Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Traveling with Tots: The World is My Playground

I remember the first time I really went abroad. I was 16, a junior in high school, and I went to Mexico City and the small village of Angangueo, Mexico. When I heard about the trip at school through my Spanish class, I immediately wanted to go. My parents were so supportive - and shocked. Truth was, I was a really bad eater, and they couldn't believe I wanted to go somewhere where I would find the food absolutely terrifying. But I went. I ate some food. I spoke some Spanish. I couldn't get enough.

Fast forward to 2012. Living in Germany, husband in a corporate job, a 2.5 year old at home. We decided to take 4 months off of work to travel to SE Asia. We are lucky to have supportive and like-minded friends and family. People were very excited for us. But still, you heard it. You heard people who, well, doubted you. Who thought you were crazy. Such a pity that Simon won't remember anything. Why not wait until he's a bit older? Because the time is NOW!

We did it. We're back. We were on the road for something like 15 weeks of pure bliss and pure togetherness. And we are all better off for it.

So let me tell you why traveling with a toddler was awesome, important, and totally worth it for our family.

Quality Family Time
Like most young families, we are always struggling with the work/life balance battle. While I am at home with Simon, Martin works long hours and isn't always home to see Simon before bed. Weekends are then a clusterf#*k of spending time together, trying to get some time to ourselves, finding time for each other, and catching up on sleep and errands. And as every one knows, kids grow up in a flash before your eyes. Traveling together as a family, that's quality time.

Spending every day with my son and my husband was a great gift. Also, take away the cooking, cleaning, and errands and time together was all all we had. That has its own challenges of course, but they were welcome challenges.

Makes them Smarter
OK. So maybe there aren't any scientific studies that say that traveling with young children actually makes them smarter, but I am going to go ahead and argue that it does. Extrapolating from the mounds of research available on early childhood education, it's hard to believe that travel with young kids could be anything but good.

Research on early childhood education clearly indicates that years 0-3 are incredibly formative. These years lay the foundation for your child's education, and what better classroom than the world?!? At this age, kids are like sponges - soaking it all in. While they may not remember it as an older child might, they no doubt still experience it. That counts for a lot.

When we travel, we see and hear and experience people and cultures that are different from us. For young children, this can actually make them more intelligent. (See - I told you so!) Children who distinguish racial differences from an early age are abetter able to recognize subtle differences between color, shape, and size. This, in turn, leads to higher performance on intelligence tests!

Play Time
I recently read an article in The Guardian that suggests we need to leave our children alone. Modern parenting is making our kids miserable, and many kids today are effectively living "under house arrest." This is  a reference to the modern über-parenting, which results in over-scheduled kids whose well-meaning parents push them to do-do-do in fear that they will fall behind in the rat race that seems to now begin at conception. 

Society instils a fear of the future that can be appeased only by sacrificing present play and idleness, and children feel the effects in stress and depression.

Children are socialised into awareness and respect for the will and autonomy of others, so that, when necessary as they grow, they will learn to hold their own will in check in order to maintain good relations.

Traveling is an opportunity to exit this ridiculous rat race, forever or for a brief moment. Even though we were on the road and frequently moving, Simon had an enormous amount of independence and opportunities to play. At such an impressionable age, when so much rapid development is still happening, it was a great chance to foster his independent spirit and expose him to new things. Who can argue with the world as your playground?

If it changes you....it changes them
We may have only been on the road for 4 months, but it changed us. It changed me and it changed Martin and it changed Simon. They may not all be tangible changes, but it impacted us all greatly. 

It gave me more confidence as a mother. When we set out on our trip, I was not sure how it was going to go with a 2.5 year old, but I was willing to find out. Turns out, it can go really, really well. Simon surpassed all of my expectations. He embraced new experiences, new foods, new people, and new languages. He showed flexibility and patience that, had it not been tested, I would not have known was there. I also learned flexibility and patience - a constant lesson in motherhood, no doubt. But one worth learning over and over. I learned so much about him, and in turn about me. 
Pad thai....YUM!
It's not to say that traveling, whether for a short or extended time, isn't challenging with small kids. It is. And it has its limits. Like the time we went on a hilly 4 hour hike and I carried our 16 kg (36 lb) guy on my back the entire time. I paid for it dearly with heat exhaustion and was sick for 4 days. Lesson learned. There are some things you have to give up.

On the flip side, I had great conversations with moms from Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia (among others) about parenting, raising children, the role of dads. It was fantastic. I would not have had that conversation 5 years ago. At the Angkor temple of Ta Prohm, we played hide and seek and got really dirty. It is one of my most cherished memories.
Hide-and-seek at Ta Prohm
What will they remember?
I don't know, and to be honest it's not that important because I will always remember. We shared an amazing experience together as a family. Now that we are back home, my son loves to look at pictures from the trip and surprises me with what he remembers. And as long as we share our memories together as a family, there is no way that any of us will forget.

Admittedly, I was not a toddler when I had my first taste of international travel. And maybe it's not comparable. We followed our dreams, we acted on what was good for us now, good for our family. We did something that made us happy. And we are all very, very happy!

Thinking about traveling with your young kids? Do it now! And then do it again later. Or just don't stop. The options are endless. The world is your playground.

Life has no limit, if you're not afraid to get in it. ~ Mason Jennings

Want to know what other traveling families think it does for their kids? Check it out!

Bohemian Travelers: Is Traveling With Young Kids Worth It?

Nancy from Family on Bikes: Why Travel is Good For Kids Even If They Don't Remember It

Catherine et les fées: Travel Memories...

Alisa from Living Outside of the Box: But Will our Kids Remember 

Melissa from Break Out of Bushwick: Never Too Young: Why Travel Isn't Wasted on Kids

Bethaney from Flashpacker Family: Is Traveling With Young Children Worth It?

