If you’re thinking about taking the family on a vacation, adding a learning experience may make the trip more memorable and enriching.

Headed to the Southwest? Consider taking a Native American jewelry-making class. Visiting Canada? Meet a “Mountie” and learn about the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. New Orleans? Take a cooking class and learn to make authentic jambalaya. No matter where your vacation takes you and your family, there are always opportunities to learn something about the people and the places you visit.

Some vacations are purposefully planned to create a learning experience. Tricia Newlands, branch manager for Fox World Travel in Brookfield, Wis., says some of today’s most popular family vacations are designed to:

  • Trace the family’s roots. Parents often want to expose their children to the heritage of their ancestors by traveling to the places where Grandma and Grandpa were born.
  • Test-drive newly acquired skills. If your children are taking Spanish in school, a trip to Mexico may allow them to practice what they’re learning in the real world.
  • Share your passion with your kids. In one family Newlands worked with, the father was a marine biologist. So as they planned the family vacation to the Caribbean, he wanted to make sure they included activities that would help the kids learn about different kinds of marine life.
  • Bring fictional adventures to life. Sometimes a memorable book or movie sparks a vacation idea. “When the Angels and Demons books came out, there was a great demand for tours in the city of Rome to explore the historical sites, statues and churches mentioned in the book,” said Newlands. “Those kinds of vacations that blend history with adventure are great for the whole family.”

Regardless of what type of vacation you may be considering, the last thing you want is to drag the kids kicking and screaming on a vacation you’ve planned that’s described as “educational.” Newlands says you can make learning fun and memorable for the family by keeping these three things in mind:

1. Wait until your kids are old enough to remember (and appreciate) the experience. Newlands says she’s taken her six-year-old to a wide range of places but understands that her kindergarten-age child probably won’t remember much about them. “If you’re going to go to the trouble of creating an educational experience for the family, wait to take the vacation until the children are mid to late grade-school age,” she said. “By then, they will have learned a bit about history, geography, maybe even a foreign language; and they can apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to the experiences they’ll have while on vacation.”
2. Involve the kids in the planning. When taking middle-school-age kids on a family vacation, one of the biggest challenges is to get them interested and keep them engaged. “Often they’re at an age when they don’t want to do anything with their parents or their siblings,” said Newlands. “But if you can get them involved in the planning, they’ll be happier on the vacation.”

Newlands recommends asking the kids to weigh in on choosing a destination and then involving them in planning the details. “We actually like having parents bring their kids into the office when we start to map out an educational vacation,” she said. “Kids tell it like it is. If they hear us talking about a seven-hour trip to explore an underground cave, they’ll let us know if they find that exciting or scary, and then we can take that into consideration.”

3. Venture off the beaten path, with a guide. If your goal is to immerse your family in culture, if you’re heading to a region of the world you’ve never been to before, or if language may be a barrier, consider starting your trip with a private guide. “Guides are proud of their cultures and their countries. They want to show you around, and it’s the best way for you and your kids to see how the locals live.” Newlands says most travel agents can help you identify guides in any part of the world who are reputable and knowledgeable. “After a few days, you may not need the full services of a guide, but it’s a great way to get your bearings.”

These days, Newlands says Mexico is the most popular out-of-country family destination because it’s easy to get to and cost effective. And Alaska, which has historically been popular with retirees, is now becoming a multi-generational destination. But whether your plans take you to some far-away location or not, any family vacation can become an educational experience if your kids are old enough and involved enough to appreciate the opportunity.

August 2016   |  Issue 152