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The Benefits of Travel for Children
Just how much do children benefit from travelling to another country? Do they embrace the thrill of new horizons, or will they whine in protest at any attempt to divert them from the hotel swimming pool? Do younger children really benefit at all, or does the experience of a new culture wash over their heads, completely lost on them?
There is, arguably, nothing that teaches us better in life than true, hands-on experience. This is particularly accurate in the context of travel. No matter how much we might read about a certain place in this world, we can never really know it until we have been there. Visiting a new country can bring alive new vibes; different cultures; a history lesson of ancient landmarks that is lot more appealing than the traditional classroom method. When we read about a destination in a text book, we are likely to miss all the little things that really make a place, such as smells, atmosphere, the taste of local food and the sound of a native tongue.
Away From Large Hotel Complexes
If you decide to travel to another country with your children, be it a far-flung destination or a location within relatively easy reach, it is well worth stepping away from the typical hotel complex, at least for a while. It is only by doing this that you can give your family a taste of the real heart of a place. Large hotel complexes often have so much on offer that some visitors don't even want to leave the grounds. You can avoid such hotels altogether if you research your desination well and choose a small but reputable accommodation. Hotel complexes often mask the true essence of a country because they do not mirror life outside the walls. In my experience of travelling, whether as a family with children or alone, the richest experiences are often small moments that occur during interactions with local people. Interacting with the local community can show a child that life is diverse and the little bubble he lives in is just that...one little bubble out of many. Every experience in a child's life helps them to evolve and find a new perspective that can last a lifetime.
I remember making friends with some local workers at a restaurant in a village in Turkey. It was well before the children arrived, but as these new friends taught us simple card games (and how to drink a lot of Raki), we were shown little snippets of their lives. We learned of how the waiters arrived each summer from other places in Turkey and served customers in the restaurant each night before retiring to sleep on the restaurant floor. Home was simply too far away, and what's more, the restaurant itself was an open-air establishment, on a terrace. It was another reminder of the differences in people's lives throughout the world.
During another trip local children would crowd around tourists asking for pens - because in many places around the globe, pens are a rare commodity. Showing a child the vast differences between their own environments and those of other children can have even more of an impact, because it is something they can easily compare. Attitudes to schooling can be an enormous point of difference - I think of the numerous times my oldest son has complained about his school environment, particularly the studying and homework aspect. He sees it as an often pointless waste of his time, whereas across the globe so many children are desperate for better education as they see it as the key to a better life. Unfortunately, many of the children in the Western World do not truly appreciate what is already under their noses.
Vibrant History Lessons
Of course, you don't have to travel to a developing country in order to teach your children through travel. Almost any historical landmark will offer a lesson of sorts. We have visited castles, ruins, dungeons and museums with the children, and they have often come away with information of past times and places that would never have appeared on the school syllabus.
We particularly enjoyed a coach trip into the interior of Brac Island, Croatia, with our oldest son when he was seven. Croatia is a beautiful country, but had we not taken this inland trip we would not have learned of its bloody past and the difficult existences of the early island dwellers. My son, who certainly could not be described as academic, was completely absorbed in this day-long history lesson. He learned of how the white stone on the island was used for famous buildings around the world, such as the White House in Washington - the stone is still there in abundance and he was even able to pick it up in his hands from the roadside. He learned that there was no source of water in the island interior during the early days, so locals used to make a drink from sheep's milk and wine and so were often drunk. He heard stories of pirates, and saw the very point they used to attack. He saw remains of the oldest houses - the simple buildings in which a child of the developed world could barely imagine living in today. It was a fascinating and extremely educational trip, made all the more real by actually being there.
Young Travelling Experiences
During past times abroad with our oldest son (who was an only child for the first seven-and-a-half years of his life) I can recall two particular occasions that stand out in my mind as an example of how travelling to different places can alter the perception of a young child. I remember walking as a family through the old, medieval streets of Dubrovnik, Croatia, when we came across a young local boy kicking a football against a wall. My four year old son decided he would like to play, so ran up and asked him if he could. The boy spoke no English, but understood. He gesticulated that my son could join in. The local boy was a bit older, and my son was certainly no footballer at the time - he fact he didn't even know how to play. The added language problem meant that the football game did not get off the ground and the boy went back to kicking the ball about on his own.