Jenn Miller from Edventure Project: Why Travel Isn't Wasted On the Very Young  

Heather Costaras from Living Differently: The Gift Of Travel

Kalli from Portable Professionals: Why I don't care if our child remembers our travels

Kirsty from Barts go Adventuring: Will Kids Remember Travel? Is It Worth It? 

Anne from The Journey is the Reward

Sharon from Where's Sharon: Why Travel When Your Kids Are Too Young
Annie from Practical Adventurology: Why You Should Travel With Kids Even if They Won't Remember It
Lainie from Raising Miro on the Road of Life (and Aimee from Suitcases and Strollers): Doubt That Travel has Value

Monday, May 27, 2013

Queen's Day - A Great Day to be Dutch

It may be the perfect time to move to Amsterdam - shortly before Queen's Day. This is because Queen's Day is one of the biggest holiday in Amsterdam (and Holland) and it's a great introduction to so many things Dutch.

This year there was a lot of extra anticipation regarding Queen's Day as it is the last one! Queen Beatrix abdicated the throne on April 30, 2013 and Willem-Alexander took over as King. Many Dutch emotionally watched this transfer of power take place, but of course it meant nothing to us. We were out exploring what Queen's Day was all about.

King Simon!
First and foremost, we understood that it was important to dress right. So we all donned whatever orange we could find, and set out to explore the streets of our new city, which had turned into vrijmarkt ("free market") overnight. The streets were lined with Dutch trying their luck at selling secondhand clothing, games, light fixtures - you name it. 
The Vondel Park on Queen's Day

On Queen's Day the city becomes what I can only describe as a giant garage sale! We wandered through the Vondel Park, which was filled with families selling their wares as well as all sorts of little performaces. We saw small children playing the violin, jamming on their drums, or doing gymnastics. A small hat was always out front for tips. It was charming!
Party on the water!
We wandered back into the city streets and witnessed the progression of the party via the Prinsengracht (a canal) where many party boats pass through. As the afternoon wore on, the canal became more congested, the music seemed louder, and the mayhem continued. There was dancing on the street, street food vendors everywhere, and a general aura of genuine happiness. It really is a great day to be a Dutchie and to live in the fabulous city of Amsterdam.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Hi....It's Me!!

I know. I have been very bad about writing lately. And by lately I guess I mean since we got back. It's not that life after our Big Adventure in SE Asia is unexciting - it's not. I mean, we just moved to Amsterdam, a new city in a new country. It is another big adventure. Another big adventure that is exciting and a lot of work. So here is a little of what we have been up to, adjusting to our new home in the Netherlands.

Our first few weeks were jam packed with daily exploring adventures. As we finally moved into our flat we have had to juggle between getting things done and playing. We did take the time to check out the amazing Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden. It was fun to take a train ride out there, easy to get to, and had great exhibits in both Dutch and English. The life sized animals and dinosaurs were a big hit.

The Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden

We have also been hard at work sampling some of the local cuisine. And by local cuisine I mean pancakes. I know I should branch out, but Simon and I have a slight addiction to the bacon pancakes. Add just a little bit of syrup. Sweet. Salty. Perfection!

Bacon pancakes...YUM!
It has been so long since I've written that Easter falls into this black hole. We were still in temporary living, so we did not do any at home celebrations. But we did manage some last-minute emails with the Easter Bunny who hid some eggs for Simon at the PureMarkt. It was a really fun market full of local foods, flowers, and goods. Martin had a pulled pork sandwich and I had a Chilean empanada. It felt luxurious.
Easter eggs!
Simon is very happy now in our new flat with his new room. We were fine on the road for 4 months, but those 5 weeks in a tiny flat in Amsterdam, with no beach at arm's reach, were a bit much for all of us.
We also got the chance to take in Dutch culture on the most Dutch holiday of the year - Queen's Day! Separate post coming on this crazy party day.
Queen's Day with King Simon!
It has been a very cold and slow spring here in Amsterdam. (OK - Minnesota you have had it much worse.) In the last week the weather has finally started turning and the Dutch are pretty darn happy about it. We showed up at the Vondel Park last week on a beautiful day and all the kids had stripped down to their skivvies and were running through the shallow wading pool. (Let me point out that I was wearing a jacket and scarf that day.) Of course Simon wanted to frolic with the other kids, and when he got down to his boxers he looked over at me and said, "Mama, it's cold!" But he persevered and ran around in the water and did some "fishing" and caught some sharks. It was pretty crazy. Can't wait to see what summer is like!
60F and sunny....do as the Dutch do!
Our influx of visitors has also begun! The Bryden clan came to Amsterdam for a fun weekend of parks, pancakes, and English book stores. It may be only 2 hours away, but it seems worlds away from Düsseldorf. We also had old friends from the US, now living in Russia, visit us for a final hurrah before they have their first baby in July! We hadn't seen them since we left Dallas 3 years ago. And as I sit here typing this now, I am just hours away from my in-laws arriving for a long weekend.
Oh yeah, tulips!
Buddies reunited!

We have also slowly been making friends, which is a huge relief. Although the photo below might suggest otherwise, Simon really did enjoy his new buddy's Angry Bird birthday party. He seemed to be the only one with enough discipline to sit down and finish his whole piece of cake. Couldn't have been prouder! 

Of course, we have been doing many other not so fun things that have no photo accompaniement. This includes figuring out the school system, finding a creche, navigating the health care system, registering with the city/country, selling our stuff, organizing the flat...all the little things that, especially as an expat, take up way too much time and brain space. 

Oh - and Simon is potty trained, sleeping in a big boy bed, and done napping. In Mama-world, those are also quite a big deal. As Simon says, "Simon big boy!"

But I'm back! It's me! I will try to be better, I promise!