In search of an olive tree, we circled through the Acropolis and headed towards the Erechtheion. "It's in the same place Athena planted an olive tree back when she and Poseidon were competing for Athens", my son said excitedly. He'd heard this story along with the many others he'd share with us throughout our trip thanks to Rick Riordan's "Greek Gods" and "Greek Heroes." We found the tree and read from a nearby plaque the same story my son told. A similar scene occurred in every museum and ancient site. Good books once again offered the interest and knowledge I hoped they would.
My family's recent trip to Greece was not the first time I had used books to guide our travels. We've followed Laura Ingalls from Minnesota to South Dakota, used Native American histories and lore to explore Pine Ridge and the Black Hills. And we've walked through Platform 9 3/4, so we could ride on the Hogwarts Express into Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. Before we traveled to Idaho, we read about the geology and wildlife we might see, and books about the ocean came home in our library bags before we headed off to Delaware and Florida.
The goals I have when we travel are the same goals I have when we're at home; I want to facilitate interest, enjoyment, and a meaningful learning experience.
No matter where we've traveled,I've found the same basic framework I use to create lessons and unit studies works well. I divide our trip into three parts: before, during, and after. This guide very much follows my goals. In the beginning, we're finding interest. While we're traveling, we focus on building those interests and having a lot of fun. When we return home, we have new knowledge, experiences, and often times new interests, and we have learned in a meaningful way.
Much like the beginning of a novel study should include pre-reading activities, the beginning of our traveling unit focuses on creating interest and making sure kids have the prior knowledge they need to understand where they are going and what they'll be seeing.
Books and Film
One of the best ways I've found to plant interest seeds lies in the pages of a good book. Before we travel, we head to the library.
Young Adult Literature and picture books are a great place to start. Books on wildlife, myths and legends, history, and the environment have also sparked a lot of interest in our home. Movies, TV shows, and documentaries are also wonderful resources.
Before heading West, we watched "Little House on the Prairie." The movie "The Odyssey" introduced my children to the Trojan Horse and some of the histories they'd hear about. Travel shows let them see the island of Aegina and Athens before we arrived.
Travel Guides and Websites
We love to flip through travel guides. It's a lot of fun. Filled with beautiful pictures and a lot of information, they offer kids a glimpse of the things they might see and do. Before we travel, I have my children choose a few things that interest them. I've found when they have some autonomy in planning our trip; they are more likely to read up on where we're going and look forward to the things they've chosen.
Before we traveled to Greece, we talked a lot about the different types of food we would be able to try. I also made a few Greek dishes for dinner so we could sample some of the foods before we left. I made sure we found a few things my children would enjoy and look forward to eating again.
Many kids love to pack! Mine want to start packing months before we travel. While clothes, favorite stuffed animals, and pillows are important, I also pack supplies that will help keep the interest we've been building. A camera, journal, colored pencils, a magnifying glass, tape (for putting things in journals), baggies for treasures, and maps are wonderful learning tools. I'm always glad we pack them.
The bulk of the unit, this is where the pre-learning comes into play. I've found the time we take to build interest and knowledge always pays off. It's magical seeing the places you've learned about come to life. Dipping our toes in Plum Creek, seeing Mount Olympus, and visiting places like Delphi and the Parthenon—I know these moments were that much more meaningful because we spent time learning about them beforehand.
Vacations are meant to be fun! This is not the time to be quizzing kids or hauling around binders of the curriculum. When we travel, our focus is on being together, experiencing what's around us, and having a good time. With that said, there are fun ways to encourage interest and facilitate learning.
Literature and good stories can make time during your travels a lot of fun too! We listened to On the Banks of Plum Creek while we drove to Walnut Grove and the banks of Plum Creek. While we were visiting a museum in Greece, we found a book of Greek myths in the museum bookstore. Tired of walking, the kids and I found chocolate croissants and a little corner in the museum cafe. Together we read about what we were seeing and enjoyed a little downtime. We often continue reading about what we're seeing or hope to see during long car rides or at bedtime.
Journaling, collecting items for a scrapbook, and taking pictures are activities that can keep our kids engaged. Many national and state parks have Junior Ranger programs. Some museums have interactive guides or scavenger hunts for kids. No matter where we travel, I try to keep my eyes out for ways we can keep and deepen our interests.
Kid days are also really important. While we are all learning all the time, we don't have to sightsee or be tourists every day of our vacation. I try to make sure my children get to plenty of parks, have time to swim in the hotel pool, can watch their favorite shows, and have their favorite food, pizza, at least one night. The comforts of home, downtime, and doing things that are just for fun are important parts of our traveling unit too.
- How many Athena statues can you find?
- Do I spy the messenger god?
- Write down three of the most interesting facts you can find.
I like to have a handful of "I'm bored!" games in my back pocket whenever we travel. Photo scavenger hunts, drawing games, even hangman can encourage learning and give tired or bored travelers a second wind.
Returning home and sleeping in our beds is always nice, but post travel to-dos and adjustments also make coming home bittersweet. Piles of laundry, jet lag, trying to get back into a routine, we're tired, and there's a lot to do. Still, our unit is not over. The post-travel part of our learning is just as important as the rest. It doesn't need to happen the minute we get home, but it shouldn't be forgotten.
Telling our travel stories and reflecting on what we learned is important. We gather the journals, download the pictures, collect the treasures and spend time talking about our trip. My children are each creating a photo book for our trip to Greece. They have a place in their room for all the trinkets they bought and have enjoyed being able to tell their friends, our family, and their co-op teachers about their travels.
Cooking, novel writing, homesteading, and tracking are just a few of the interests that have traveled home with us over the years. Back to the library, we go. A new unit study or project or good read is often found thanks to our travels.
You don't have to get on a plane or travel across the seas to use a traveling unit study. Near or far, create one for any places you go. Maybe think about starting where you live or make one the next time you go on vacation. It takes time, and you might make a couple of extra trips to the library, but the learning that happens before, during, and after your trip will be well worth the added time.
About the Author
Kelly left teaching middle and high school English to homeschool her children and reclaim how she and her family spent their time. Followers of interest-led learning, her family's days rarely look the same, but they tend to include a lot of books, art supplies, and time outside.
Kelly facilitates local writing circles for women and children, leads classes on Outschool, and blogs about nurturing the love of learning on her blog, Curiosity Encouraged. She loves to journal, read memoirs, hike, and travel. She seeks quiet mornings and good coffee daily.