with flexibility to adjust if you find something that is spectacular – or a dud. Leaving open the possibility of changing direction – and kids understanding this – is important for when real life intrudes on the best laid plans (as in when it rains, the bus is missed, the attraction is closed on Mondays, etc.) Planning and structure are important, but some of the best times traveling are serendipitous; be open to such possibilities and willing to adjust initial plans when an opportunity presents itself.

  • Ideas for “down time” (rain, car, plane) and possible responses to “This is boring!”

Most trips have considerable time that is not much fun and/or is not very productive. Whether by plane, train, bus or car, time traveling to and from the chosen destination is often the least favorite part of the trip. On top of this, you never know about the weather and some things are just not worth doing in a downpour. So, what to do?

It helps by understanding that while you may not be in control of your situation or your circumstances, you are in charge and control of your attitude. You (and kids) can choose to do anger or frustration in the face of adversity or you can choose to say, “it is what it is; there’s nothing I can do to change it. No sense getting down about it.” This approach is much more productive, and choosing your attitude is within your control. And if adults model a positive attitude well, it is good for the kids to see. Bad weather and travel time can provide an excellent opportunity to talk about objectives that may have been set, reading that everyone is doing, etc.

Having said this, there are activities that can tend to minimize the dreariness of a long journey. Three games you might want to consider on a long car ride to occupy time (and which can be played by all ages): 1) “Person, Place or Thing” – one person gets in mind one of these three variables and everyone else in the car asks questions such as, “is the person male or female, real or fictional, living or dead, American, older than 50, etc.” “Is the thing bigger than a car or is it living; do we have one in our house; is it one of a kind or are there many, etc.” 2) Have kids keep a list of states they see license plates from on the road. 3) In looking at road signs, look for words that start with ‘A’, then ‘B’ and through the alphabet (‘q’s and ‘z’s are tough.) On airplanes, each kid should have a “travel bag” with drawing materials, games, cards, books or whatever will keep their interest. Plane rides are also a very good time to read about the destination (outbound) and to write in journals (coming home).

It can be a challenge to respond creatively to “This is boring!” once you arrive where you are going. For starters, resist the temptation to say, “No it isn’t!” If a kid thinks it is boring to be on a trail or in a museum or in a hotel room, don’t deny their feeling. There are several responses, all of which may be useful in different situations. One is, “Deal with it. If you’re bored, figure out how to get ‘un-bored’; we’re going to be here for a while.” Another is to give kids a particular focus – “OK, let’s find the Rembrandt painting in the museum, then we can have lunch.” Or, “Let’s see how many different flowers (or trees or birds or whatever) we can identify in the woods.” Or, “we’ll take a break in ‘X’ minutes”, or “We’ll be done with this by 2 o’clock and then we’ll… (do something you’re more interested in.)” Give kids something positive or specific on which to focus. Photography can always provide a fun focus for active kids, and it is (can be) a very creative activity.

Reading and/or writing can be done almost anywhere, at any time, rain or shine. Always take on a trip books that kids find interesting, and encourage reading.

4. After the trip – What Happened?

  • Informal debriefing

It needn’t take long or be overcomplicated or time consuming, but learning from experiences really means including some level of reflection and retrospection. Best done 24-48 hours after getting home, sit down with everyone who participated in the trip and simply ask: “so, what happened on this trip?” The first trip you attempt this approach with will likely generate the usual, “You were there; you know what happened” or “it was totally awesome” (or “the worst thing that ever happened”). Tell kids you really want to get their comments on what they perceived to be the good, the bad and the ugly of the trip. Starting with the general (“it was great, or terrible”) is fine, but don’t leave it at that. Most of what you hear will probably not be a surprise (yes, you were there), but sometimes small things happen that have a big impact or leave a larger than expected impression on a kid, and you may not have picked up on this at the time. The debriefing is an opportunity for kids to really reflect and think about what they thought and felt at various times or about various activities during the trip. It is also a time for parents to consider how things went (or didn’t) relative to the objectives that may have been set prior to the trip.

  • Focusing on highlights and lowlights

Even the best of trips probably had some low points and the worst of trips likely had some positive aspects. Fight the tendency to over generalize, or to let the kids do so. Of course there is a “general impression”. But don’t hesitate to delve into and probe more deeply regarding what were the most salient parts of the trip. This is where you can find out, for example, “So, it wasn’t the hiking that you disliked, it was that particular trail (or starting at 6 am or not having food along or it being too hot, etc.)?” or “so, the museum was OK, it’s just that you didn’t want to spend six hours there?” From discussions like this you can help kids to avoid generalizing too far from a particular negative experience and thus leave open future prospects for activities that may initially have seemed like a turnoff.

Likewise, when something is “awesome”, probing a bit into the nature of the “awesomeness” can help you consider future trips or activities that may be able to generate a similar level of enthusiasm. “You liked being with friends as much as you liked being around the campfire?” or “you liked being able to stay up so late more than you liked the movie?” Such discussions help the child think about what it really is that they liked and didn’t like, which is part of self-discovery.

