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Learning by Countries: What children can learn from travel

I was 13 when we set out for our first big overseas adventure. We were to spend the six week school summer holiday backpacking around Indonesia. My parents had plans to set up a sustainable ecotourism business and this trip was part adventure and part scoping opportunity to discover potential opportunities. We continued to spend our summer holidays over the next six years exploring this beautiful country. For me, it was to be life changing.

If I’m to be truly honest, before I left, I was coasting at school, bored and completely disinterested; academically sitting somewhere in the middle of the class. But something changed in me over those six weeks of travelling. Not only were my eyes opened to the enormity, beauty and the wonder of the world, but also for the first time, I realised how unbelievably lucky I was and how much I had to be grateful for in my life. The world was my oyster; I could do anything I set my mind to. I’d been dragged down by the dullness of school, but now I felt inspired and rejuvenated.

I’ve often seen parents, myself included, try to tell their children just how privileged they are; how much they should be grateful for. But there’s really nothing like coming to this realisation yourself. As with any type of learning, it’s far more impactful and long lasting to experience something first hand than to simply be told.

As Benjamin Franklin once said: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”

And involve me, my parents did! We travelled and worked as a team of five. As children, we were often included in the decision making processes and instinctively all pulled together if we needed to get ourselves out of a sticky situation (um, like the time we got caught in the middle of a gold war…).

I was, prior to our trips, a painfully shy child, but travelling gave me confidence, independence and self assurance. You’re just not allowed to be shy in Indonesia! Children happily bundle up to you and make friends, despite any language barrier, and you’re really given no choice in the matter. We travelled to places where they’d never seen people with white skin before and mine is practically translucent. So as a white skinned, blonde haired, awkwardly tall girl, I was stared at wherever I went. Many of them just wanted to stroke my skin to see if it was different. Initially, I found the attention overwhelming, but over time I learned to get used to it and dare I say even enjoy it. In the end, these smiley, happy, giggling children made me realise there was no need to be shy; and I just relished being in their company.

Travelling also gave me the time and space to be bored. Such an underrated activity in our current crazily busy, massively over scheduled lives. I had the time and space to think, ponder and imagine. Time and space to discover me: who I was and what I wanted out of this life.

And when I came back – after first revelling in the excitement of a sit down toilet, enough food to fill my belly (along with something other than rice and fish to eat!) and a comfy bed with no rats running over the beams above my head – I decided I was going to get into my dream university. I chose to spend time outside of school hours reading and learning about subjects that fascinated me, and I moved from the middle to the top of the class. Then, with a lot of hard work and determination, I was offered a place at that university. I write this here not to brag, but to show the genuine impact that travel can have on an individual. For me, it gave me grit, determination, gratitude in the bucket load, confidence, independence and self belief.

And I’d really like that for my children too.

We’re planning a much longer, three month trip to SE Asia, Australia and New Zealand next year, but in the meantime here’s what they tell me they learned in their short two and half week trip to Singapore and Thailand.

1. Independence

When I’m travelling around my local area, I tend to plan the activities we’re going to do, routes we’re going to take, timings & all other logistics in my own head. I know where I’m going, so I don’t need any help. Yes, I could slow down and involve the children in the process, but it would feel forced and unnatural. And I’m sure they would sense that.

When I’m thrown into a new place, where I have no idea of the best way to get to a location, how the local transport systems work, how much they cost, how long they take, what the traffic is like, the cheapest way of booking activities or in fact what the best activities are, I’m back to standing in the shoes of a child. I might have more life experience than them, but on the flip side they’re far more observant than me and have better visual memories, and so when we travel, we work as a genuine team of three, with all parties contributing. We’re in it together, truly. The children can sense that it’s real work, not something that’s artificially been presented to them as a learning opportunity, and they grab it with both hands.

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And so they learned how to find the right check in desk, get through security (oh and not to take photos of your children with security staff in the background else you get into a bit of trouble and they have to delete all your photos, ahem…), work out when your gate is ready, where it is and generally how to navigate an airport. At just 7&8, they could, if they were allowed, successfully fly to any country on their own.

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They learned to navigate the MRT system in Singapore (their underground system), the quickest way to get to our destination, how to top up their MRT cards and after careful scrutiny of the videos shown on the MRT, what to do in the event of an attack! Fortunately they noticed the sign informing passengers of the $500 fine for eating or drinking on the MRT before I pulled out the snacks and drinks….

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They remembered seeing the starting point for the bumboat tours when out for dinner one evening, and so successfully navigated us back there the next day for our tour.

One evening whilst waiting in a queue to order food prior to our Night Safari, I turned around to find Bean7 chatting to a stranger on a nearby table. Apparently he was asking them where they’d got their map of the Night Safari from. He then disappeared out of sight with the lady to find us a map, whilst I stood anxiously watching on from the queue, flip flopping between – it’s really good for them to develop independence skills – to – shit, she could just run off with him – to – relax, the rest of the family are still sitting at the table, smiling reassuringly at me, to – oh my goodness I’m a bad mother – right until he came running back into sight, smiling with triumph at the map he’d found for us! And then I realised I’d been holding my breath…

2. Confidence and Socialisation

Their developing independence skills improves their confidence no end. As does meeting and chatting to a whole range of different people, from the men and women that were talking to them in the safari trucks, to the lady helping them identify the different species of ray at the aquarium, to the numerous children they played with of all different ages and nationalities (it never fails to amaze me how children who don’t speak a single word of each other’s language can nonetheless play happily together for hours!), to the taxi drivers explaining the benefits & problems with the Singaporean schooling system. Each interaction providing a connection, along with new information and often giving a different perspective/way of seeing the world. And with each positive connection, they seemed to grow a little in confidence.

