I’ve been globetrotting with my children since they were 6 months old: first international trip to Mexico when the oldest was 6 months old, next trip to India at 18 months, Poland at 3 years, then to France, the UK and back to India at 5 years and many more world adventures since….
Now my children are teenagers, almost ready for college and traveling with them presents completely different joys and challenges. The biggest challenge: getting them off their phones and inspiring them to be interested in the fantastic destination (in my opinion!) we’re headed to.
I’m still trying to figure out my fullproof “Travel with Teens” formula, but here are a few strategies I’ve had success with so far:
#1 Pay attention to THEIR interests. Long gone are the days when my interests drove the agenda and the kids happily tagged along for the ride! Now I need to figure out what THEY like and find a link to our destination:
#2 Food is a big incentive! Most kids like to eat, and ALL kids need to eat. When traveling, food tours are the best - a great way to enjoy food AND learn a lot of cultural tidbits from a local. Frying Pan Food Adventures is a great example in Dubai. Even if you don’t have a food tour experience, just going to a local restaurant can be a great cultural experience. Do your research beforehand on which local restaurants provide an authentic experience and avoid tourist traps. It’s helpful to identify some of the traditional dishes you might like to try before you go.
It's also fun for teens to check out well known international food franchises like Starbucks and Mcdonalds when they travel. Teens will appreciate the brand familiarity, but they might also be exposed to some differences: the menu, the prices, the architecture (the most beautiful Mcdonalds I ever went to was in Budapest – old style European with tall ceilings and chandeliers!). This may not be a “local” experience, but it will have been "localized", and can also be a great way for teens to people-watch and see what their local peers look like and do in another country.
#3 Give them options and let them choose! Teens don’t like having things imposed on them, so it helps to research a few options ahead of time (or best is when teens are inspired to research themselves). Shortlist a few and let them pick their favorites to visit. You might end up on a tour of a country’s most Instagramable Spots (which could be great for you too!)
There are some real gems out there in the world that teens can enjoy, and I am discovering that my teens preferences are uncovering destinations and experiences I would otherwise not have have discovered! I just have to work in a different way to unearth them.
Soon after we moved to Washington DC last year, I hung our "Squirrel Buster" mini birdfeeder from the dogwood tree in our garden in direct view of our kitchen window. I had no idea at the time, just how much our family would learn from this birdfeeder. It used to hang from a tree at our house in Dubai, but in 3 years hardly any birds had visited it: I suppose it was the desert after all...
But hanging it in Washington DC has been a completely different story! Every morning, there’s a steady stream of birds flying back and forth to claim the hearty milieu of pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and millets generously dispensed (FOR FREE!) from our birdfeeder. Observing the activity for even 5 minutes is (almost?) as engrossing as watching reality TV!
Here are some regulars from the cast of characters:
By noon the birdfeeder is almost always empty, and activity dies down for the day…. The cast has changed with the seasons with different birds appearing during the winter when the migratory birds have flown south to warmer climates.
It’s been so interesting and fun for our family to watch and learn about the animals we share our habitat with. For those of you looking for easy ways for your kids to connect with nature in a meaningful way, I HIGHLY recommend installing a birdfeeder: watch closely (and regularly) and see the drama unfold!
I finally had a world adventure of my own this month: first solo international trip in many years, while kids stayed home with Dad and Grandma. My visit to India immediately transported me out of my comfortably established routine in the United States to the completely different rhythm of another part of our world.
Sharing a few impressions:
Nature and people must share space: I quickly recognized that the room I was occupying at our family farm in India was NOT my own, and I would have to make peace with the 2 lizards who had made their home there long before I moved in. I REALLY dislike lizards (and still carry the scars of discovering one in my drinking water jug in Singapore a few years ago!) But this room was their space after all. I studied their movement patterns for days, so I could sleep at night without fear that I would wake up to a lizard on my pillow! I had no choice but to coexist with my reptilian roommates...
