Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

By Maya Payne Smart

With a cross-country move and book deadline looming amid a global pandemic, a long, lazy summer vacation on a beach somewhere just wasn’t in the cards for my family. But we rallied in August to squeeze in a few long-weekend trips by plane, train, and automobile, so all wasn’t lost. In fact, we found that shorter trips, though less relaxing, had some surprising benefits. Most pertinent to this blog, they ramped up our reading, writing, and learning in unanticipated ways. 

Having just a few days to work with, we had to bring greater diligence to researching, selecting, and scheduling our activities. Every minute mattered, so we had to find out in advance what was open and how close those attractions were to where we were staying and to one another. We also wound up doing more formal tours than we ordinarily would, as a shortcut to plunging right into the history, culture, and geography that made the destination special. 

Interestingly, the brevity of the trips also heightened our attention to informational signs, pamphlets, and placards. Since we weren’t going to be there long and wouldn’t be returning again soon, everything got a more careful read than it otherwise might. We read about the craftsmanship and donors behind the Thai Pavilion at the Olbrich Botanical Garden in Madison, Wis. We stopped to contemplate Bisa Butler’s gorgeous portrait quilts at the Art Institute of Chicago and also read the fine print, including the playlist of songs she and her husband (a DJ) curated to go along with the exhibition.

This got me thinking about ways to build reading and writing into weekend escapes and other short family trips. Working literacy skills into regular life with kids is a favorite topic on this blog. Vacations always offer new and different opportunities for family time, and every chunk of time together is a new chance to weave in a little learning, too.

So, with that in mind, here are five short-trip-inspired activities that you can incorporate to maximize reading, writing, and learning along the way and make your travel with kids as educational as possible:

Read print copies of local publications.

The free tourism publications stocked in train stations and the city magazines for sale in grocery stores both provide wonderful reading materials for traveling families. The youngest kids can turn the pages and gaze at photos, as well as listen to us parents read relevant bits out loud. Older ones can engage with the print at their level, reading headlines and photo captions or the whole shebang. 

I sent my daughter on a scavenger hunt of sorts right from her seat at the Amtrak station, just by asking her to fold down the corners of pages featuring attractions she wanted to check out. Sure, we could look this stuff up online, but the print format was more immersive (no flashing ads or distracting popups) and provided a welcome break from her iPad. 

Plus, reading the publications from cover to cover introduced us to things we might have skipped past when clicking through web page links. We even read the pamphlets intended for visitors to our own city, finding local things to do that we’d never heard of.

The takeaway for kids: Reading can help you find cool places and fun activities you wouldn’t otherwise discover. It can also teach you details that might help convince your parents to take you there.

Chart your course with a paper map.

We’ve become so accustomed to dynamic turn-by-turn navigation on our phones and in our cars that we often overlook the brilliance of old-school paper maps. During our August travels, we navigated museums, gardens, nature trails, train tours, and neighborhoods all with the help of visitor guide maps. 

Besides showing us how to get from Buddha Shakyamuni Seated in Meditation in Gallery 140 to Jordan Castille’s Barack in Gallery 295, the guides also offered some tidbits on the local landscape and history. We learned, for example, that The Art Institute of Chicago is located on the traditional homelands for the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi Nations, and that the city of Chicago itself is home to one of the largest urban American Indian communities in the United States. 

The street maps that accompany sight-seeing bus tours are another great reading resource for visualizing a city’s layout, seeing where must-see attractions are clustered, and familiarizing kids with map-reading. 

For extra engagement, consider letting your child take the lead on deciphering the map and guiding the family.

The takeaway for kids: Maps are miniature versions of real-life locations, so reading them can help you chart your course.

Find regional specialties on restaurant menus and at farmer’s market stalls.

One of the joys of travel is experiencing different food and drinks than you find at home. Encourage kids to get in on the fun by scouting out things that are different from whatever they normally eat at home or order at your local restaurants. 

Treat it like a scavenger hunt and have them dive into menus and ingredient lists to discern what seasonings, food pairings, and cooking techniques set the destination’s dishes apart. What makes a pizza Chicago-style? Exactly what kind of fish are they frying every Friday in Madison? How is frozen custard different from ice cream?

Even if you wind up at the same old chain during a travel stop, encouraging your child to read the menu for themselves (or even—gasp—try something other than their usual dish) will up the learning and make the experience fresher for you, too.

The takeaway for kids: Menus tell stories about the origin and preparation of food, and reading them can help us find yummy favorites and point us toward new things to try.

Watch time fly with bus schedules, itineraries, and terminal signage.

There’s no better place to learn the vocabulary of travel than when you’re on the road. Show kids your itinerary and point out key features like arrival and departure times, gate numbers, and special boarding instructions. 

Point out the directional signage in airports and train stations, or along the highway. It’s not always obvious to kids that you know where to go because of what you’re reading as opposed to innate knowledge or past experience. 

Pro tip: When teaching travel words (or any vocabulary), tell your child what the word means, give an example, and then also give a counter-example or non-example to deepen their understanding. 

For instance, you might share that arrival is the process of getting somewhere. Then when you, say, land at an airport, explain that you’ve just arrived in the arrivals hall. You could also point to the words arrivals and departures on signage and explain that you departed from point A and have arrived at point B. A non-example of arrival would be staying somewhere. Explain that after you’ve been in the terminal for a bit, you’re no longer arriving. Rather you’re sitting, standing, and staying awhile.  These are the kinds of examples, comparison, and contrast of similar words that help kids grasp shades of meaning. 

The takeaway for kids: Reading signs, schedules, and itineraries helps us get where we’re going on time.

Write to savor memorable experiences or express local inspiration.

All of the ideas above can be deepened or extended with the help of writing. Kids of all ages can record their thoughts, process their experiences, and make memories on the road if you provide paper, crayons, markers, or pencils.

Give your child a small journal to encourage writing about their travels, or just offer writing materials in the moment. We forgot to bring a little notepad on one museum visit and my daughter improvised by writing a rap on the back of a business card. Later, back at the hotel, she began writing a novel on an app she downloaded onto her iPad. 

These weren’t journal entries or school assignments, but creative, authentic writing inspired by what she was seeing and experiencing while away from home—proof that literacy needn’t feel like homework.

The takeaway for kids: Literacy is a two-way street. You can take in all of the print surrounding you in the world; read, interpret and use it for your good; and also add to the body of language in the world by creating some writing of your own.

How do you make your travel with kids educational? Share your ideas below or message me on social media!