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Give children the gift of travel

By Katia Hetter, CNN
updated 9:36 AM EST, Thu December 20, 2012
Experienced parents traveling with children know that a pool or beach provides the little ones with a needed break.
Experienced parents traveling with children know that a pool or beach provides the little ones with a needed break.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The gift of travel is likely to affect children long after toys, computer gadgets are forgotten
  • Wrap a sleeping bag, atlas or geography puzzle to connect kids with upcoming trip
  • Involve kids in plans so they're excited about the adventure they're about to embark on

(CNN) -- If Melika Nixon has a free moment and a few extra dollars, she's planning a trip with her 7-year-old twin boys.

Even though one of her sons has serious medical issues, including a kidney transplant and feeding tube, it doesn't stop this Huntsville, Alabama, family. The trip list has included Asheville, North Carolina; Atlanta; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Chicago; Louisville, Kentucky; Nashville and the Bahamas.

"Travel is a way of life for us," says Nixon, a single mother. "It is a way for us to explore cultures, people, food and places, and to see that there is more to life than just our way of doing things. Travel is a way for me to teach my children respect (for) others and appreciation for life."

They also learn to take care of themselves in new places. "They learn that exploring is a must. They learn to ask questions. They learn how to navigate cities. First and foremost, they have to know the name of our hotel and how to get back to it if they were to ever get lost. They learn that life must be lived and not watched on TV or played on a video game."

Put something under the tree

This holiday season, as parents struggle to figure out what toys to give their children, consider giving the gift of travel. Although none of the gifts Nixon has given her sons can be found under a tree, they're likely to last longer than the latest computer gadget or hottest electronic toy.

Younger children won't really understand that a future ski trip to Colorado, swimming in Santa Monica, California, or a week at Disney World is a (pricey) present, says Eileen Gunn, founder of the family travel website FamiliesGo!

That's why it's a good idea to wrap a travel-related present to put under the tree. It can be a stuffed elephant for a trip to the San Diego Zoo or a Disney movie for Disney World or the "Anne of Green Gables" books for a trip to Prince Edward Island in Canada.

Robert Reid is giving his daughter a sleeping bag for Christmas, part of his plan to take the 3-year-old on a camping trip next year. He got the idea from building forts and tents in their home.

As he starts to plan the trip, "I'm looking at her interests," says Reid, Lonely Planet's U.S travel editor and contributor to the publisher's "Not For Parents" book series. "I can't wait to do more trips and plan with her. I can't wait."

Maps, landmarks and animals

Teach them geography by giving them age-appropriate atlases and travel books for the journey, and hang a large map on their bedroom wall where they can pinpoint their travels, suggests Jennifer Emmett, editorial director of National Geographic Society's children's books department.

Older children and teenagers will be more interested in doing research for your travels if you let them help choose activities at your destination and or even help choose the places to visit.

"We find that kids get genuinely inspired by the idea of seeing places and landmarks they think are cool," Emmett says.

Even younger children who can't read can get excited if you link their favorite animals to the places you're visiting, such as crocodiles in Florida or bears in Alaska.

"Young kids latch on to the fact that China is where pandas live, Australia is the home of kangaroos, and lions are in Africa, and on and on," Emmett says. "Linking animals to a place makes the place come alive in kids' heads."

Little children will need a bit more care and feeding on any vacation, however. Don't assume they will suddenly get more energy or need less sleep when they're on vacation.

"Younger kids need to stick to those schedules," says Lissa Poirot, editor of FamilyVacationCritic.com. "You need to give them their snacks and nap time. You don't have to see it all in one day."

Poirot recommends finding a hotel with a good swimming pool, where children of all ages will like to relax.

'It's not the destination, it's the journey'

Dawn Wilson loves traveling and is proud her children know how to travel, whether the family of five hits the road or boards an airplane.

When they see her organizing her car, her children ages 9, 7 and 5 ask if she's going on a trip and if they can join her. When they head to the airport, the two older children know how to carry their luggage, and the youngest has stopped bolting from her parents.

When any trip is announced, "They ask, 'Are we taking the short way or the long way?' " says Wilson, a stay-at-home mom in Dallas. "Meaning: Are we driving or flying? They're used to spending a day or two in the car, and they're getting a sense of how big the country is."

Wilson makes sure the destination has something for the children to enjoy, whether it's a beach, pool or amusement park. They often took night walks on the beach during their Vero Beach, Florida, trip, looking for crabs because the 7-year-old inspired them to do so.

When they drive, she plans a nice break in the trip. They took four days to drive from Texas to California last summer, stopping for two nights at a Tucson, Arizona, resort with a pool.

"They always say it's not the destination, it's the journey," she says. "I always incorporate the journey into the trip.

"My husband and I have had opportunity to travel without them when the grandparents offered to stay with them for a week. We don't want to go without them. We love traveling with them as family."

Do you remember your first trip as a child or the first trip you took with your children? Please share your memories in the comments section below.

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