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Toddler Travel: Top Ten Tips for Enjoying—Not Just Surviving—Educational Trips

By Melissa Morgan
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #93, 2010.

Top 10 tips for traveling with toddlers. Enjoy your trip, don’t just survive it!
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Melissa Morgan

You’d love to treat your toddler to an educational trip. Wouldn’t your little one enjoy visiting wild animal parks, dinosaurs at a museum, Native American reservations, beaches, boat races, ranches, and sporting events? If you could only get your squirmy youngster to sit still long enough to get anywhere. And what about potty training, special food, the “gimmie-gimmies,” and tummy aches?

It sounds like too much trouble, but with careful, creative planning, educational travel with toddlers can provide fun learning experiences and help families bond together.

Here are the top ten tips to make it work.

1. Enforce Discipline Wisely

Work on discipline at home before the trip, and don’t leave home without it. Have “dry run” pretend practices on how to behave in public. For a lighter touch, check out books such as Stan and Jan Berenstain’s The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Vacation, and The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies.

Let your children know ahead of time that if they break a rule, there will be consequences. Clearly explain, and remind your child often of what will happen if they obey (good things), and what will happen if they disobey (bad things).

Enforce your rules when you are out, but you may need to alter them slightly to fit the situation. If you practice biblical spanking at home, avoid doing it in public, as it can be misinterpreted by strangers. Wait until you are in a private place to spank.

2. Eat Well

Make sure that both toddlers and grownups are well fed while traveling. Like an army, a family travels on its stomach. Hungry people have shorter tempers and less tolerance for the inevitable travel irritations.

If your toddler can eat small foods without choking, stave off boredom with snacks that take a long time—and a lot of energy—to eat, such as raisins and small cereals. If possible, obtain individual serving containers with covers. These can make eating more fun and less messy. Avoid sugary, artificial ingredients in food and drinks, if they tend to make your kids more active or jittery. In my experience, someone always gets a tummy ache in the car; it may pay to bring medicine for that, if your doctor approves.

3. Sleep Well

Make sure everyone gets enough rest, both before and during the trip. Even if you plan to “rough it,” bring snuggly sleeping bags, inflatable mattresses, and comfy pillows. Parents need to remember to get enough rest, too.

I can’t say I’ve always been completely successful with this. I’ve overcommitted to activities and stayed up too late packing the night before a trip. However, my whole family picks up my mood, and I’m trying to get more rested and relaxed. The old saying is often true: “If Mama’s not happy, nobody’s happy!”

4. Plan Well

The family that fails to plan, plans to fail. For extended trips, start planning several months in advance, if possible. Include your toddler in your plans. Your child can begin to learn about calendars if you share your planning dates. Teach your little one to look at maps with you: large and colorful maps are better. Use the Internet and library, and research destinations and activities together. Teach your child about safety concerns before the trip. Use resources such as boatsafe.com/kids/index.htm.

Educator’s discounts are often available for homeschoolers at theme parks and other attractions. Also use your educator’s card to buy tourism books, nature guides, atlases, etc.

Find out about National Park services at nps.gov/parks.html and get travel discounts and information at consumerworld.org/pages/travel.htm. Take a local trip to hotels where you live and pick up one of their free chain guides, listing locations, accommodations, prices, etc. Look up the state and town where you will be staying.

5. Assign Jobs

Everyone in the family can have a position of responsibility before, during, and after the trip. For instance, toddlers, with help, can pick out clothing to bring. Provide specific guidelines: how many socks, underclothes, shirts, etc., will be needed? Remember to bring extra clothing in case of accidents (they almost always happen when they are most inconvenient), and keep cleanup supplies handy. Most kids can learn to pack and carry their own kid-sized backpacks and luggage. Even a small child can help prepare simple snacks, such as scooping out dry cereal into a plastic container.

Yes, it will take more time to teach them to do a job, than it would if you just did it yourself. However, toddlers can learn responsibility, develop a sense of accomplishment, and stay busy helping. For non-reading youngsters, consider giving them a picture chart of assignments; they can check off each item as they do it.

