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Family Travel Abroad: Keeping Children Engaged

Family and children after night in Sahara Desert.
After a night in the Sahara Desert, our band of camel riders mounts up for another trek .

When you start traveling with very young kids, it’s easy to dream that everything will get simpler as they get older. They’ll be able to carry more gear, their palates will expand, they’ll retain more of the historical and cultural aspects of the world swirling around them… but truth be told, the older they get, the less they care to be dragged around according to somebody else’s agenda, and the more their own tastes emerge and dominate.

So how can you keep your kids intrigued by the journey you’re dangling in front of them? One way we’ve found is to pay close attention to what most appeals to them — both at home and abroad — and find ways to weave that into our days. You can’t always predict what will grab them, but as soon as we spot something we begin to incorporate that theme into the trip.

Beach and Boats

When our boys, Alex and Evan, were really young, guaranteed success came with a quiet beach and a chance to build sandcastles and swim in the shallows. Up until the age of ten, any sort of boat was fascinating, and nothing pleased them more than snorkeling all day, even if it wasn’t in spectacular surroundings. Find something like the huge tumbled boulders in the shallows at The Baths on Virgin Gorda, or the endless rocky beaches of Lake Superior’s North Shore, and everybody slept well at night.

Sons in cave in Belize with family.
Some stretches of Belize's Barton Creek Cave are so low that riding an inner tube is the only practical way through.

Sports with Your Kids

As the guys got a bit older, we saw the emphasis shift to sporting events. Attending a raucous soccer night match in the Belize Premier League put us right in the multi-cultural mix of local fans, and sharing the nationalistic enthusiasm for the Olympics in bars and on street corners of South America brought home a strong sense of global connectedness. Even the absurd Eurosport channel (filled with ludicrously contrived events like mountain bike obstacle courses, or motor scooters navigating fountains of orange soda) made for hilarious evening viewing in Scandinavian hotels. I have no interest in wrestling, but young WWE fans could attend a Sumo event in Japan. For our baseball-mad household, watching the hyper-disciplined team training regimens taking place in any Japanese or Korean park, or sitting in on a youth league game, would provide fascinating comparisons to their own experiences back home. (We once taught baseball to two English boys staying in the same farmhouse in France, and were in turn taught cricket.) Young soccer players, of course, can indulge themselves ad infinitum — just beckon and jump in. Most any local kick-around will welcome the “international competition.”

World Music and Youth Culture

By their teens, it may be live music that is most captivating. This could be an exotic local style-a tango cafe trio in Argentina, a traveling reggae sound system in Jamaica-or a familiar genre transcending borders. I fondly recall going with my own dad to an outdoor jazz festival in Sweden- nostalgic for him, illuminating for me-and your children may gain street cred at home by being able to say they've witnessed heavy metal in Estonia, or French rap on the Parisian Metro.

Sons checking out graffiti art.
Graffiti art is a worldwide phenomenon. Let your kids be the art expert for the day and take the opportunity to learn from them.


Collecting can hold surprising appeal as well. Coins and stamps are too generic for my lads, but many children might enjoy the designs or the historical information to be found on them. (“Didn’t we just see that building yesterday?” “What kind of hairstyle is that?”) On seacoasts, a simple shell or rock collecting expedition can be open-ended, and will reward persistence and a good eye. On the Baltic’s Amber Coast, it felt like looking for hidden jewelry — and finding your own tidbit of amber like hitting the jackpot.

Speaking of the Baltic, to our surprise, we discovered that our boys were totally fascinated by the medals and military paraphernalia of the former Soviet Union. It all started with an aging veteran approaching us on the street, trying to sell something from World War II. As we explained to the boys the meaning of it all, they took the idea and ran with it. After that, they begged to stroll through the street markets and dip into antique shops, all in the hopes of spotting some new gem of the genre. They learned more about street bargaining — and the details of Soviet military campaigns — than any other method we might have devised.

They were very price-conscious, but even so, one came home with an officer’s holster, and another a forage cap, which suggests another angle of collecting: odd hats, or clothing. On Malta, Alex found an Aussie-style bush hat that he just had to have, and in various locales they’ve been taken by the designs on neo-baseball hats, adidas knock-offs, and sweatshirts whose logos aren’t quite right (Minnesota State, anyone?).

