I’ve been a traveler my whole life — and was lucky enough to have a family that prioritized experiencing new destinations throughout my childhood. Now, it’s my nephew’s turn. At two years old, with seven countries down, he’s on his way to becoming a citizen of the world.
While traveling with a child at any age may seem like a daunting prospect, experts claim that it can significantly boost development. They say travel can expand a kid’s world, making them more empathetic toward cultural differences and helping them adapt to changing situations. It can even shape their linguistic development as babies.
“They're going to start learning the tools for developing meaningful relationships, especially across differences, from an early age,” Dr. Robin Hancock, a global education specialist with Bank Street College, told Travel + Leisure. “Travel has the potential to create a new narrative that teaches children about the similarities with others [and] lays a strong foundation, especially in the early years...We have the potential to raise a generation that knows how to live and coexist with each other.”
I’ve watched my nephew try beans for the first time at La Guarida in Havana, picking up and considering each individual one, almost as if testing it. I’ve seen him stick his feet in the Dead Sea (and then quickly pull them back out again), as well as try gelato under the shadow of the Duomo in Florence.
He may not remember these adventures, but they will impact his development, according to Hancock. The most rapid brain development occurs in the first five years of a child’s life, and especially in the first three, she said. Surrounding kids from birth to about three years old with people who are different than them “normalizes” that experience.
“Travel and educating children about their roles as citizens of the world when they’re young ensures they will retain that message into their adult years,” she said. “When somebody begins a habit or a tradition... early in life, that becomes the foundation through which they view the world for the rest of their life.”
Traveling with young children – even as young as six months old — can also help them with linguistic development, said Erika Levy, an associate professor in communication sciences and disorders at Teachers College at Columbia University.
“We know that in terms of language, babies perceive sounds differently from adults. As they get older... they lose the ability to distinguish many of the other speech sounds,” said Levy. “If we surround them with speech sounds from all around the world... then we are keeping those categories going, which helps later on in life with their language.”
And when they return home from a trip, their experiences can actually help them in school, according to Hancock.
“It makes them more open to try new things [and] less cautious of people and scenarios that are not familiar to them,” she said. “It will inevitably make children more open and remove bias.”
Here are a few tips on how to maximize your child’s experience while traveling.
Take a stroll in a local neighborhood.
While it’s great to see the major attractions in a destination, walking around a local neighborhood can be one of the most impactful moments for children, said Hancock. A child’s brain tends to make connections based on what is familiar to them. “If you're in Venice, spend time on the Grand Canal, and if you're in Paris, spend time by the Eiffel Tower, but the pieces that really resonate with children are the experiences they can relate to,” she said. “It’s going to be meaningful for your child if you just find a quiet neighborhood and go for walk…Inevitably, you’re going to see people sweeping out their front yard and local vendors. And that's much more meaningful — you’re going to get a better slice of what everyday life is like and your child will, too.”
Create a tradition while on vacation.
Traditions can help kids connect to a trip. For example, as children, my sister and I collected soda bottles in every country we visited. “Traditions are meaningful for kids,” said Hancock. “Anything that you can relate back to the child's world is going to be a meaningful experience to them.”
Have your kids play with other children.
Grouping kids with other children around their age will help their development, even if they don’t speak the same language, according to Levy. “Have them meet other children — they will play, learn, and find ways to communicate,” she said. “And they’ll learn that not everybody speaks English.”
Turn your trip into a game.
Ask children to point out things that are new to them, Levy recommended “Have them show you three things they've never seen before at home.” she said, “You can do a treasure hunt for them.”
Prepare your children in advance.
Preparing children for what they’re about to experience can go a long way, according to Levy. For example, tell them in advance about jet lag, or if they’re nervous traveling, bring a special toy on the plane. But ultimately, you shouldn’t be too worried: Levy said that children tend to be “more adaptable than we are in new situations.”