Black bear cubs wait for their mother while foraging for food near the Sugarland's Visitor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 'Learn to travel, and you'll travel to learn,' says author Keith Bellows.
When Keith Bellows’ firstborn, Adam, was 18, his idea of getting outdoors was “opening a window,” Mr. Bellows says.
That’s mildly frustrating for the average parent. For Mr. Bellows — editor-in-chief of National Geographic Traveler, native son of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Istanbul-to-London-to-Egypt globe trotter — it wouldn’t stand.
Mr. Bellows sent Adam on an Outward Bound wilderness expedition in the mountains of North Carolina and watched his world forever open wide. Such is the power of travel.
“Learn to travel, and you’ll travel to learn,” Mr. Bellows says.
It’s a mantra worth contemplating as summer draws near and families weigh conflicting visions of how to spend those precious days off. Should vacation be educational or fun? Can it be both? And what happens when half the house spells fun D-I-S-N-E-Y and the other half spells it Y-O-S-E-M-I-T-E?
“Replenishment, renewal, adventure, and excitement,” says family therapist Wendy Mogel, author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee (Scribner). “That’s the ideal family vacation.”
The learning, she says, doesn’t need to be forced.
“Some trips take on an element of transcript-y-ness,” she says. “‘You can write a paper about it for school and impress your teacher! You can apply to be a camp counselor and say you did this! You can write about it on your college application! That kind of trip might be great, but it takes away from the idea of recreation for its own sake.”
Which isn’t to say that travel shouldn’t introduce new worlds and open your mind and inspire wonder. Quite the contrary.
“I think vacations should be and can be about transformation,” says Mr. Bellows, whose new book, 100 Places That Can Change Your Child’s Life: From Your Backyard to the Ends of the Earth (National Geographic), opens with a quote from the philosopher Augustine: “The world is a book, and those who do not travel, read only a page.”
“What’s amazing is how powerful one place on a Wisconsin lake can be for a child who’s young enough,” Mr. Bellows says. “These kids are going to grow up and inherit the world. It’s up to their parents and ... anybody who has a child in their life to reach out a little bit and put them on that road.”
And where, specifically, should that road lead?
The less contrived, the better, he contends.
“Disney and Orlando and Sea World are all fine, and they’re a rite of passage, and they’re perfectly acceptable wonder,” he says. “But they’re not real wonder. They’re artificial wonder. What you want your kids to understand is the entire world is filled with wonder. It’s not where you expect it, and it won’t be predictable, and it won’t be there when you want it to be there. The adult’s job is instill that sense of wonder and then get out of the way of it.”
The best destinations, Ms. Mogel says, allow maximum room for discovery.
“Peter Pan’s Flight at Disney World is one of my favorite places on the planet,” Mogel says. “But so very much of the work is done for you. That element of serendipity and overcoming slight challenges and solving problems with the materials you have at hand — that level of invigoration can’t be beat.
“The freedom to get dirty,” she says, “a tiny element of something scary — crossing a stream on some slippery rocks, maybe — not too educational and absolutely not too canned.”
An Army Sentry guards the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. Washington, D.C., is a good destination for families.
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Mr. Bellows’ book extols the virtues of locales as far-flung as Mongolia (“ride horses on the vast rich green plains or on a two-humped camel in the Gobi Desert”) and as exotic as the Great Barrier Reef (“swim right next to dolphins, rays, unicorn fish and other marine life”).
But you don’t need to venture far from home to find adventure.
“Take them to a new city, and let them navigate it without a whole bunch of rules,” Mr. Bellows says. “Shop at an Ethiopian market. Look for different worlds. Most people can’t afford to get on a plane and fly to the Great Wall of China. Allow your kids to experience and discover the foreign in their own backyard.”
Indeed, his 100 Places include 34 within the United States (Grand Canyon, Big Sur, Great Smoky Mountains, Washington, D.C., and Manhattan among them). And, as he points out in the introduction, traveling with an open mind and immersing yourself in your adopted culture — domestic or foreign — is more important than identifying the perfect spot.
“I want you to consider how and why to travel with kids — not just where,” he writes.
Of course, your grand plans may be met with a collective eye roll when you present them to the portion of the family who’s pushing hard for a theme park. But press ahead, Ms. Mogel says.
“Parents have a broader view of what makes good memories,” she says. “The kids are free to complain, and the parents don’t have to do a huge public relations effort to make the kids happy about the idea. You just present it as, ‘This is the plan we’ve made for this trip, and we anticipate and hope you’ll enjoy it.’
“And there can be compromise. ‘On the third day, we can do x or y, whichever one appeals to you.’ Make it as much of a team effort as possible.”
Then step aside. “As adults, we all want our kids to see the world through our eyes,” Mr. Bellows says. “But it’s a whole lot more fun if you look at it through theirs. We have to get out of the way of trying to fill their worlds with wonder and allow their own wonder to come forward.”
In his 100 Places That Can Change Your Child’s Life: From Your Backyard to the Ends of the Earth, Mr. Bellows offers tips for “planning, packing, and preparing for travel with kids.” Among them: helping youngsters preserve the memories.
“As young children, my sister and I were encouraged to keep a journal of our travels,” Tennessee resident Caroline Lamar tells Mr. Bellows. “I’m continuing that with my three daughters. It helps them capture memories of a trip on their own terms … (and) also helps them remember details they might otherwise forget. A journal is a great place for them to store travel keepsakes such as postcards, dried and pressed flowers, sketches, tickets from climbing to the top of a lighthouse.”
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