Traveling with kids is no walk in the park, but we do it anyway, in hopes of opening their eyes to other cultures and raising citizens of the world. Yet when our kids grow bored, restless, or whiny -- as they inevitably do -- often our quickest fix is to shove an app-packed iPhone or other electronic device into their hands. This, of course, only prevents them from seeing and absorbing what we've dragged them so far from home to see and absorb. How to keep them engaged? After traveling to 16 foreign countries and 23 states with my sons, now seven and nine, I've learned some relatively effortless ways to open not only their eyes but also local people's doors:
1. Carry photos from home.
Bring pictures of your kids' daily life -- their street, their school, their classroom -- that they can show to the kids they meet. It's a conversation starter that will get them exchanging thoughts about the differences and similarities between the place you're from and the place you're visiting. The same way adults from different cultures share an instant connection when they bring out pictures of their children or grandchildren, kids from different cultures connect over photos too. If you want to bring something your kids can leave behind as little gifts, carry postcards from where you live.
2. Bring storybooks and audio books about your destination.
Take your kids to the library pre-trip to find age-appropriate reading about the place you're headed to. When I took my kids to Egypt, for instance, the Magic School Bus book Ms. Frizzle's Adventures: Ancient Egypt got them psyched about pyramids and mummies. Anticipating lots of time in a rental car? Bring or download the appropriate Magic Tree House audio book (High Tide in Hawaii was a lifesaver during our long drives on the Big Island last year).
3. Buy a cheap soccer ball when you arrive.
Your kids can kick it around any park in the world and most public squares, creating an instant bond with local kids. (Just be prepared to leave the ball behind when you go home.) If your kids are young, substitute an inflatable beach ball that you throw into your carry-on.
4. Do activities you've never done at home.
Not only do first-time activities make a trip vividly memorable, but they also instill in kids a sense of adventure and a feeling of accomplishment that will last long after the trip is over. Learning to surf in Hawaii, holding butterflies in St. Martin, sampling red oranges in Italy, and riding camels in Egypt are all activities that my kids have written school reports about.
5. Seek out fairs and festivals.
The action and color speak to kids. Small-town parades, balloon festivals, and Christmas markets work well. Sports events can do the trick too -- say, a cricket match in the Caribbean or a minor league baseball game in any number of U.S. cities.
6. Have your kids collect something throughout the trip.
This gives them a purpose and keeps them busy. Don't want to haul around a growing assortment of seashells, ice cream wrappers, free maps from tourist information offices, or Do Not Disturb signs from hotel rooms? Then let your kids collect them photographically: Give your child one of your ancient digital cameras so he can document every artifact he would have liked to keep. You'll soon find he's "collecting" monuments, people, landscapes, and everything else he needs to create a journal or make a presentation to his class back home.
7. Go to "verb museums."
That's my family's term for museums with plenty for kids to pull, push, climb, crawl through, and run circles around. Children's museums fit the bill, obviously -- we make them pitstops on our U.S. road trips -- but there are a surprising number of outdoor adult "museums" that qualify. My kids have raced in Seattle's Olympic Sculpture Park, climbed look-out towers at the Alhambra in Spain, played hide-and-seek in ancient amphitheaters in Turkey.
8. Visit a school.
This is where your photos and postcards from home will prove most useful. Sometimes you can just wander into a schoolyard spontaneously. In Jamaica, for instance, as soon as we turned into St. Mary's Preparatory School in Montpelier, the students took our kids by the hand and showed them their classrooms. They were instant BFFs.
9. Hit food markets and toy shops.
Every kid knows what his grocery store back home is like, so the choices presented by a foreign one are automatically interesting. Pick up the makings of a picnic -- a fun (and affordable) dining option because the kids can run around and play with other kids rather than being trapped in a restaurant. As for toy shops, you might have a rule against them back home, but they're something that kids can relate to and that put the other culture on their terms. Just announce before entering that you're not buying anything -- or that they get to choose one souvenir as long as it's made by a local artisan.
10. See touristy cultural shows you'd never waste your time on if kids weren't with you.
You might look down your nose at those corny shows with costumed dancers and musicians, but these might be exactly what your kids need to gain an appreciation of the culture. The highlight of our trip to Alaska was a tribal dance show in Sitka, thanks to the Tlingit kids we met (and the excessive number of cupcakes we bought at their bake sale).
You'll find more family travel solutions and strategies in my A-to-Z Family Travel Guide and if you want to win a $16,000 family vacation in the Caribbean, enter our A-to-Z Family Travel Contest here.