This weeks interview is brought to you by Shannon O’Donnell of A Little Adrift. But wait, Shannon doesn’t have kids does she? Well you may remember that in 2001-2012 Shannon spent several months travelling with and homeschooling her niece. She brings a unique perspective to the travelling with children series. Read more from Shannon on her blog, or find her on facebook or twitter. You can also read more from Shannon in her print book – The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook.
What was your travel style like before you had children?
My situation is unique because I traveled in 2011-2012 with my niece, not my own child. Four years ago, I left to travel solo around the world; those travels lasted three years, until summer 2011. At that point, my niece was 11-years-old, and after a many family discussions, we decided that I would pull my niece out of mainstream school and I would then homeschool her from Southeast Asia. Before my niece though, I traveled as a budget to mid-range backpacker. I work on freelance assignments from the road, so over the years I have always traveled slowly, spending several days each week earning the money that allowed me to stay traveling for nearly four years now. When I took my niece with me, that slow travel style was a boon because in order to complete her education, while also visiting sights and traveling we had to do so at a leisurely pace—something I firmly believe was right as a solo traveler and even more right when traveling with a child.
What ages were your children when you started travelling with them?
My niece was 11-years-old when we left in October 2011 and she was in the sixth grade. This was her first trip outside of the United States and it was fun for me to witness her wide-eyed enthusiasm for some of the things inside of the travel experience that had become almost commonplace for me.
Why did you decide that exposing your children to travel was important?
Travel expands your perspective and broadens world-view—both are easy things to say, but harder to learn unless you are directly exposed to the diversity and similarities of other cultures and people out there in the world. The “tween” years for children are a time when their brain is forming opinions and lessons they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. In traditional schooling, their teachers and friends are shaping their minds during these influential years, but for my family, with my penchant for international travel, and my flexible online work we decided to have my niece travel and explore the world at my side for nearly seven months. I may never precisely pinpoint what my niece Ana learned in those nearly seven months, but some of the identified lessons I was aiming for include gratitude, humility, consideration, wonder, fun, and a sense of possibilities. A tall order, but the world is an inspiring place and I couldn’t imagine a better place for Ana to apprentice those skills.
What is your travel style now that you travel with children? How did it change from before you were a parent?
Again, my position is different from many because I will now vacillate between the solo travels of my previous years, and also with my niece on her breaks from school and holidays. Through it all though, I believe that slow travel, and overland travel when possible, provides the greatest way to immerse and discover the elements of a culture that make it unique and special from other places on earth.
What has been the most difficult thing about travelling with children?
For me there was a difficulty finding the balance between traditional school work and the education you get from the act of travel itself. I believe there are so many lessons learned through traveling that could never be directly taught—but in that same breath I also fully believe in a formal, baseline education in the general core subjects (math, science, reading). Having faith that Ana was learning history, culture, and interpersonal lessons through travel, enough to justify the lessoned schoolwork, was tough as first but I gained a lot of confidence as we traveled and saw how much she absorbed from our experiences on the road.
What has been the most rewarding part of travelling with children?
Ana’s perspective and enthusiasm for the world was an unexpected joy. I don’t consider myself especially jaded, but after a few weeks on the road watching the wonder and awe Ana brought to the festivals, temples, and people we met was a reward I will try to keep in mind even when I do not have her at my side.
What is your favourite travel memory of travelling as a family?
Travel gave me the little moments with my niece that I just never took the time to notice before I left to travel with her. I was always very involved in her life before we left, but once on the road we had hours spent making up games to pass the time on buses, evenings spent dissecting new knowledge as we fell asleep in a guesthouse, and I learned the nuances of her moods, and just what it took to light a spark of interest inside of her. I learned to understand her more than I could have without the days of constant interactions, where we had to both adjust ourselves and our moods to make the act of near constant movement work for both of us. I know with younger children there is likely more of a conscious give on the parent’s side, but at 11-years-old, Ana was old enough to work with me to find our own travel dynamic and ways we could really enjoy each other’s company.
According to your neice, what is their favourite part about travel?
I’ll let Ana answer these next three questions. She wrote a blog as we traveled, and shared her own photos and thoughts, so I think she’d enjoy writing her own perspective:
My favorite part about travelling is probably all the new experiences and paths you get to take. Being able to open up your mind and try new things is something that not lots of people my age like to do, especially with the opportunity that I had. So the best part is definitely trying new things and knowing that not a lot of people take that opportunity they have every day.
According to your neice, what was their favourite place you have travelled as a family?
My favorite place that I travelled to was for sure Thailand. The food there is AMAZING, the people are SO NICE, and it gives you an indescribable feeling. Being in Thailand gave me a really positive energy that I’ve never gotten anywhere else before.
According to your neice, where in the world do they most want to travel to next?
There are so many places that I want to travel to. If I had to choose between Italy, Spain, England, or France, it would probably be Spain. I’ve been taking Spanish for two years now, so it would give me a great opportunity to practice. From the pictures I’ve seen and stories I’ve been told, Spain also seems like a very beautiful place that you would just want to venture around all day and take millions of pictures.
What tips would you offer parents when it comes to travel with children?
For the parents of tween and teen aged travelers, I would recommend keeping their fingers busy as you travel. I was given this advice in the first weeks of our travels in Thailand, and, outside of the people we met, the crafts and activities we found over the succeeding months shaped many Ana’s most prominent memories of Southeast Asia. We found traditional weaving classes, stencil carving techniques taught by a former monk, we hunted down beads for bracelet making, and took weekly Thai lessons since this is where we spent the majority of our time. I tried to keep Ana immersed in the crafts and more hands-on aspects of any adventure. So to that end—go bike riding when you explore one place, snorkel on the beaches, and try out any of the new forms of transportation you encounter. Teens need stimulation if you’re on the road long-term (just as they will also need several down days of books and time relaxing by a pool). Really, I took my cues from Ana and let her choose from the variety of things I found by looking at flyers, internet forums, and travel guides.
Are there certain destination or holiday types you would recommend for parents travelling with children?
I believe you can bring your child on nearly any type of vacation you dream of taking, as long as you set reasonable expectations—give yourself an appropriate amount of time to see a place, build downtime into your schedule, and be flexible enough to change whatever your go-to travel style used to be to one instead that embraces the needs of your child, whatever age and requirements that may bring—for us that meant school time each day and internet access, for others with small children that may mean daily naps.
And finally – what are you upcoming travel plans?
When my niece and I returned from Southeast Asia we were unsure of what traveling and schooling would look like once we returned. I finished homeschooling her through the sixth grade, and the first semester of her seventh grade year—we flirted with the idea of her coming with me in January 2013 for a semester of Spanish immersion in Mexico, but at the end of the day we recently decided to re-enroll her in public school … for now. I will still travel to Mexico next, but alone. And even if we do not homeschool again, I will continue to take my niece on adventures during the summer months when she is not in school, and I am planting seeds now for her to perhaps do a student exchange program in high school. Lots of options! I would really like her to have near fluency in Spanish, so our next travels will likely include a Spanish speaking country when we do leave again together. 🙂