Travel slowly, staying in vacation rentals (villas, farms, cottages, apartments)
Enjoying Europe with Young Children
Kathy Wood (Kaydee)
Our family of three has traveled extensively in Europe. We made our first family trip when our daughter Kelly was just 14 months old. (We rented an apartment in Paris for a week.) Kelly obviously doesn't remember anything about that first trip, but our later European travel experiences have definitely shaped her life, interests, and perspective. Now 12 years old, she has made nine European trips and visited more than ten different countries. She has spent over 76 weeks in Europe!
We strongly recommend international travel for any family. It's a great way to be together while providing your young child a living classroom. He or she can experience first-hand geography, history, art, architecture, literature, and nature; and develop a real appreciation for other cultures. However, be sure to plan your trip with your child in mind! If not, the trip will be stressful for everyone. Here are some strategies that worked for our family on our earlier trips when Kelly was four to eight years old.
Make travel fun
I put together a "fun bag" for Kelly's enjoyment on the long airplane trips and in the car. The bag included books (several related to the area we were visiting), coloring supplies, music tapes, and a tape player with earphones. For our trip when Kelly was four, I found a German coloring book. We even took a little laptop table that she could use in the backseat of the car. While we drove and explored, she colored and listened to music. Sometimes she even napped!
Choose destinations carefully
Head for spots that will be fun and interesting for all family members, seeking destinations that will intrigue your child. When Kelly was young, our family especially enjoyed castles and short hikes. In England Kelly enjoyed mazes. We had a great day at the wonderful zoo in Munich. We always had fun riding different forms of transportation: trains, subways, boats, horse carriages, cable cars, funiculars. Keep an eye out for parks and playgrounds; you can find them in big cities and small villages all around Europe.
Be careful of long tours or extended stays in museums and churches. Some museums or historical buildings offer a special children's guide or children's activities. We have found this increasingly common in England.
Playing in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey in England
Keep your child active but not overtired
A cranky and tired child can make a vacation stressful for everyone. Think about your child's normal schedule, and stick to similar times for waking up, meals, naps, and bedtime. Don't try to do too much.
Find interesting places to stay
On our early trips to Europe, we moved quickly - not yet aware of the "slow travel" concept. We stayed mostly in small inns and B&Bs, and I tried to pick hotels that were unique and memorable, that would capture our daughter's attention. I found a small hotel in Salzburg that had an indoor swimming pool, a B&B in the Cotswolds where our suite was a former pigsty, a chalet-style hotel in Bavaria with two German shepherds in the front lobby. Kelly was enchanted by each of these experiences.
Learn a new language
Children can learn to speak a foreign language much more easily than adults. They're not self-conscious, and it's a game for them. Your child will enjoy learning to recognize and speak a few foreign words and phrases when you travel in Europe. Waiters and shopkeepers will respond enthusiastically when your child speaks to them in the native language.
Visit your local bookstore or check www.amazon.com and buy an age-appropriate and kid-friendly language dictionary, many of which are available in picture format. You can also find some simple and inexpensive children's books in foreign languages. These resources are helpful to families too!
Consider weekly rentals
Our family is now a strong advocate of "slow travel"; basing for longer periods of time in one place and using vacation rentals. This is an especially ideal approach for a family traveling with small children, because you have more room to spread out and can cook some of your own meals. Settling in for a full week is also more relaxing for the whole family, and you can experience living like a local.
There is a tremendous range of properties available across Europe, and you can find interesting places to stay that will be fun for children. We stayed on a farm in England where our daughter helped the farmer with his sheep several mornings. In a small village in Provence, Kelly loved buying ice cream at the shop down the tiny lane and playing with the local dogs. You can rent apartments in a windmill or a castle. Some properties in southern Europe have swimming pools and play areas for children.
Close encounter with a sheep in the Cotswolds, England
Let your child collect something
On our trip to England when Kelly was five, she collected hedgehogs. We found small, inexpensive stuffed hedgehogs just about everywhere. It was a fun game for her to look for hedgehogs on our shopping expeditions. In Germany and Austria when she was four, we bought an alpine hat and collected hat pins.
Be creative about meals
Kelly was a very "selective" eater as a young child. Restaurant food abroad can be challenging for many American children, though an increasing number of places offer a children's menu of some sort. We found eating out the easiest in England and Italy, where the food is more familiar. Check out the menus posted outside and choose an eating place that offers some selection for your child. Make friends with your server and enlist his or her help to deviate from their normal menu if necessary. Visit the local grocery store and carry emergency provisions (crackers, fruit, etc.).
Make family memories
On our early travels, Kelly kept a journal in an inexpensive copybook. Every night she documented highlights of the day in creative pictures and short sentences. Along with the family trip photo albums, these books became treasured keepsakes. When Kelly became a bit older, I bought her a disposable camera or two so that she had a chance to develop some photographic skills and make her own pictures of our trip.
Allow time for simple pleasures
Be careful not to be too much in a hurry. Kelly loved feeding ducks, looking at sheep, and making friends with passing dogs. Take time to sit on a bench and let your child play in the park, perhaps even interacting with local children. Stop for an ice cream or gelato.
Most of all, enjoy being together and experiencing a wonderful new environment.
Woods Family Grand Tour of Europe: List of articles and photo albums by Kathy Wood
© Kathy Wood, 2006
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