Via the magic of the Internet, the children of today can -- with just a few quick clicks of a mouse -- "arrive" just about anywhere they want to in the world. Awaiting them there will be interactive websites, videos and sometimes even live cams. It is indeed a brave, new and easily accessible world in which they live. But does that necessarily mean that it is a better one?
The answer to that has to be a qualified "yes." Thanks to the Internet and the corresponding information superhighway, it is now possible for children of even moderate means to be able to travel the world, quickly, safely and from the comfort of their own homes, schools or public libraries. And while a single picture may no longer be worth a thousand words, there can be no denying that what they are able to actually see on the screen is infinitely better educationally speaking than paragraphs of text which they are obliged to interpret through the generally limited lens of their own experience, lenses that invariably distort reality simply because they are not -- and cannot -- be calibrated to the wider world. No amount of creative visualization, for example, can accurately depict for a child -- and especially one who has never seen the ocean -- what a whale looks like in the wild or what it is like to be inside an active Hindu temple or Muslim mosque.
In that respect, the information superhighway and all its creative manifestations are an indisputable boon to children keen on exploring the big, wide world that lies beyond the confines of family, school, and neighborhood. But as long as it is only on the screen, it can be turned off or put away on a shelf of the mind and may never be referred to again. Anything significantly impressive experienced in person, however, gels in a multi-sensual way that is difficult for a young mind to forget, especially if it is radically different from anything else experienced before. While the specifics may dim over time, there will be no shrinking of what the mind remembers once it has been expanded to the realization that there is so much more than just one's own hometown, state and even country.
And it's not just the complete experience of seeing, hearing, smelling and touching everything with their own eyes, ears, noses and hands. What is just as important -- and absolutely beyond replication by any current technology -- is the fact that when they are there in person, they control the manner and sequence of the experience. They're not just seeing what the person controlling the camera has decided to show them, but whatever they choose to see, for whatever length of time and in whatever order they choose. That makes them the directors of their own travel documentaries and the resulting imagery their own personal video archives, starring them. Nothing locks in the inevitable mind-expanding experiences of travel than that kind of ownership. As improved a substitute as web surfing is therefore to turning over the pages of a book, it remains only a substitute to a child's being there in person and experiencing it for him or herself.
So where to go and how? Well, the answer to that is just about anywhere you'd like and in any way you choose. The world is a very big place indeed, with thousands of extremely worthwhile destinations. Very few people have the time and financial resources to see everything in the world they want to, so it's always a matter of picking and choosing among the most personally appealing "doable" options. But remember, travel, and especially travel with younger children, is as much about the journey itself as it is about the specific destination. What is important is that your child begins to see the big-picture reality that the world is made up of many different people doing many different things in many different ways. Such appreciation of diversity -- both of the physical world and the people who inhabit it -- is the beginning of a true global mindset, a quality that has become increasingly valuable, if not actually mandatory, in today's increasingly economically interconnected world.
Given the limited vacation time that most families have and the increasingly high costs of travel, many families will be unable or unwilling to take their children overseas. Fortunately, America is a very big country with plenty of its own nooks and crannies to explore, many of which come complete with their own global flavor in the form of long-standing ethnic enclaves or recent immigrant communities. What is important is that you get beyond your own backyard and a handful of favorite non-local destinations and open your children's eyes up to the vast world that awaits them. Even a small introduction can effectively whet their appetites for a lifetime of enriching and expanding experiences and start them down the road to becoming a 21st-century global citizen.
For a more complete discussion see Chapter 6 "Learning Through Travel" in my recently released book Raising Global Children: Ways Parents Can Help our Children Grow Up Ready to Succeed in a Multicultural Global Economy, published by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages 2013.
Marshall S. "Mike" Berdan is a travel writer based in Connecticut who also writes about American history and culture.