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Education Vacations

By Melissa Morgan
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #82, 2008.

Try educational vacations for hands-on geography and more.
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Melissa Morgan

Are you ready for amazing, kid-friendly vacations and field trips? This year, don't just plan a trip - prepare for a vacation education! While you're exploring, you'll also enrich family relationships and watch your kid's academic skills soar.

Educational travel doesn't need to be expensive or complicated. Find adventures and field trips in the ordinary... or unusual places. Visit a grocery store on the other side of town, taking a chance on buying and cooking a new, unfamiliar, yet tasty vegetable. Or educational travel could mean a leisurely trip to all fifty states, getting a hands-on look at the political process.

Travel doesn't have to be a passive tour. It can be active, such as volunteering to rebuild communities, participating as a family in Civil War encampments, or going on a short-term mission trip. Educational travel also means far more than just museums. It can mean chocolate factories, Underground Railroad homes, computer stores, veterinarian visits, concerts performed by students, frog jump festivals, historical farms, municipal state parks, and horse riding camps. Young children love to see, hear, taste, and touch everything, to see how it relates to them. Look for exhibits that encourage kids to "touch" history and science, as opposed to just looking at objects behind the glass. At the petting zoo, you don't just read about animals. You smell and feel their wooly coats. Touch and feed the animals. Learn to care about and for them.

Planning Your Adventure

Kids can learn as much from planning a trip as they do from the trip itself. First, brainstorm ideas together as a family. Try and list several possible interesting activities for each family member. What do you and your kids get excited about? Then try and find a location that is in your budget. For instance, an interest in animals might inspire you to plan to visit a working ranch, zoo, or museum of natural resources. Find out if educational opportunities or exhibits offer homeschool discounts, reciprocal agreements with other organizations, or better yet, free days for the public. These opportunities may not be advertised; it pays to ask.

Research your trip together as a unit study. The planning stage should take up far more time than the actual trip. Being knowledgeable can help you avoid wasted opportunities and disappointments, such as the trip we took to Amish country - on a Sunday - of course, everything was closed!

Explore geography and transportation options at your local library, and check out regional/historical guides. Also check large libraries for newspapers and telephone directories from all over the country and the world. Contact local societies (bird-watching and rock collecting). Explore Internet resources to research travel destinations near and far. Contact state and local tourism departments and order free maps, coupons, directories, and brochures. Help your kids write for a map of America's Byways, including photos and descriptions of each scenic byway, from the Federal Highway Administration, 800-4-BYWAYS, byways.org.

To find out about Civil War reenactments all over the U.S. request a free sample of The Civil War News, 234 Monarch Hill Rd., Tunbridge, VT 05077, 800-777-1862, civilwarnews.com. To receive a free copy of Consumer Reports e-letter, with information such as travel deal reviews and scams to avoid, call or write their office or ask at your public library. Consumer Reports, 101 Truman Avenue, Yonkers, NY 10703, 914-378-2000, consumerreports.org.

For a few dollars (or in some cases, for free), your child can partake in a nature activity to learn about the area you are visiting - anything from spiders in the desert to snow in the mountains (including the loan of the snowshoes). To earn Junior Rangers badges, contact National Parks and Bureau of Land Management, www.nps.gov/learn/juniorranger.cfm.

Find special interest clubs, through ABCentral, at my-edu2.com. Click on "societies" and then on any topic imaginable to find local, national, or international groups. Order free and inexpensive travel information from the U.S. government (your tax dollars at work): publications.usa.gov/USAPubs.php.

Unexpected Thrills

Leave space in your plans for unexpected experiences and adventures, such as our recent trip to the Creation Museum in Kentucky, which was amazing. We loved the life-size models and enjoyed the Ark, the dinosaurs, the Planetarium. In a Kentucky tour guide, we also saw a brief listing of the Garden of Hope in Covington, KY, which contains a replica of the empty tomb of Christ. We looked the Garden of Hope up in our hotel phone directory, called them, and ended up with a personal tour and a new friend. This out-of-the-way spot ended up being an unplanned, but memorable highlight of our trip.

We also make it a habit to stop at all the first rest stops whenever we cross over a state line. At rest stops, we get free tour guides, maps, and hotel and restaurant coupon books.

Pinching Pennies

How much will your trip cost? Stretch your travel dollars by traveling out of season, or take advantage of last-minute deals. Include your kids in your budgeting, and they'll learn real-world computer and math skills.

Model business and organizational skills and put together a bus trip for your homeschool group. In some cases, the trip organizer can travel for free.

Food and drink don't have to cost more when you travel. Whenever possible, order water instead of pop. Where allowed, bring a cooler or backpack with your own snacks and drinks to events. If you can only carry empty cups, that still makes it much easier and satisfying to drink from a water fountain.

Cook creatively on the road. Eat what and where the locals eat and buy food at grocery store delis instead of restaurants.

If you travel with an RV or tent, you can find free campsites on public and private lands. It really pays to contact each state's tourism department for information and discount coupons before your trip.

Look into discounts and lodgings that may be available through organizations and clubs. Consider unusual places to stay, such as at college dorms, religious retreats, and (if you are a defense department family) military bases. Even if staying at a hotel, your room price is almost always negotiable - always ask for a discount

Packing for Success

After you plan your itinerary and consider the cost, it's time to get packing. Prepare ahead for adventure, and you'll seldom if ever hear that dreaded question, "Are We There Yet?"

Months ahead, I shop at garage sales, dollar stores and thrift shops for inexpensive, portable games, craft materials and toys, and dole them out during the trip at opportune moments, such as when kids are getting tired and cranky. Inexpensive, portable beach balls and flying discs make good games for rest stops. Learn as you drive by playing foreign language tapes, listening to books on CD, and memorizing Bible verses and famous speeches. In my co-authored book, Educational Travel on a Shoestring, you'll find ideas for making crafts such as toilet paper kazoos and Mancala games from free items you find along the way.

Even young children can spend many happy hours on trips collecting specimens. Pack a "Nature's Toolkit," to identify and save trip mementos such as fossils, leaves, bugs and shells. Of course, ask and be sure you are allowed to keep, or even touch, natural items that you find along the way.

Pack your favorite field guide or nature identification book (such as a tree, mammal, or shell guide), depending on your destinations and interests. You could also bring a magnifier, an inexpensive camera, and a small notebook to record details of your finds. Also, you will never want to be without your plastic baggie in your toolkit. Use it to save treasures and mementos - especially if you haven't had a chance to wash them yet. I also recommend you keep your wet wipes handy. Maintain your Nature's Toolkit in your vehicle or in a handy place to grab as you go out the door.

Yes, sometimes travel involves challenges, such as in our family, traveling with a medically fragile child. Over time, our family has changed our vacation goals to learning, bonding as a family, and seeking God's will for our lives. Remember, it's the journey that matters, not just the destination. Bon voyage!

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