One of the best ways to experience a local culture is to be led by your children. Kids are natural explorers and scientists, full of wonder at the world, wherever they are in it.
Don't listen to people who say you shouldn't take your children overseas until they are toilet trained and have their own cell phones. Don't listen to people who say international travel with children under the age of 10 isn't worth the effort. It most certainly is, and there are many families out there have the tales to prove it.
And most of all, don't listen to people who say your children won't be able to appreciate the culture of the places you visit or remember what they've seen. What rubbish!
To me "culture" isn't found in museums and art galleries, it's found on the streets, on the buses and the trains, in the village squares and the cafes and the supermarkets. The culture of a country comes to life in the way people interact with children, the way one parent acknowledges another in the street. It may be silent sympathy for the tantrum your little one is throwing or an indulgent smile at a sleeping child, but it's a connection that never would have been made if you went without the kids or waited til the kids were "old enough to remember".
Travel presents all kinds of learning opportunities. Children get to see, hear and taste so many new things, new languages, new food, new modes of transport, new animals and, yes, even new flavors of gelato.
World-traveling mom and teacher Nancy Sathre-Vogel, who completed a masters thesis on brain research and how children learn, said travel helps build the connections in the brain that make learning easier.
The key to learning, according to Nancy, is growing dentrites, the physical connections within the brain that join cells together and allows messages to whiz from one part of the brain to another.
"As we travel, our kids are always in new and stimulating environments, therefore their brains are always growing dendrites which makes it easier for them to learn anything," she said. "It appears as though their brains are so stimulated by everything that is going on around them that they just pick stuff up -- it seems like it goes in through osmosis."
Of course, kids don't have to travel in order to learn efficiently. It's stimulating environments that help children learn. "It's just that it's easier to get kids in those challenging and stimulating environments while traveling," said Nancy, who blogs at FamilyonBikes.org/blog.
Nancy's twin sons, now 14, have been traveling since they were six weeks old.
"Their first journey was a whopping 35-hour trip from their birthplace of Boise, Idaho to Ethiopia where my husband and I happened to be living at the time," Nancy said. "Four months later, they returned to the USA and traveled to Massachusetts, Connecticut, Idaho and California before returning to Ethiopia again. By the time they turned two, my twins had visited seven countries and crossed the Atlantic five times. And since that time, they've continued to travel just as much."
Nancy's boys celebrated their third birthday in Thailand, their fourth in Ethiopia. They turned five in Bali, six in Malaysia and seven in Myanmar. When they were eight, they skipped third grade in order to spend the year cycling 9,300 miles around the USA and Mexico. When they were 10, the family flew to Alaska and started pedaling south toward Argentina. Three years and 17,000 miles later the "family on bikes" arrived at the southern tip of South America.
Nancy said traveling with her children when they were young added amazing depth to their cultural experiences in different countries.
"Yes, our children learned and benefited from the experiences, but so did my husband and I," she said.
"We fed giraffes in Kenya and monkeys in Belize," she said. "We wandered through golden temples and our sons got to ring enormous bells to signal a time of meditation. They ate rice with a crowd of indigenous children gathered in front of grandma who took turns feeding each child in turn with her chopsticks. We celebrated Chinese New Year and Carnival and watched the enormous bonfire of Meskel in Ethiopia."
Keryn Means is another American mom who travels with a toddler. Soon she'll add an infant to her entourage -- and the new baby will be just as well-travelled as his or her older brother.
"Yes we will have to deal with potty training and an infant in diapers," she said. "This doesn't diminish our experience however. It actually enhances it. We meet more locals with our young children traveling with us. We have a much more hands on experience in each city we visit. Nothing opens up a window into an unknown land like a child's curiosity."
Keryn's son has been traveling since he was five months old. He's basked on the beach in Hawaii, sweated it out on the streets of Hong Kong, climbed the stone steps to shrines in Kyoto in Japan and toddled along the Great Wall of China.
"At no point did I question if this was a waste of time and money," said Keryn, who chronicles her travels at www.walkingontravels.com. "Children learn at such an incredible rate that I never know just what he will absorb. Sometimes I think his takeaway from our travels is even greater than mine."
As for my little family, my daughter took her first international flight at nine weeks of age. She is not yet three but she has lived in Vietnam, Singapore and Thailand and we have taken her back "home" to Vietnam and Australia and on holidays in Malaysia and Indonesia. We have taken her on 16-hour train journeys and on overnight flights, and next month we will take her to France for a camping and cycling adventure from Marseille to Geneva in Switzerland.
While we are cycling across European countries we'll be potty training, we'll be dealing with toddler food fussiness and we'll be working around her nap times. We'll still be parents, dealing with all the parenting issues that everyone deals with, but we will be doing it while we travel to some amazing places, marvelling at the sights, the scenery and the food and meeting all kinds of interesting people. And I wouldn't want to do it without my baby. You can follow our travels at www.thedropoutdiaries.com. (We are not super-fit athletic parents, either, by the way. We are just trying to see Europe on the cheap!)
You can meet even more inspiring traveling parents on the internet. There are some great blogger parents out there. Let me introduce you to some of them:
Theodora Sutcliffe, a British single mom who is traveling the world with her 11-year-old son. She originally planned to travel for a year and so called her blog www.travelswithanineyearold.com. But Z is now 11 and they're still going, homeschooling along the way. They've wandered through Asia, Australia and spent winter in Europe. At the moment Theodora and Z are quad-biking somewhere in the Sinai Desert in Egypt.
Colin and Tracy Burns, an Australian couple with two kids who base themselves in Penang in Malaysia to make traveling easier. Colin and Tracy have only just returned to Penang after taking their kids (aged three and five) to Europe for their first white Christmas -- in Bulgaria! Colin and Tracy's travel plans this year include Vietnam, Sri Lanka and a trip home to Australia. Follow their adventures at www.ourtravellifestyle.com.
Christine Gilbert is in Beijing with her husband Drew and two-year-old son. Christine and Drew left their home in the US in 2008 and have been traveling ever since, pausing only briefly to produce a child. Last year Christine decided she wanted to learn Mandarin and so the family moved to China for six months of immersion language learning. You can follow their progress on www.almostfearless.com.
Amy and Jarrad are an Australian couple who have been traveling around Australia in a caravan since 2009 -- with their four kids! The kids are aged three to 10 and you can follow their travels at www.livinontheroad.com.au.
So if you have a desire to travel, spend some time looking at what other traveling familes are doing. There is an amazing world out there waiting for you -- and your kids.