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Then there is the confidence they built through pushing their boundaries and trying new experiences, be that as simple as trying new foods, such as pak choi or galangal ginger, or as big as overcoming fears, such as walking through a jungle when you’re terrified of the poisonous snakes and spiders lurking around every corner. Or swimming through a 80m pitch black tunnel when you’re not really sure what’s in that cave or through the other side.

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3. Inspiration

Swimming through that 80m pitch black tunnel might have been about conquering fears, but what we found on the other side – the Emerald Cave, a magical hidden cave, with its own beach, hanging vines and towering cliff faces with rainforest flora and fauna hanging to its sides – was all about inspiration. Bean8 has started writing a book since returning from holiday and this awe inspiring location provides one of the settings for the children in this novel. In fact various other settings in her book are based on locations we’ve visited together, providing clear, vivid and first hand images for Bean8 to draw upon when writing her story.

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The sheer number of new sights and experiences they encountered on this trip provides endless amounts of inspiration, from the unfamiliar food for sale in Chinatown to the sight of a real coral reef with its abundant tropical fish, to the sheer beauty of Thailand to the feel of a hot and humid climate, something you can’t fully appreciate until you’ve sweated your way through a rainforest with perspiration pouring down your face and back.

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4) Appreciation and respect for different cultures & religions

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We are a Catholic family and obviously teach the children about our faith, but it is also extremely important to me that they understand and fully respect other religions and beliefs. Prior to this trip, we spent a lot of time learning about the Buddhist faith and Bean8 researched this further on her own. They were thrilled to be able to witness a Buddhist service at the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, home to what the Buddhists regard as the left canine tooth of the Buddha, recovered from his funeral pyre in Kushinagar in Northern India. What is particularly lovely about Singapore is how the different religions and cultures seem to sit side by side harmoniously, with a place for everyone.

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By living in and experiencing a culture vary different from our own, albeit for a short time, the children can get a sense of what is and isn’t important to the people in their particular society. We got the sense that Singapore for example, was a very safe society, with religious and racial harmony, but with strict laws that everyone obeys. They’re clearly very successful financially, but seem just as focussed on protecting the environment through a multitude of initiatives costing the government billions of dollars.

5) Hands on experiences & learning

As I mentioned above when referencing what I learned through travel, it is much more impactful and long lasting to experience/learn about something first hand than simply to be told about it. This trip provided plentiful opportunities for hands on learning.

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Bean8 for example decided to memorise as many of the hard & soft corals and tropical fish that she could using the information boards in the aquarium to identify the different species in the tanks. They both did the same for the various species of ray, using the boards and asking the expert questions when they weren’t sure. They used this information in Thailand to identify what they saw during their snorkelling experiences.

They absorbed all sorts of new information throughout the trip in various different ways:

  • by reading the signs wherever we went, for example studying the signs about what epiphytes are and then spotting them all around them sitting in the crevices of the towering rainforest trees.
  • by listening to information presented, i.e. the historical information given on the bumboat tour about the sights along the river, or the facts given during the Night Safari about the animals we were viewing.
  • by undertaking new experiences, such as feeding giraffes and elephants and feeling first hand their incredible strength, or snorkelling on a coral reef for the first time, or watching the habits of monkeys and monitor lizards in the wild.
  • by seeing new things (often things they’ve read about previously), such as houses built on stilts, the types of vegetation that exist in certain types of climate, watching ten year olds riding motorbikes without helmets at great speeds, finding mudskippers & sea cucumbers in rockpools, examining the interesting rock formations and distinct layers of sedimentary rocks in the cliff face, watching the gheckos running up and down the walls. The list could go on and on…

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In fact we were recently reading a book about rainforests and it mentioned at the end of the section that in a GCSE geography exam (UK exams taken at 16) you might be given a picture of a rainforest plant or animal and asked to describe how it’s adapted to its environment – a question that we thought would be so much easier to answer if you’ve actually experienced the tough, unique conditions of a rainforest.

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Travel can also expose children to issues of which they otherwise would not be aware, for example seeing the majestic Asian elephants chained up by the side of the roads, waiting to earn its owner some money by providing elephant rides for tourists into the jungle. It was heartbreaking; Bean8 was extremely distraught by this (they’re her favourite animal) and she’s vowed to make people aware of their plight.

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From a physical perspective, there were abundant learning opportunities, including swimming, diving, snorkelling, how to pace yourself on hikes in extreme temperatures, and running on beaches.

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Maths can also be practised and applied to real life situations as you travel, for example working out how much something costs in your own currency, converting km distances to miles, deciphering timetables, determining how much longer you have to wait until you get to a destination, checking you’ve not gone over the weight limit for your baggage (a common problem for me!) and converting faranheit to celsius, to name but a few.

In addition to this, as mentioned in this post, whenever we’re on holiday MrJ, our resident maths phile, loves to get them excited about doing maths by setting them puzzles on the courtyard.

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Another often overlooked important skill they practised was how to block out noise and distractions around them to focus on reading or playing a game together, for example as they sat on the floor in the middle of a busy airport, zoning out the chaos to concentrate on their book. It’s a vital skill they’ll use a lot in their adult life.

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So many life lessons and so many beautiful memories from a wonderful holiday.

What have your children learned through travel?

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