Brain trips: 5 Tips to help make family vacations educational

Jul 17, 2013 at 3:30 p.m. ET

It happened when I was 13. Hauled off by my parents for an extended stay in Europe, I quickly found the shutters of my mind blown wide open, my love for languages unleashed and my future as a global devourer set firmly on its course.

Teens at Eiffel Tower

How did my parents, music professors and people of modest means manage gifting me with such treasures? They approached that European sabbatical as an Ivy League education.

Contributed by Melissa Dalton-Bradford

Today I’m the mother. After 20 years of raising our four children in eight countries and traveling throughout countless locations in between, I’ve come to appreciate that my parents’ methods of educational travel were genius. I’ve tried to distill them here into five salient points.


Build your child's anticipation

You can do much to acquaint your children with your destination before making your packing list. Familiarity with certain sites, traditions, works of art, etc., will spark connection in your child when she actually sees those things in person.

Visuals: Preview from vast reserves of film, documentary and taped guided tours to show children what to be looking for when they arrive on vacation. Before we headed to the Normandy beaches of France, we watched excerpts from Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. Before traveling through Vietnam, we watched parts of The Killing Fields. Prior to an African trip, we watched Out of Africa. Before Auschwitz, Schindler’s List. To be ready for Beijing, The Last Emperor.

Planning on an hour in an art museum during your trip? Prepare with postcards of several canvases or statues from which your children pick their favorites. Later, when you visit the museum, your kids can head out, postcard in grip, to discover and claim their personal piece and come back to report on it.

Audibles: Check for music and lecture series associated with your destination. Download podcasts and indigenous music and play them well in advance of your departure. Before my first trip to Spain, my mom turned me on to flamenco music. Before Italy? Verdi and Puccini. Decades later, before heading with our own children for a week in China, I introduced everyone to Chinese opera.

Little will ease your foreign vacation as will having some of the new language tucked ready under your tongue. The best way to learn it? Listen. Over and over again. Even if you don’t understand the conversation CD, the chorus of Greek folk song, or the title of the Croatian pop ballad, your ear will magically recognize bits of it when you arrive in Crete or Dubrovnik.


Once on site, give them (fun) homework

Every trip my parents took us on — to Segovia, Florence, Munich, Marseilles — was built around a treasure hunt. This was an eclectic to-do list that got us seeing, touching, hearing, tasting and stomping our way through a new culture. The hunt got us out and about, managing things independently and interacting with locals in their tongue. What was on those treasure hunt lists?

  1. Find Monet’s “Water Lilies.”
  2. Mail a postcard.
  3. Eat pizza ai funghi.
  4. Sit in the bullfighting ring.
  5. Take a streetcar three stops.
  6. Take your picture by Westminster.

As I’ve modified those lists for my family, I’ve added even more food-related excursions. Interspersing good local food adventures with other bullet points makes any visit not just more palatable, but less overtly pedagogical, not to mention more relaxed for the whole family. I recall for example Venice being a dot-to-dot that went something like this: Byzantine church-gelato-Renaissance church-gelato-Museum-gelato... And believe me. Our children ended up loving Venice!

You can do a modified version of the treasure hunt. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, for instance, has a child-friendly treasure hunt written in multiple languages, which encourages the child to make her way through the museum, crossing off tasks, earning rewards, and finally realizing that museums can be fun. A note on museums: Most children get museum-glazed after about one hour. Limit stays, get a guide, or take a sketchbook. Our youngest two, elementary school students while we lived in Paris, spent every Wednesday afternoon sitting and sketching in the Louvre. That education, like their simple drawings, was priceless.


Connect with local experts

I’ll never forget my first visit to the cathedral Chartres with our guide, Mr. Chartres himself, Malcolm Miller. To this day, I can feel my heart racing as it did when I learned from him how to “read” a stained glass window.

More than my guide to a very famous church, Mr. Miller was my guide to a very serious love of learning. Guides — local, animated, accessible and with strong references — will be one of your best investments in your family’s travel. Your day at the floating villages of Cambodia, your walking tour of the Forbidden City of Beijing, the bike tours in the teeming alleys of Bangkok, the stave churches and fjords of Norway, the Maasai villages of Tanzania, the WW II landmarks of Berlin — the right local guide can bring all these stories to life for your children and create indelible memories.


Coming with something to give

What teaches more than serving? Approach your trip with service in mind. Are your children athletic? Teach local children basketball. Are they artistic? Volunteer to paint or do crafts at a local school. Our friends with medical backgrounds took their children to Mongolia, where they outfitted a whole village with eyeglasses. My parents (again, musicians) arranged for us to perform the entire musical mass in a little Catholic chapel outside Vienna. While in the Philippines, we took Christmas to a small orphanage, and took paintbrushes to the outer wall of a community building. That kind of service literally gets the vacation destination under your family’s nails, and expands understanding and compassion for any foreign culture.


Exude an example of exuberance

Your parental lead tells your children everything. Carry a camera and a notebook, and use them! What you are seeing and hearing is fascinating and worth noting. Express openly and frequently your respect for cultural differences, your positive wonder at local cuisine, customs and contributions. Your attitude — the one that energizes your family’s whole travel adventure — will feed our children’s minds and souls. One day, they’ll thank you, as I do my parents, for having given them the world.

About the author:

Melissa Dalton-Bradford - Author of Global Mom

Melissa Dalton-Bradford is the author of Global Mom: Eight Countries, Sixteen Addresses, Five Languages, One Family (Familius, July 2013). She holds a BA in German and an MA in Comparative Literature, both from Brigham Young University. She speaks, reads and writes fluent German, French and Norwegian, is conversant in Mandarin, and has taught language, humanities and writing on the university level. Bradford has performed professionally as a soprano soloist and actress in the US, Scandinavia, Central Europe and South East Asia. She and her husband raised their family of four children in Hong Kong, Vienna, Oslo, Paris, Munich, Singapore and Geneva, Switzerland. Connect with Melissa at

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