  • The possible impact of this trip on future trip planning

Now that you’ve done the debriefing – and have had time to consider your own thoughts and reactions to the trip – you are in very good position to make some mental (or written) notes for future trip planning. We didn’t set objectives, but maybe we should have (or vice versa). ‘X’ and ‘Y’ types of activities should definitely be included (or excluded) next time. This type of location, distance from home, cost, etc. works well (or doesn’t). We under (or over) planned. We could probably handle taking a friend next time (or not). We should have taken more (or different) books, games, etc. In general, reflect on the experience.

  • Post-trip activity

Now that you are home – possibly with journals, pictures, brochures, and new souvenirs; and certainly with memories – there is opportunity for creative projects the kids can do. They can sort out, prioritize and organize pictures and make them into a family album. They can include drawings they may have done and/or words they may have written, or can now write captions, anecdotes, etc. for the album. This can be the basis of a gift copy for grandparents, or a special next-year calendar with favorite photos. Also, if the kids bought small gifts for special friends these can be given out, and are always appreciated. The possibilities for fun and developmental follow-up are limited only by your (and the kids) imagination.

5. Special opportunity – International travel

One of our Webster Groves parents has been a fanatic about the value of travel to enhance the experiential learning of his kids. His older daughter traveled to 25 countries on five continents and spent a semester in London, all before she was 21. His younger daughter was a high school exchange student to New Zealand and made it to her seventh continent (yes, that’s all of them!) on her 17th birthday. We interviewed this parent for his advice about the special opportunity for learning coming from international travel:

Chelsea Center (CC): “Didn’t you go a little overboard with the travel shtick?”

Dad: “Maybe, but I don’t think so. While we had our moments (like being sick in Peru and Vietnam), the set of experiences was overwhelmingly positive. For both kids, seeing the world was very developmental and helped them shape who they became.”

CC: “How old do kids need to be before international travel is worth the time and cost?”

Dad: “We did a lot of travel in the U.S. when the kids were younger so they were used to getting on airplanes and going fairly long distances. When they were 12 and 14 I figured it was time to go beyond North America. The kids were very mature and inquisitive; that was important. In hindsight, I think this was about the right age for international travel.”

CC: “Did you follow the ‘pre-planning’ advice in this document”?

Dad: “Yes, very much. Reading about places before we went really whetted the kids appetite to go and to do things when we got there. Doing journals was a great exercise and now the details of the trips come back, even years later. They were very aware of the +/- of where we were going and their having realistic expectations in mind was very helpful. My shy daughter swore she did not want to go to the top of either the Eiffel Tower or the Sydney Bridge before we left home, but knowing this gave her sister and me time to talk her into doing both. And she was really glad she ended up doing these things!”

CC: “What was the most important thing the girls got from all this travel?”

Dad: “An awareness of other cultures and an appreciation for what we have here at home. It’s so easy to take things for granted here. But when you go to villages in Zimbabwe or Cambodia and see how other people live, you will never forget it – and you appreciate good old Webster Groves when you get home. People here complain about so many things; the kids have a perspective now that they never would have had without the travel.”

CC: “Do you have any general advice for parents about international travel?”

Dad: “Yes, do it! Money cannot be better spent, I don’t think, than on activities that provide experiences – and traveling to other parts of the world can be so interesting and so developmental for kids. Give them some of the responsibility for planning and for finding their way around in foreign airports and cities; they’ll learn a lot about dealing with people and new environments, and they’ll gain self-confidence from their experiences.”

6. Summary: Traveling can be a great opportunity to learn from experiences

Whether you travel to Cahokia Mounds in Illinois or Machu Pichu in Peru, Table Rock Lake in SW Missouri or Table Mountain in Capetown, South Africa, there is much to learn from the experience of traveling. By getting away from your comfortable and predictable environment there is the opportunity to see new places, meet new people, and learn about history, culture, nature, the environment – and yourself. Think about where you might like to go, why you might want to go there and what you might find when you get there. Do your homework to figure out what travel possibilities exist given your time, interests and budget constraints. Consider what types of trips might be most interesting and/or developmental for your kids, given who and what they are and what they might enjoy. Open up the world, even if just small parts of it, for your kids to explore. They will thank you for it and they will be better people by having had the opportunity to travel.

Some things to think about:

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” St. Augustine

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” Mark Twain

“Travel is a vivid experience for most of us. At home we have lost the capacity to see what is before us. Travel shakes us out of our apathy, and we regain an attentiveness that heightens every experience. The exhilaration of travel has many sources, but surely one of them is that we recapture in some measure the unspoiled awareness of children.” John Gardner

“Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” Miriam Beard

“I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything.” Bill Bryson

“We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” T. S. Eliot

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” Jawaharlal Nehru

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
Marcel Proust

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Mark Twain

This is a publication of the Chelsea Detrick Experiential Learning Center at Webster Groves High School,

Webster Groves, Missouri.