It seems like a very small and unimportant encounter on a Croatian street. However, I always remember it as the first time my small son realised that not everyone in this world can understand the language he, himself, uses. In fact, it was the first time he had been unable to understand another person's words (we live in a area where the vast majority of the population speak English as a first language). The lesson here was surely this: not everyone is the same in life - there is an entire world full of people who live differently; act differently and talk differently.
During the same trip to Croatia, my son struck up an unlikely friendship with a little girl who was about the same age as he was. Every evening, at the hotel we were staying in, we would head to the outdoors children's disco, stopping off at the playground on the way. This young girl was there each night - we later found that she was not a guest at the hotel, but the daughter of one of the staff members. In fact, she was from neighbouring Bosnia Herzegovina, and also did not speak a single word of English. Somehow, however, a friendship sparked and the two of them ran about laughing every evening, having fun, playing on the slide and dancing, seemingly without the need to talk at all. Children, in fact, are extremely adaptable, and the common pursuit of play is a bonding factor whatever the language. Meeting and communicating with children from other cultures helps to expand a child's view of the world. Not only that, but understanding differences can encourage a healthy tolerance towards others. Prejudiced views often arise from suspicion or fear of difference. The more diverse the people a child encounters throughout life, the more likely they are to grow up with an acceptance and understanding of others.
Children Learn Through Social Diversity
Many destinations have such rich and diverse cultures that children can learn a lot simply by being there. During a past trip to the Indonesian island of Bali, I was enchanted by vibrant dancing, Hindu traditions and mystical temples. Not only is the open-air dancing entrancing and beautiful, but dances have stories - we watched the Legong Dance, which is the battle between good and evil.
One of the most noticeable elements of Balinese daily life during this trip was the numerous offerings of rice and flowers on the paths which have to be stepped over every single morning. These are offerings to the Gods - the majority of the population are devout followers of Balinese Hinduism. I found this practice quite fascinating; an insight into a religion that I previously knew nothing about and would probably never have bothered to research. Not only it is an insight into the religion of the Balinese, however, but a reflection of how the people of this beautiful island live and think. Upon taking children on a visit to Bali, the numerous offerings to the Gods might well be one of the first questions raised. Children learn firsthand of the huge differences that exist within the human race - differences in religion and beliefs; differences between societies; differences between material possessions and what is valued and what is not.
Travelling is not limited to lessons of history and social awareness. Geography is another subject that can really come alive. Depending on where you are, travel offers the opportunity to show your children dormant volcanoes, interesting sea-life (especially if they are old enough to snorkel), huge mountains and all manner of other interesting natural phenomena.
During a visit to a Hvar Island, Croatia, my son was amazed to spot small crystals growing as we walked up a steep incline to a castle. In fact, it was actually him who spotted them - he had seen many crystals and gem stones before as we have a collection at home, but to see them growing in a natural environment was really interesting to him. We broke some small pieces off to bring home, but unfortunately they became lost in transit. Still, the memories are still there. Lessons are around every corner in this world, just waiting to be discovered. As the saying goes, children are like sponges, just waiting to absorb all that life shows them.
Personally, one of the best experiences of my travelling life was snorkelling off the Gili Islands, Indonesia. It was a first-hand view of nature that previously I had only seen on wildlife television programmes. We swam with turtles, tropical fish and starfish below us, and it was quite simply an unforgettable experience.
Adventure and New Experiences
Travelling can create a thirst for adventure and an appreciation of new experiences. The more we travel, whether alone or with our children, the more we learn about the world that we live in. Travelling may encourage a respect for other cultures and religions and a better understanding of the natural world. In older children it may instill a feeling of confidence as navigation skills are acquired, as well as improved social skills which will help them set off into the adult world as more rounded citizens.
Of course, travelling as a family can be a great bonding experience. At home, we are often so caught up in the humdrum of our daily lives that quality time can seem scarce. The reality of our modern-day family life often means that so often everyone is in the same house together - yet in different rooms, partaking in quite separate activities. Travelling as a family is an exercise in teamwork - everyone is together all the time, discovering new places and cultures as a unit. Relationships between parents and children can become stronger - suddenly there is more time to talk; to laugh; to get to know one another (I mean, really get to know one another) all over again.
The benefits of travelling with children are numerous. This world is diverse, often beautiful and at times very inspiring. The chance to travel is like a untangible gift - all you can take home is the memories (and a library full of photos), but it can stay with you forever as it stays with our children forever, enriching their lives and really showing them our world.