Where tech does NOT yet rule… While the rest of the world (including Indian tech centers like Bangalore) race ahead with tech innovation and integration, some places like rural Uttar Pradesh where I was, still don’t have basic infrastructure like stable electricity and internet connectively to jump on that bandwagon. The upside? Kids still play the old fashioned way: climbing trees, kicking around footballs, playing hide and seek, and adults work and socialize together without the distraction of devices. Look at this market scene I visited: teeming with people, but not a single smart phone!
Growing food is a lot of work and risky business! It was wheat harvest time in northern India when I arrived, and I watched in awe as the combine machines cut, stripped and sorted the wheat kernels from the wheat stalks in minutes, drastically reducing the harvest time compared to what it would take with manual labor. But even then, an unexpected rainstorm almost ruined the pile of wheat kernels piled high in the collection area waiting to be bagged (by hand) and taken to the factory. Months of hard work potentially lost in minutes!
How do THESE children prepare themselves for the world of tomorrow so vastly different from the world they experience today? Pooja and Aysha (pictured above) are full of promise and potential, as all kids are. They could become farm laborers like their parents, or take another path... With full mechanization and automation of manual labor almost a foregone conclusion, where does that leave all those who need work in this country of 1 billion+ people, where labor is plenty and jobs are scarce?
As usual, my travel experience raised more questions than answers, and reminded me how much I appreciate the chance to step out of my routine for a moment and connect to another place, and another reality, on our planet.
Greetings from snowy Washington DC! It’s a far cry from my location last year when we still lived in the desert landscape of Dubai in the UAE. I clearly have forgotten a few things about living with the snow, since moving away 3 years ago, such as: shovel the pathway out of your house while the snow is soft...NO MATTER WHAT!
This past weekend, we got a lovely blanket of snow. The kids had fun playing outside, while I enjoyed sitting by the warm fire. But we all forgot to shovel the snow! By the time we emerged the next day, that beautiful snow had refrozen in the night into a treacherous slippery sheet of ice. We had to tip toe ever-so carefully to get from our door to the road without falling. Lesson learned!
One of the fun and challenging parts of moving around the world is learning how to navigate the particular landscape of each place we land in. I’ve learned the best thing I can do is pay close attention to what my neighbors are doing. So when I walked out the day after the snowstorm last week, I noticed every single of my neighbors had neatly shoveled their walkways and could walk safely out of their houses without fear of slipping (unlike us!).
Similarly, I learned in my first few weeks of driving in Dubai, NOT to park in the one school parking lot space which happened to be empty of cars (but full of sand) because your car might get stuck in that sand (as of course mine did – which is why no one else had parked there!). (Note to self: Dubai's very modern infrastructure and skyline sits atop a very sandy desert!).
Our family is still recalibrating to the skill set needed to live back home in the US. Every place we go, it seems, that skill set needs to expand, because each part of the world is unique. So wherever we are, I try to watch what the locals are doing and remind my children to do that too! It’s a good cultural (and landscape) lesson for us all.
I'm finally resurfacing after a summer of transition: We returned to home base in Washington DC after our 3-year assignment in Dubai, routing via Kenya for a wildlife safari (definitely the highpoint of the summer!)
Safari Highlight: Watching a cheetah stealthily hunt a gazelle!
Take home message: Everything is fair game in Nature!
For our children (now teenagers), this latest chapter in our global adventure was a chance to learn about life in a Muslim country ruled by an absolute monarchy, neither of which we’d experienced before. They experienced the reality of living in a desert landscape where water and shade are scarce, the sun is HOT, and sand is endless, and they saw what's possible, even in such a tough environment, if you have determined leaders with a vision. Most importantly, they made friends with kids who shared new perspectives – mostly Arab, British, South Asian, Palestinian at their international school – on everything from social trends to new foods and celebrations to politics.
It was a tearful goodbye for us all, but I always feel that’s the sign of a good cultural experience - that we made meaningful connections in a new part of the world which will stay with us long after we board the plane. Those connections have been the true gift of exploring the world with our kids; now we move onto discovering what awaits in our home country in the US…
Ambika Anand Prokop is a globetrotting teacher, environmental planner and mom. She loves creating fun, interesting, meaningful and educational opportunities for children to engage with the many fantastic cultures and landscapes of our planet. Ambika has lived and traveled with her family in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the United States.