Travel itself improves how kids perform in school. But sometimes, we want to travel specifically to learn and to grow. These destinations look especially magical through children’s eyes, and are guaranteed to spark their brains as well.
1. Pompeii and Herculaneum (Near Naples, Italy)
Not for the faint of heart or the nightmare crowd. Lessons learned: we can be curious, earth science saves lives, we share a common humanity, and that people lived quite well 2000 years ago. If your love is earth science, art, or history, you’ll find something to think about in these macabre buildings. Even if you can only go in a few of them.
2. London, England
It’s hard to compile an education list that isn’t ethnocentric, Western, and, well, racist. But when you pilfer the world’s goodies, you tend to have a beautiful collection worth seeing. So visit the Elgin marbles, call them something else, and then go see local history from the Tower of London to Westminster Abbey. Chaucer, Dickens, and Rudyard Kipling are all in residence.
3. Maasi Mara National Reserve, Kenya
Where else do monkeys climb through the sunroof and steal your lifesavers?
In the Maasai Mara preserve, owned by the local Maasai people, there are plenty of chances to witness the circle of life: birth and death are on display, which always makes for some interesting lectures. You’ll need to learn the “big five” and look out for them: lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo, and rhino. Neolithic pottery has also been found in the preserve, and it’s fun to imagine what life must have been like in the days before tusk-proof housing and fast-moving Land Rovers.
4. Costa Rica
It’s the kindler, gentler version of watching lions eat gazelles: sea turtle egg-laying, anyone? Costa Rica has ecological delights and plenty to talk about: a cloud forest, a volcano, beaches, and rain forests. Monteverde has zip lining through the trees, and the Refugio Nacional de Fauna Silvestre Ostional has the turtles’ egg-laying action, which peaks in August. There are also tide pools at the beach, iguanas, howler monkeys, starfish, and fun, see-through ghost crabs. I don’t know about you, but my kids are interested in anything that might be termed a “ghost crab.”
5. Colorado…65 million years ago
The Museum of Western Colorado offers dino digs, hosted by paleontologists, that just reinforce how much we want our kids to ask for what college kids have to pay for in order to get credit. There are digs, but also river raft trips to see Jurassic features and dinosaur tracks. Want to amp up the science? You don’t even have to leave the continent.
6. Williamsburg, Virginia
Colonial life captures the imagination, and there’s nothing quite like buying cool old-timey musical instrument souvenirs and touring the governor’s mansion. But near Colonial Williamsburg, older kids can also get an engineering education at Busch Gardens amusement park. Or an animal education. The park offers both behind-the-scenes tours. You can see what it’s like to work as an animal-keeper in the park, or figure out how that roller coaster keeps its passengers safely inside.
7. The California Coast, USA
The California beach usually conjures up images of Elvis, not education. But in three leisurely days skipping up the coast, my kids learned more than they probably should have about Marilyn Monroe at the Hotel del Coronado, William Randolph Hearst, sea lion protection, Monterey Bay tides, earthquakes, redwoods, Chinese immigration, and Alcatraz escapees. My 9-year–old has revamped her runaway destination of choice to Brazil based on her knowledge of these prisoners and U.S. extradition policies. Her general knowledge amazes me. And we didn’t even take that tour.
Kids can’t go up the steep steps to the very top tower, and you’ll likely melt of heat the rest of the time. But this is another one of those awe-inspiring destinations that imparts a certain sense of human destiny into travel. You know, the best part of why we do what we do. Build in the 12th century, with ropes, pulleys, and more stone than the pyramids, the place gives off a sense of having been built with love. Bonus: tuk tuk rides.
9. Machu Picchu, Peru
High in the Andean mountains, you get to take a train to the ruins and see where the Inca had a better time adjusting to the altitude in the 1400s. They build a city on top of this near-8,000 foot peak. You can talk about Spanish colonizers, but also those from Yale, and the future of the site considering its precarious position on top of the world.
This one is free, provided you have time and access to reasonably updated computers with internet. Google earth offers visitor photos and the ability to navigate around sights as if you were really there. Try finding the Taj Mahal, Stonehenge, the learning tower of Pisa, Versailles, your local stadium, and even Mars.