We celebrated our wedding anniversary this year in French Polynesia, with a helicopter ride over Tahitian volcanoes. Maneuvering through the valleys of the caldera and over turquoise coral waters, mesmerized at the demigod-like sister island Moorea glistening in the afternoon sun, we hovered on in our “dragonfly” for nearly 20 minutes. Yet, what could be more fascinating for my two little girls than spotting two birds playing catch mid-air?
My thrilling experience was only deflated by my observation that my girls didn’t find the helicopter ride anywhere close to as fascinating as I had imagined. After the first five minutes of scenery, they seemed partly nervous and partly disengaged.
During our travel-schooling experiement, I am realising that geography, landscape and a sense of space-time is yet to become established in the kids’ minds. When we take modes of transport, their minds make sense of the movement as ‘teleportation’ instead of ‘locomotion’, unless they interact with or participate in every step of that journey. We were in point A, after some hours, we appeared in point B, rather than we traveled over a path of points to get to point B. Memorable landmarks become intermediate points on that path, but in their absence, especially on high-speed journeys, my kids tuned out.
Airplanes and airports are familiar for my girls because their dad is an aviation geek and their mom loves traveling. So while they enjoy being at airports, plane-watching and lugging their own little Disney suitcases, the very plane journey is mostly spent enjoying animated movies on the IFE. While there is much to learn inside an aircraft, it only lasts for the first few hours — the safety video is Sanaa’s favourite part and of late she has been quick to point out when I keep my belt unfastened quoting references to specific sections of the video! There are multiple signs coming on and off, announcements being made, the flight tracker map and so on. But after that they are back to the movies.
Contrary to the aerial experiences, the Tahitian adventure Sanaa loved the most and still raves about months after our excursion is horseback riding. In Tahiti Iti, she rode Matahiti, a beautiful, gentle brown mare. Our horses took us through untouched jungles where at one point the guide had to make a path by breaking overhanging branches, and finally to hill tops from where vistas over the ocean and the island were stunning. Interestingly, this was one of the most educational experiences for her because she had a chance to witness the end-to-end process of preparing and riding a horse — the way the owner of the ranch caressed and fed the horse before sharing with her that Sanaa would be riding her, then Sanaa could caress the mane once on her back, the whole briefing and wearing of the gear, the strange but fun movement of our bodies balanced on the saddle as Matahiti sauntered and eventually, even watching the horses in the ranch pooping. (I’m glad I received no questions about horse poo later on!)
Train journeys fascinated me as a child and so I was quite sure that Sanaa and Samaa would share in my joy of taking trains and learn much about the terrain we were traveling through. So, when traveling with the girls in Europe, we deliberately decided not to rent a car, and took trains everywhere — from Nice to Genoa Brignole (caveat, France and Monaco were stunning but much of the Italian ride was underground), Genoa Manin to the last village in the hills, Casella (narrow gauge), Genoa to Camogli, and finally, Camogli to Milan (Trenitalia). Comfortable, convenient mode of transport yet the journey was not engaging for my four and two year olds, and especially so if they slept during the ride. Looking outside at stunning but more or less similar scenery for several minutes or hours is just not engaging to their brains.
Yet, a big exception to this was our journey in the Puffing Billy in Melbourne, Australia. The Puffing Billy is a restored steam engine which takes you through the scenic and fragrant eucalyptus forests in the Dandenong ranges. A must-see attraction for all tourists, this also turned out to be one of the most enjoyable train rides for my girls. The slow pace, ability to see the whole train meandering like a never-ending worm and the beautiful surroundings made this better than teleportation!
Yet another notable exception was ferry rides. Be it a river cruise in Melbourne, or a ferry between Tahiti and Moorea or the choppy boat ride between Camogli and San Fruttoso in Italy, kids remained riveted as they watched the point of origin fade away into the distance and the destination approaching. Perhaps there is something about the water…ferries had a meditative effect on us and kids alike.
In general, walking, short ferries and horseback safaris are more engaging and hence conducive to children’s imagination, than taking modes of transport such as planes and trains. There are a few hacks I have in mind to make train rides more relatable to the girls, in the future. One of them is to take a tablet and show them the blue dot moving along the path as the train moves. Hopefully they won’t remember that the tablet can do much fancier things such as play Youtube! We will find out on our next trip.
What are some of the ways you have made modes of transport not just interesting but also educational for your kids? Please tell us in comments below.