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How to Turn Travel Into a Learning Opportunity

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No kid wants to go on a trip thinking they’re going to be schooled, right? I mean, c’mon, vacation means vacation from school right? Sure, but that doesn’t mean you can’t sneak a little bit of education in here and there. It’s so beneficial for those emerging brains to have such special opportunities to expand and develop. Our family went on several trips this year that were barely out of state, but our son’s teacher told us how lucky that makes our son. Trips expand their vocabularies, senses of geography, world experiences, and so much more than I’m even aware of. Hey, and we weren’t even trying!

I do, however, make a concerted effort to explain things to Peanut whenever he shows interest. When I started thinking about how our trips were great learning opportunities, I saw the lessons everywhere. I hope you too can use some of these tips for turning your next family trip into a learning experience extraordinaire!

1. Gym/Health Class

We did so much walking on our Mackinac Island trip, it’s incredible. The terrain was pretty varied too, so we had to huff and puff up and run down some steep hills. Peanut even went on a “run” with me one morning down a paved trail in Mackinaw City. Without even trying to, we are giving Peanut some Health education that is going to last his whole life. I’ve said it before on here, but Peanut will never have to seek out fitness later in life because we’ve always made it a natural part of life from the get-go. I think taking walking tours of the cities you visit is one of the best ways to turn a trip into health education. Or go swimming in your hotel’s pool, scout out local trails, rent kayaks, or participate in other active things. And if you like to pack your own food like we do, get your kids used to healthy foods.

Me and Peanut’s running route
Pretty Rainbow of Rental kayaks

2. Geography

Every trip ever is a great Geography lesson. Get out those maps and plot those points. By talking about the Great Lakes in Mackinaw City and looking at maps for The Museum of Science and Industry, we were helping our Peanut get a gauge for his world. Peanut already is showing some strong spatial intelligence–when he was two, he would point out places in different cities that we had only been to once! Since this is an advantage for him, I think the best thing we can do is build upon that skill. Use topography maps when you’re hiking and have your kids try to help you navigate your driving routes. Take a geocaching trip and let your kids help with the coordinates–there are caches everywhere! If you’re flying, get out those atlases and explain the trip to your children. Explain the geological aspects of the location while you’re at it. Limestone bluffs? It’s worth a chat.

3. Nature Studies

On our field trip last year, we had quite the tour guide for nature studies. We found owl pellets and bones and downed trees and all kinds of fantastic natural occurrences. In Mackinaw City, Peanut and I had a good chat about the structure and function of anthills. We are an outdoorsy kind of family anyhow (if you couldn’t tell), so we get excited to teach about birds, leaves, weather, food chains and on and on.

Giant hollow tree

Fungus
Wild turkey vulture
Amazing display of the life cycle of a butterfly at the Butterfly Museum

Just take a walk through a local nature preserve–or even a park! Go without any sort of agenda and you’re guaranteed to find teaching opportunities out there if you’re looking. Explain how turtles live, look at animal prints in the dirt, point out animal trails in the brush, and try to identify butterflies. Almost anything you can think of is a prime opportunity for teaching. If you don’t know much about those types of things, look them up! I had to do a little research on anthills before I could effectively explain them too.

duck eggs
A perfect nest found at a park near our house

Deer tracks near Crivitz

4. History

Almost everywhere you travel, you’ll find historical sites or markers that present great learning opportunities. We visited Heritage Village and several lighthouses near Mackinaw City. Just explaining the history of the lighthouses and one-room schoolhouses to Peanut was so thrilling. I vividly remember visiting my first one-room schoolhouse as a child, so I know that these types of experiences can have a lasting effect.

Morse Code Chart

Mackinac Island Memorial
Lighthouse Museum
Wigwam

5. Math

A kindergarten’s sense of math is much different than an 8th graders, however I think there are opportunities everywhere to teach them both. Peanut’s math involves shapes and counting. We play counting games when we’re in the car for long rides. We try to find every number from 1 to 9 on all the different signs we pass. We count deer we see in pastures, we try to find A/B patterns in artwork, we try to discuss time and things like that. An older child would learn well from trying to help the family organize a trip budget, estimate restaurant bills to the closest dollar, determine expected trip miles, or keep tabs on their own spending money.


Look at all those shapes to identify and things to count!

6. Cultural Studies

We had a really good time reading through the book about how people live on Mackinac Island year-round and how they get materials to build anything on the island. No vehicles are allowed on the island, so we learned that their garbage collection and delivery services are even done via horse and carriage. Many places you travel have opportunities to study different cultures, past or present, if you just pay attention. Sometimes the food offered where you are is an opportunity for cultural expansion. I mean, we learned all about mining culture when we were introduced to pasties.

7. Science

Some science is incorporated into the other subjects listed above. We had a few experiences this summer that were specifically science-related, such as at the Museum of Science and Industry. Their interactive family center is beyond adequate for a science lesson or 600! We explored weather, fires, gravity, light reflection, the color spectrum and human biology (dissecting eyeballs!!!) among so many other things. We also have EAA museum passes where we can explore easy physics principles and airplane dynamics. Just exploring the weather, water tides, moon phases, and animal habitats can expand your kids’ universes by the second. I fully intend for our annual Perseid picnic to get more and more in depth with astronomy as is appropriate for Peanut’s age.

Static Electricity
Full moon over a low tide
Insect museum
Sea Otter Habitat
8. Music
I just couldn’t resist this mini $20 guitar on our trip to Door County this spring. The kid gave me the most heart wrenching little doe eyes. Well, I put down a $20 and called it a great learning experience. He played us his own made-up songs around the campfire, which was perfect. Although he’s a little young to get the hang of playing the six-string yet (I tried!), we still bang out tunes, memorize verses and tap out rhythms with the best of them. In Kindergarten, the kids are learning the whole ta-ta-tee-tee-ta rhythm in music class. We can easily supplement his education at home or on the road by tapping out rhythms on our laps, learning a new Elvis song, or playing his Vacation Bible School CD over and over again, complete with all the hand gestures.
Wow, even just writing this post has gotten me excited! I hadn’t even thought of all these potential learning experiences until I started writing about them. I can’t wait to see what our next trip holds. We’re planning a short weekend getaway for Hubster’s birthday in November and I’m dreaming up a Wisconsin bird scavenger hunt in my head. I think Peanut will be thrilled to learn the names of some of his favorite birdies (and so will his mom:). 
I really love how all of these “lessons” are unlike those units in school that you just knew you would never use again in real life. These are real-life lessons that will carry on long throughout your children’s lives. Whether you’re hanging out in your own backyard or hightailing it across the country, think about ways you can turn your trips into learning experiences for your children. You might just learn a thing or two too yourself! And the lasting memories are beyond value!
What are some of the ways that you sneak a little teaching into your travels?
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