When we spent time in former pirate haunts and castles in France, the boys started spotting tiny knight and pirate figurines for sale in local shops and worked to expand their fighting forces. In South America, it was indigenous people selling knives and pipes and bows and arrows that grabbed their attention. Since their grandparents’ house is stuffed with these sorts of odd relics, they had no trouble imagining the pride of place such attractions might find once home.

Children with cannons.
The shore battery outside Tallin, Estonia's Fat Margaret tower still looks lethal in these young hands..

Visiting Weird Museums

Weird museums offer another potential stream of interest: an armament museum in Buenos Aires; a maritime museum inside an old city tower in Tallinn; the museum of torture and dungeons underneath the walled city of Mdina on Malta. . . . It’s not always the museum an adult would pick, but who knows what might spark their imaginations, or at least prepare them for the experience of that placid Old Masters art exhibit you’re so keen to get to yourself.

Sharing New Foods With Your Kids

While we always encourage the boys to sample strange foods, we recognize that familiarity in eating can go a long way to alleviating culture shock for young souls. So if they do find something local they like, we exploit that. Good ice cream in Italy, or Uruguay? How many different flavors can we try? Who serves the best dulce de leche? If there’s a local flavor of soda that appeals, get it repeatedly. Maybe it’s a particular bakery, or a cafe with chocolate croissants. So what if they eat croque Monsieur or a sandwich du jambon fifteen times on the trip? If nothing else, it’s something for them to look forward to. On Jamaica, breakfasts of ackee and saltfish became staples. We found the boys relished spicy jerk chicken, and buying it from tiny street stalls gave us great encounters with local vendors.

Letting Your Children Listen to CDs/iPods

In today’s world, I realize that many, many folks are traveling with iPods. Myself, I prefer to savor the environment around me, and maybe pick up some new sounds. Our guys bring CD players and a small rack of CDs, to pass the time on buses, and in hotel rooms. There are advantages. Unlike an iPod, losing a portable CD player is no big deal. Plus, if they encounter any intriguing music en route, they can buy a CD and add it to the rotation.

Hoping Your Kids Get Into Books

Surely there are also avid young readers out there as well. Even as a young kid, I read every sign that went past and I still recall my teenage joy at discovering a rack of Penguin paperbacks outside a tiny shop on Trinidad. All the books were by a local author, and I thought they might just offer some amusing local color. Turns out that was my introduction to V.S. Naipaul, who has gone on to be one of the greatest writers of his generation.

Opening Up Transport Possibilities

Finally, there is always the appeal of transport. You’re bound to use it in some fashion or another... why not amplify the possibilities? For many kids, just riding a train is a new and exotic experience. How about an electric tram, or a trolley bus? Ferries add crisp sea air, and the opportunity to watch the deck hands at work. We’ve taken long (17 hour) and short (5 minute) ferry rides, done overnights (the cozy bunks have a charm all their own), and been properly seasick en route to the Channel Islands. Explore the ship. If you’re lucky, one of the hands will spot the kids’ interests and let them feel involved. Our children have steered 60-foot sailboats, ridden the upper deck of overnight cama (bed) buses, and nearly driven a rental car over a sea cliff.

Son guiding a yacht with family.
Learning how to man the helm of a 60-foot Caribbean yacht holds everybody's attention.

Believe me, they remember getting to drive. When he was ten, our son Evan spent an entire afternoon happily driving in circles through the deserted square of a silent French village. Alex, at thirteen, was spinning his way around an open-air amphitheater on the edge of the Sahara when two locals in a pick-up decided they should join the race. It was hilarious, and only mildly dangerous, and eventually drew a small band of watchers in the amphitheater seats. It has entered our family’s travel lore forever.

You just never know which way the lure will grab them. Evan, our military historian, was so obsessed with scaling the cliffs of the Normandy beaches that we planned an entire trip around it. Alex, the entrepreneur, likes to check out foreign sporting goods stores because he’s worked in one at home since he was fourteen. It all brings you closer to the culture you’re visiting, and adds to the memories you’ll take home. And it just might open your eyes to something you would have otherwise missed.

Daniel Gabriel's stories and articles have appeared in over 200 publications in 8 countries, including many pieces in Transitions Abroad over the past 20+ years. He is also the author of a short story collection — Tales From the Tinker's Dam — about his days as a publican in Wales.

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