Traveling with Kids: The Breakdown

We are officially past the half-way mark!  We are way over budget in a large part due to tolls, parking and Spanish Principe Maxi-Choc cookies (my fault). Since I have travelled with kids for 100+ consecutive days, I consider myself an expert and have developed a very robust framework that included an experience breakdown that juxtaposed intensity of the sensory experience against relevant context, augmented with a range of developmental strategies.  When I walked Lucy and Natalie through my thoughts, I got this feedback:

Lucy:  “It’s like, some things you do for fun and some things you do to learn.  Maybe you should say that.”

Nati:  “And Papa, you can’t just do fun things all the time or you won’t grow up to be a very good person.” (Thank you, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Day School!)

So with that excellent feedback, we modified the thinking into a chart that plots “Fun” against “Learning” and came up with a most excellent way to visualize and compare our past experiences while planning for future adventures.

Figure 1:  The Learn/Fun Framework


We scored our experiences 1-10 (1 low and 10 high) against Learn and Fun to populate the model.  These are the selected extreme experiences:

Patara Elephant Farm – 10 Learn/10 Fun:

The definite highlight of the trip so far was in Chiang Mai, Thailand, at the Patara Elephant Farm.  It scored a 10 on fun as we played with, rode and got to know our elephants.  It also scored a 10 in learning as we fed and bathed the elephants–and analyzed their dung.  A real extreme on both scales.

Flight of the Gibbon Zip Line –  3 Learn/8 Fun:

Also in Chang Mai we did a zip line that scored very high on the fun scale – big adrenaline rush – but pretty low on the learn scale.  A fun day for sure – but as Nati points out – we probably weren’t better people as a result.

Homeschooling – 8 Learn/1 Fun:

I have no doubt the girls are learning tons about the world around them, but admittedly as parents we haven’t cracked the code on how to teach the fundamentals of math and grammar.  Those days we switch into school mode are rated as low fun, but fortunately they recognized as high learning (phew).

Planes, Trains and Automobiles – 1 Learn/1 Fun:

Almost not worth mentioning are the transitional moments on the trip.  The adventure of the RV in Australia and high speed trains in Asia faded quickly, and the woman one row back with motion sickness on a flight in China was definitely a low-light.

Other experiences of note (Learn Score/Fun Score):

Smack in the middle of the model are science museums (6/6).  Singapore’s in particular offered a good mix of hands-on fun and learning.  Since science is universal the museums were pretty similar and made for a great rainy day activity although they lack any real specific cultural depth.

Holy Week in Seville (6/7):

Great local hosts that taught us to be insiders (like wax collecting) and an impressive religious spectacle put this on the border of enduring memory.

Retiro Park Playground, Madrid (1/7):

Playgrounds in general allowed us to burn off some energy and meet other kids, but at the end of the day it was a pretty limited cultural exchange.

Colosseum Tour (6/4) and Gladiator School (4/6):

Two gladiator-related experiences in Rome combine to provide the physical and mental balance that I am sure they will recall fondly.

Cooking Schools in Thailand, China and Italy (8/8):

These all provided hands on fun and some cultural immersion as well.

Shanghai TV Tower (3/3):

Like most “see the view” experiences, you get a slight rush from the panoramas, but once you’ve captured the photos, there isn’t much left, and everyone is usually eager to move on.

Figure 2:  Fun / Learn Model with Select Experiences


Lastly, we classified certain zones.  This has been helpful for comparing past experiences and trying to predict where future experiences may land.

Figure 3:  Fun / Learn Model with Zones


Zone of Boredom:

Low Fun/Low Learn.  Bring the ipad, a book and a deck of cards.  Don’t waste time trying to artificially boost the experience.  Put your energy elsewhere to pass the time as quickly as possible.

Zone of Interest (3-6):

Experiences in this range can get their attention initially, but tend to fade quickly.  Add more context to improve the learning score and sensory activities to boost the fun component.  Context like “You are standing EXACTLY where Columbus stood in 1492!” or sensory enhancements like seeing an actual performance in the Sydney Opera House.

Zone of Engagement (6-9):

They are into this.  They don’t want it to end.  While usually more physical, even on the high learn side we have seen them light up when they connect the dots between school and real life. These stories will be told for many years to come.

Zone of Enduring Memory (9+):

Pretty rare territory but the perfect combination of topic + presentation + participants + environment. When it all comes together, it is really special and you know it is a shared experience that will help shape who they are and how they think – not just a travel story they tell.

Some obvious tips that every hands-on parent and educator knows that I am just learning:

Guides, Guides, Guides:

When touring, guides are everything.  At a minimum they should be able to add context and perspective to an experience, but the best will also add energy and engage the senses to really bring things to life.  On the other hand, a bad guide can destroy value with negativity, detachment and condescension. We used a handful of virtual guides from audio sticks, to phone apps to augmented reality.  Still nothing compares to the energy and flexibility of a human.  When choosing a guide make sure of the following:  1. They speak the local language better than you.  2. They are in reasonably good shape if on a walking tour.  3. They like tourists and/or the area they are guiding in.  Yes, we had violations of each of these!

Make it hands-on:

Painting frescos in Florence with wet plaster, colors of different consistency and intricate patterns gave us a much greater appreciation for Michelangelo and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Gladiator class in Rome (like samurai class in Kyoto) gave us greater insight to the culture and its priorities while also releasing some pent-up energy.

Have a tangible goal:

You can just eat pizza and gelato – or you can make it! Thai curry sure tastes good…grinding curry paste not so easy. We have had good luck with local cooking schools that combine the physicality of cooking with commentary on how it reflects local culture and tradition.  Better yet is when combined with a visit to the market, or when they take place inside a local home.  Of course, you have the added goal of eating something you created at the end!

Books and movies:

Let others tell the story – they usually do it better.  Ninety minutes with the 1981 version of Clash of the Titans or the Percy Jackson series is more fun for the kids and can give the parents a break as well. Use this during moments stuck in the zone of boredom.

While we have learned a ton at the half-way mark.  I think we will really get this figured out around day 200.  Just in time to come home….and begin planning big trip 202X!

We are on a cruise and good WI-FI is hard to come by, so we are way behind on our posts.  However, today, we are sitting at a Mic Mac in Corfu having our fix of Greek food and internet.

Here are some pages we managed to update:



  1. Love this post. I especially like the experience quadrant. The “memorable” ones are precious. I think you guys are doing an amazing job. I’m also quite certain the kids are learning MUCH more than you think. 🙂 Keep up the good work. And, if your plans change and you decide you want to swing by Berlin, let me know. I’m still hoping we can catch you somehow in France or the UK.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great trip and experiences! I’m glad to see that Mariuca is there with you guys. I guess we’ll make it to Corfu in June, it looks nice! Keep enjoying it!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Loved this! I think you are really onto something here!! So much of everyday life can also be placed into the fun/learn model. Sounds like you are having an amazing trip. Can’t wait to hear more.

    Liked by 1 person

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