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Small teaching moments while travelling

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Child at the airport


Many people believe that for young children, the travel experience itself is education enough. But there are positives that go beyond just new sights and sounds.

“Travel is exposing children to new experiences and broadening their minds. This could be cultural, social, environmental or geographical,” says Associate Professor Heike Schänzel, Program Leader for the Master of International Tourism Management at Auckland University of Technology.

Associate Professor Schänzel says family holidays also bring other benefits.

“They are valuable for bonding and social connection be it with with immediate or extended families. It is about memory creation even when the children are young,” he says.

I have the memory creation covered, but on our most recent trip (seven weeks in Europe) I decided to be more conscious about finding teaching moments within our journey. Here’s how:

Before you leave

Teach children about your destination

We borrowed children’s books from the library on the countries we would be visiting, used my son’s globe (bought secondhand) to see the oceans we would be flying over, and started an ongoing conversation about the weather in the Northern versus Southern Hemisphere. The whole exercise became a mini geography project. I admit, he wasn’t always interested – so it’s important not to overdo it, but the process worked. On the road, this translates well when teaching preschoolers about time zones. My son often began to ask: “As it’s morning here does that mean it’s night time in Australia?”

Let them pack

While a three-year-old’s packing abilities may be more ‘enthusiastic’ than practical, four and five-year-olds can do quite a good job. Yes, you’ll need to double check and potentially supervise, but letting children pack can teach them about planning for different seasons or activities, and get them thinking more about self care (especially good for preschoolers who are capable of dressing themselves but want a parent to do it). 

I gave my son his own carry-on luggage: a four-wheel suitcase easy for him to roll. This bag was for his toys and books, as well as the items he’d need in flight (a jumper and spare clothes).

Together, we discussed that he could choose what to bring but it had to fit in this bag, not be too heavy, and include plenty of books and craft items. We also discussed my right of veto. I tried to give him autonomy but overrode the impractical – large trucks were replaced with tiny cars. We both agreed on coloured paper, plain paper and coloured pencils, although Blu Tack, sticky tape, a variety of ribbons and scissors were our best decisions. Remember: pack the scissors in checked luggage for flights or security personnel will confiscate them.

On the road:

Help them take responsibility for their own things.

My son learned that each time we moved city or country he was responsible for pushing his four-wheel carry on luggage through the airport or on and off the train. He took pride in it, although keeping the weight down did require adult intervention. I allowed one rock to leave each country, although the ‘laser’ he made using a rock found in Athens, some Blu Tack and a local coin travelled three countries before being dismantled. 

Engage in the language

Kids love playing with words, so we made a conscious effort to turn learning a few words in each country into an ongoing activity. I’d say: “Can you hear that they are saying ‘Thank you’ differently here?”. Then we would practise the words for ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. Numbers are also fun, especially if children want to learn how to say their age. It teaches that not all people speak the same language, because we all have our own heritage and culture.


Like language, money is a chance to show that cultures all differ. Consider letting your preschooler earn foreign currency for different achievements, such as the ‘mundane jobs’ that still need to be done daily but can come with time pressure on the road –  like getting ready quickly or sticking close to you in the airport. On your last day, let them buy something with their savings. If the coins don’t add up to enough, consider ‘matching’ the total so they come away with something to show for it. My rules were it had to be light, and affordable: my son treasures the piece of quartz he bought with his Romanian Leu. On return the lesson stuck: “Is this Australian money?”, he now asks if he finds a coin.

Tricks and tips

Be flexible

We took an A5 notebook with plans to write in it most days. The plan was that I would write and he would respond to questions such as: what he had liked or disliked that day; what was a new food he had tried; what sort of transport had we had used? My preschooler wasn’t interested. Instead, we spent time drawing together in the notebook while waiting at airports or in restaurants. I’d try to draw our local surroundings. Sometimes he would too. Other times we’d just draw an alien together: either was good.

Have some go to games

In our hotels, cabins and Airbnb apartments I saved empty snack boxes and takeaway containers for craft. This was hugely popular and often utilised the tape, Blu Tack and ribbons from his bag. Uno cards and dominos are two other options that travel well and can be adapted for younger children who can sort cards into colours or make towers from dominos.

Outside our accommodation, as well as drawing in his notebook we developed some default games when we needed to help time pass. “I spy” is easily adapted for younger children by guessing from colours rather than “words starting with”. We also played a lot of “What animal am I?” – not particularly relevant to our destination but a fun chance to connect.

Roll with the occasional confusion

Countries and borders can be confusing for young children. If you are moving cultures regularly, just keep showing them on a map where you are, but roll with any crazy ideas they come up with. If you are in France but today they insist it’s Switzerland? Let it go.