6. Consider Everyone’s

Spend some family time brainstorming ideas for trips several months ahead of time. Toddlers might not have any idea what kind of trip they might enjoy. Help them get started by reminding them of things that they like to do at home. Adults have interests, too; how can you share them with your toddler? Start simply, and keep exposure to new ideas short at first. An all-day trip to a museum, where children are not allowed to talk or touch, can give a negative impression. However, a few hours in a hands-on outdoor nature center or recreated historical outdoor village can create a life-long interest.

Bring plastic bags and jars for collecting items such as shells and rocks. Make sure that you are allowed to pick up and keep items, as some areas do not permit this. If so, you can usually keep a record, by photographing interesting finds.

7. Stop Often

It may seem like a good idea to just keep going and get the trip over with, regardless of the whining and tears. However, a short rest stop—even five minutes to run around a park—can make the difference between strengthened family ties and bitter, grumpy, unpleasant people.

During rest stops, do something active: kick balls, challenge each other to races, and throw a Frisbee.

Plan to stop when you first come into the state on the interstate highway. While little ones stretch their muscles, you can pick up free information and maps about events and educational outings. You will likely find fliers for museums and parks, restaurant discount coupons, tourist information, and hotel discounts.

8. Contingency Pack

Don’t worry about forgetting to pack items that you can pick up at any supermarket or drug store once you arrive at your destination. However, that special blankie, sippy cup, water bottle, or teddy bear is irreplaceable.

Usually the trip itself, not the destination, is the most challenging part of the vacation. For youngsters still reluctant to use big bathroom facilities, bring a portable potty or toddler seat, packed in a plastic carry bag.

Remember to keep items handy that will keep toddlers happy while traveling, such as healthy snacks, if they might be difficult to obtain on the way. For months before a trip, I keep my eyes out for inexpensive games, crafts, and special toys to dole out periodically throughout the trip. Lap desks and trays can be stored under seats when you aren’t using them and brought out when needed. Something new is always much more absorbing, but it pays to avoid inflated prices at tourist traps and highway rest stops.

9. Keep Hands Busy

Your toddler will have to sit still, sometime during the trip. Some families resort to portable game machines or videos; however, travel is an opportune time for creative play. Bring along bags with large beads and string, safety scissors and old magazine pictures or greeting cards to cut up, new color-with-water books and brushes, even play clay and molds. Yes, they can be messy, so bring cleaning materials as well. Use travel time to train your toddler to clean up. Find more ideas to keep kids busy on trips at Go Camping America Kids Pages, gocampingamerica.com/kidspages.

10. Recognize Special Needs & Limits

Small children who have mental, physical, or health challenges may need special accommodations. Carefully check out details ahead of time. Call or write and find out if your destination can make allowances for your family member. For instance, people with disabilities may be able to receive special permission to avoid long waiting lines in theme parks.

You may wish to start small: a short trip, or even a day trip instead of overnight. Sometimes it is more realistic to attend a noisy baseball game instead of the opera. Maybe an outdoor picnic at a park on the other side of town is enough of an adventure. A creatively planned picnic can be an elaborate, exciting excursion; find out more at the-picnic-site.com.

If you find travel difficult or impossible due to special needs, you may be able to give your child a taste of travel with a virtual trip, traveling the world through computer games, videos or the Internet. Visit Antarctica, Cameroon, Central America, or Zimbabwe, at lonelyplanet.com/destinations. Meet virtual animals with National Zoo Animal Web cams at nationalzoo.si.edu/Animals/default.cfm. Take your toddler on a tour of the world or even the moon, with Google Earth, earth.google.com/tour.html.

And Here’s a Bonus Tip: Memorialize Your Trip

However or wherever your toddler adventures take you, keep a record of your trip. After you return home and have rested, spend an evening scrap-booking together. (Find free scrap-booking supplies at scrapbookscrapbook.com/beginners.html.)

As your youngsters grow into teens, and then young adults, even the most difficult toddler travel challenges can become some of your most precious, rewarding and enduring memories.

Melissa L. Morgan is the co-author of Educational Travel on a Shoestring and Homeschooling on a Shoestring. With her husband, Hugh, she has homeschooled their three children from birth, taking advantage of many educational opportunities in the real world. She invites you to visit her website at www.eaglesnesthome.com.

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