How to Make Family Vacations Educational

Getting your child to use his noggin on vacation is easy when you make it fun.

Looking at map Getty Images

When her family drove out West last summer, Shiva Sarram, of New Canaan, Connecticut, gave her two kids a job: Share three facts about each state before they crossed into it. Notes Sarram: "I didn't realize how much they were absorbing until I said, 'I wonder what the largest city in Montana is?' and my 7-year-old, Cyrus, piped up from the backseat: 'Billings!'" Help give your child a brain boost this summer, wherever your travels take you.

Know Before You Go

One of the best ways to get your little traveler thinking: Enlist her help planning the trip. "Children this age are being taught in school to think critically and to ask questions like who, what, why, and where. That translates naturally when you travel," says Daniel Hilliker, Ph.D., a child psychologist at Mayo Clinic Children's Center, in Rochester, Minnesota. Pore over travel guides together that are perfect for young kids, like National Parks: A Kid's Guide to America's Parks, Monuments, and Landmarks; The Kid's Guide to Orlando; and the Lonely Planet Not for Parents series.

    Likewise, have kids visit the websites of destinations they'll be visiting, says Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, the family-vacations expert at and a mom of three. "Zoos and aquariums frequently have webcams for their most popular animal and marine-life exhibits, which really pique kids' interest in what they'll be seeing," she says. Heading to a national park? Your child can visit to learn which essentials -- from water to sunscreen -- she should pack for exploring. Once you've done some research together, have her make a list of what she wants to do. Dr. Hilliker has each of his two children present one thing they'd like added to every vacation itinerary. "Last year before a trip to Seattle, my then 10-year-old became fascinated with the islands in Puget Sound and lobbied for a day trip to Bainbridge Island by ferry," says Dr. Hilliker. "Hiking around the island was one of the highlights of our trip."

    Paper maps may be vanishing. However, they're a great tool to help kids figure out how long a route you're driving will take or see how many states you'll be flying over by plane.

    Get Gaming

    Since your kid's likely angling for new apps to beat backseat boredom, check out reviews on for travel apps. Two geography-based favorites, available on iTunes, are USA for Kids and Kids Planet Discovery.

    Also consider fun twists on old-school entertainment, like the U.S.A. License Plate Game by Melissa & Doug. (When your child sees a state's license plate, he can flip over a game-board piece to reveal the state's capital.) Or supply him with a clipboard, paper, and pencil to encourage his writing skills: Challenge him to pick a person he sees and make up a poem or a story about him.

    Score Street Smarts

    Some of the best lessons a child can learn on vacation are practical ones. If you're going to a city, have your kid help you read the subway map and figure out how to get from one place to the next. At campsites and on trails, teach her how to recognize landmarks and to wear a whistle and learn the universal help signal if lost (three loud blows). "Teach kids about budgeting by giving them a specific amount of cash and putting them in charge of buying their own souvenirs," suggests Kelleher.

    Or start a collection with things you pick up on your travels. Kristen Haughey, of Hingham, Massachusetts, says the Warman's State Quarters Collector's Map helped her kids learn not only about each state and its motto but also about the U.S. territories. "Last August we stayed at a summer cottage in Plymouth, and my 7-year-old loved going to the laundromat with me so she could check each roll of quarters," she explains. "We found one for the Mariana Islands!"

    Another way for kids to appreciate a different place is to try new local foods. Your normally picky eater may discover a taste for Maryland crab, Kansas City barbecue -- or even a bison burger in Billings.

        Originally published in the August 2014 issue of Parents magazine.