So what’s a good age that the children should be for travel with family? We’ve been traveling overseas with our kids since they were 3months old, mostly to see their extended family in Canada. Babies can be easy travellers, especially if they are breastfed and if they can sleep anywhere. You also save on their airfares. When they were toddlers, we found travel to be a bit more challenging, especially if they still required 2 naps a day. It made it hard to see and do everything that we wanted to in a day. Finding the right food for them, and their emerging mobility (to 'stroller' or not?) were further considerations we had to constantly grapple with.
Last January while most 5-yr olds in Australia were getting ready to start school for the first time, we were taking ours for a 12-month long family trip to Southeast Asia. We felt that this was really an ideal time for her to do such a trip, without having to worry about missing school or having to home-school. Also we liked the idea of a delayed start to build up her resilience and emotional maturity. So was it a good age for her to travel??
5-yr olds are a very capable bunch. They have bounds of energy for walking, running, climbing and yet generally don’t know the concept of fear yet so are quite adventurous. They can usually have good sleeping, eating and toileting habits, and can dress and undress themselves—all bonuses when traveling. They can eat what you eat, yet not eat you out of your daily budget. But most of all, you can reason with them and get them to do as you ask, somewhat anyway. Tantrums are thankfully rare as they can communicate their issues.
In these ways, our daughter was a fairly typical 5-yr old.
But of course there was a part of us that worried about keeping her on track academically. Unconsciously we adopted an ‘unschooling’ form of education whereby we just taught our kids according to their own initiatives and interests, with no pressure to achieve any goals whatsoever. This approach was especially helpful with our 5yr old. Before we left, she was learning to read: she knew her letters, and their sounds, and maybe a couple of 3-letter words. She could write her name and a few other words. She knew her numbers and was actually showing a love of maths and could do simple addition 1-10.
On the road along with seeing the sights and having tons of fun, we used downtime on buses, trains, planes and even while waiting for our meals at restaurants, to do long addition, demonstrate fractions, discuss days of the week, months, and even the differences between time zones, all on her own initiative. And suddenly, she also began to read random words that she came across on English menus and signage. Educational Apps on the iPod such as Teach Me Kindergarten also came in handy. She seemed to really enjoy this sort of normal stimulation, away from the sometimes ‘perceptual overload’ that you sometimes could get from the extended travel lifestyle, particularly if in Asia.
|Passing time before dinner, making her own 'menu'.|
|Passing time while on a train in India.|
Now that we are home, she’s started at a public school in Kindergarten (where we live in Australia, it’s called Prep). And we’ve been surprised at how she actually managed to keep up academically with her peers while she was away. But she’s got a much better sense of herself with more confidence than she would have had if she started school last year.
Yes, delaying her start of formal schooling and traveling instead was a good idea for us and for our kids. But returning home is also what she needs at the moment. She loves school, loves having her own friends and friendships that she can develop, and she loves her extra-curricular activities. She loves the ‘normal’ side of life now, and embraces it.
Moving forward, the outlook looks great too. While learning in the ‘real world’ certainly has its benefits, learning in school doesn’t always have to be the distant second option either. There can be great classrooms within the system too, and we think we have found one of those right here in our neck of the woods. Our school is an accredited International Baccalaureate school that takes a holistic approach to attaining their goal to educate ‘citizens of the world.’ Their curriculum and philosophy is very much in line with our own. They discuss issues like ‘who we are’, ‘how environment shape how we live’, and ‘what makes a community’. They even had a ‘Multicultural Day’ where they were to attend school dressed to reflect their cultural background, then spent the day participating in cultural activities, including a lunch where they all brought in food from their heritage to share. Their curriculum is set in a general framework that is then explored in detail based on the individual’s interests.
And from time to time in the three months since we’ve been back, random conversations still creep up which shows that she hasn’t forgotten about our adventures and that they’ve made a lasting impact on her. Now we can tie in her new experiences, 'text-book' knowledge and perceptions to those.
At their stage/age, it’s a bit ‘putting the cart before the horse’—they were shown the world firsthand to discover before they really understood the enormity of it all. Perhaps if our kids were older, say teenagers, they might benefit more from being on the road. Maybe they’d be able to appreciate more of the actual historic sights that we saw, and be able to relate to them in more meaningful ways as they would already have had some sort of prior knowledge about it.
But I suspect that different age groups have their pros and cons. Timing is everything sometimes; luckily for us, we got it right in terms of our kids for this trip. Going for a 'big trip' with our 3.5yr old and our 5yr old worked well for us and most importantly avoided the needs associated with travels with babies/toddlers as well as those of school-aged kids. Maybe we’ll have to experience extended family traveling again when they’re at an older age in order to truly compare!