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Five Fun Ways To Immerse Your Children In A Foreign Country

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Traveling out of the country with children can be fraught with concern, not just over logistics and jet lag, but wondering whether they’ll enjoy and remember the international experience. As a parent, I dream big with my expectations for our son. I want him to fall in love with each new culture, embracing the food, activities and people as I do. In reality, it can be an overwhelming shock to the senses that leaves him begging for his Kindle in the comfort of an air-conditioned hotel room. After many months of journeying around the globe, we’ve learned these five activities can turn a visit to a new country into one full of fond memories.

rutledge family riding camels
Experiencing history up close and hands on is the best way for kids to learn and remember. Riding a camel to see the pyramids in Egypt ensures it will never be forgotten.

1. Take A Cooking Course

We have found the way to our hearts is through our stomachs when arriving in a new destination. And for our son, there’s no better way to make the unfamiliar look appetizing than to chop, stir and cook it himself. Taking a cooking course is a high priority on our travel to-do list, preferably the first or second day of our trip. In some countries, the guide takes you to the local market for fresh ingredients, which is a great lesson in the local fare. In a fun setting, your family will learn several traditional dishes that may have looked frightening on a menu, but they now look, smell and taste delicious.

If your child is picky and you dread the foreign eating experience, consider investing in a half-day cooking course (many are very economical!) and see how they open their minds and palates to the local cuisine.

Try: A boat ride to an outdoor cooking class at Thuan Tinh in Hoi An, Vietnam, or a four-course lunch menu of traditional favorites at Zabb E Lee in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

suzanne and son
When they make it themselves, it’s much tastier! Thuan Tinh cooking school in Vietnam kicked off the tour with a fun boat ride to a remote village setting and introduced delicious, kid-friendly dishes like spring rolls and noodle soup.

2. Walk And Learn, For Free!

If your children are anything like mine, they always seem to learn better from others. If my husband and I attempt to lead our family on a self-guided walking tour, it inevitably lands on deaf ears. But, we discovered in many cities where we visit, there are free walking tours led by young, smart and engaging guides who not only keep my son’s interest, but engage him in conversation between stops on the tour.

These 2-3 hour tours are an excellent way to start a trip, get the history of the city and lay of the land. Some even have street food stops to introduce local fare. The guides also provide local recommendations on restaurants and answer questions about local transport or other sites. We have often invited our guide out to lunch following the tour to share a meal and learn more about them personally. In non-English speaking countries, they are usually very eager to practice their English with you and your children.

Because they are free, we never feel bad about bowing out early if our son gets tired (although that rarely happens!). However, we always tip them graciously because it is great value for money.

Try: Priceoftravel.com offers a list of free walking tours around the world, but you can find even more with a short Google search. Some of our favorites are in Melbourne, Hanoi, Hong Kong and Jaipur.

suzannes son on tour
Tour guides always win points with parents when they engage the children in learning. Our guides in Melbourne and Sydney turned our son into an avid walking tour enthusiast!

3. Pocket Some Change

There is always an interesting math lesson in your pocket when traveling in foreign countries. Whether you make it a daily counting ritual or an ongoing calculation of expenses, children are fascinated with foreign currency. Make it easy by observing the denominations and images on the coins and bills, or challenge your school-aged kids with some conversion exercises into USD. Either way, keeping a pocket full of change is a great way to engage your children in learning about the currency where you visit. And, don’t forget the best part -- spending it!

4. Visit A School

It may surprise your child to see that learning in another country is very similar to their own school in some ways, yet very different in others. Through local friends or tour guides, it’s possible for your child to visit a classroom in another country. Without the safety concerns of American campuses, small communities in other countries were very welcoming of our request to visit and observe a typical school day. My son found it intriguing that much of the day’s routine was the same as his classroom at home (recess was still his favorite!) and the teachers he encountered were eager and willing to engage their students with questions and conversation with our son about his school experience in America.

Every school situation is different and visiting can be as simple as a phone call or visit to the administration in advance. If you have local friends where you are going, ask them to reach out to their neighborhood school. Your child may feel more comfortable observing just one hour with you, or in some cases, the school may be willing for your child to sit in a classroom and participate throughout the day.

suzanne and family
In Jaipur, India, we were asked to speak to the student body about the importance of speaking English in a global economy. Experiencing another country’s school culture opens a child’s eyes to the classroom of the world.

5. Volunteer

A vacation is a vacation, but there is something rewarding about giving back to those in need. We’ve found that there are plenty of opportunities to work with organizations in foreign countries, either for a week or a day. It usually requires some time and research online to find a charity or cause aligned with your interests. But, some experiences can be as simple as asking your local hotel or tour guide to point you towards volunteer opportunities.

For a child, working with others while learning about an important cause can plant positive memories and a future desire to serve. Giving of themselves while seeing the benefit it provides others is a worthwhile lesson to teach early, and the intrigue of a foreign place enhances the experience.

Try: Elephant Nature Park rescue preserve outside Chiang Mai, Thailand, or connect with a local U.S.-supported orphanage or school (we found several through our church).

suzanne and family and elephant
Bathing, feeding and even scooping elephant dung make meaningful memories if you choose to serve while on vacation. Elephant Nature Park offers day trips or week-long volunteer opportunities.

Bonus: Play, Play, Play

We learned you must sprinkle in some pint-sized activities with your adult wish list to keep everyone happy on your journey. When kids are small, finding a local playground entertains them and gets out that never-ending energy. The adults might like the atmosphere too, engaging with locals or other traveling parents. We’ve also found it intriguing to see what playscapes and fixtures other countries use to entertain. While the U.S. parks may never shoulder the liability of a zipline in a public playground, they are quite common in other countries and our son’s favorite thrill ride!

If a playscape is not enough to interest your tyke, we have found renting bicycles is the perfect way to see a new place and expend some energy. Many rental companies offer child seats on bicycles, or once your child is on two wheels, consider a biking tour or explore a nearby riverfront or park.

Try: The playground in the Jardin de Tuilieries in Paris near the carousel or rent $3 bicycles to explore the temples of Angkor in Cambodia.

suzanne and family in front on temple

Suzanne, husband Mitch and son Luke took nine months off from their regular lives in Athens, Georgia, to travel around the globe. They plan to travel slow and visit friends, volunteer, home school their second grader and soak up what life is like in new and different places. You can follow their adventures at www.ruttotheledge.com.

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