Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living. Miriam Beard
Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me. Sigmund Freud
If travel broadens the mind of an adult it must do something even more significant for a child. Educators know that children learn best when new information can be connected to pre-existing knowledge. Providing opportunities for kids to explore ever-widening worlds, intellectual, imagined and real, is fundamental to helping them connect ideas and form deeper understandings of their world. Dialogue is fundamental to knowing but this is much wider than just talking with friends, family and teachers – it is an ongoing discussion with our culture.
We know that the spoken vocabulary a child possesses when commencing kindergarten is a very good indicator of future success, or otherwise, at school. Children develop their vocabularies by communicating with the their families. This is a process that continues for many years and includes sharing books, experiences, feelings and is a fundamental part of being human. It is also the best part of being alive as it can also connect us to the wider world of ideas and culture.
In, to use an expression tainted by political advertising, ‘working families’ time is of the essence. The regular week is so busy with the pressures of life. Travelling, and I have said this many times in blog posts I know, allows time with my family leads to many conversations that would just not happen in our regular lives at home. When travelling learning is hothoused by conversation, not just about what we are seeing but also how we perceive our own lives. My kids are curious and I have learnt that no topic, however complex, will lose their attention if it is grounded in what we have experienced together, especially if it starts with a question they have asked and leads far further afield than expected. There is just no need to mention ‘learning’ and it is best to just get on with having fun with ideas.
Prague and Vienna have such complex histories. We have spent hours and hours talking about religion, politics, history, art, people on the street and much more. I have not shied away from discussing really challenging questions about the Holocaust and Nazism or answering questions about religious practices that seem of a different time, inexplicable and very illogical. My youngest daughter will discuss communism, trying to understand it, with some really good questions. She called Prague ‘popey’ as the importance historically of the Roman Catholic Church, we visited a convent too, is everywhere to see. ‘Communists wouldn’t have liked that much about the place’ was another observation she made while walking the streets of this very walkable capital.
The ‘God thing’, is often discussed more sensibly and insightfully by children than adults. What do you say to a child who says, “it is pretty clear that God doesn’t exist so why do all these religions keep ignoring the truth?’ ? We visited a very impressive museum in Vienna that explored a range of rules that stem from the most ancient of religious texts. The plaques were read aloud by Miss 8 and then a discussion ensued. I had to censor saying lets talk about this after we leave. The most fundamental tenet of the education system in Australia must be a search for the truth along with respect for different ways of being but the tension that exists when cultural practices are linked to the word of God, is an issue of power, as much as tradition. Respect for others must be central to all discussions with children but enlightenment values cannot be quashed either. Tricky, I am sure you will agree.
I try to explain my own foibles, likely prejudices and beliefs by providing context while also suggesting I may be wrong about many things. Trying to makes sense of the world has to start with your own. Often that can be developed by asking what nan or grandma might believe or why Australia is the way it is. All of this probably seems quite heavy for young children but I am guided by their questions and responses. I find both girls completely curious about the large and the small of it all. They are readers.
My eight year old constantly amazes me with her creativity and intelligence. She is determined, resilient and very, very witty. Her stream of consciousness comedy routines, often inspired by what we are seeing, are a source of amusement for our family. Sometimes her irreverence is so satirical that we are a little stunned at what she can see of her world and us. Language seems to really interest her and she is very interested in understanding words when we travel, often using Google Translate or a hard copy dictionary. We have been translating the Viennale Film Festival program from German together. She is hard-working and will see a job through to completion. I got sick of it well before she did.
My 11 year old has a different kind of intellect. She remembers everything she is paying attention to and is very good at school learning. Give her a test and she will excel. She is in the state spelling competition finals next week and seems to do well with very little study (other than being a bookworm). Her ability to define a word is better than mine, it seems. It is like she is reading from the dictionary, there is great precision. When she draws there is very fine detail in the tiny figures and landscapes. She can concentrate for long periods of time. Often she is not quite with us and unaware of what has been happening around her through being ‘off with the pixies’. Her stories are cool.
Food & the Art of Travel
Obviously trying new foods and culinary styles is one of the great pleasures of travel. Eating or sitting, in those transitory spaces on trains planes and ferries, allows reflection and chat about the day or recent experiences shared. These are some of the best times travelling. The day has been filled with new sights, sounds and experiences and you sit back and try and work out what it all meant…or laugh at the events of the day. I really like trains. They are great for reading and just looking out the window. As a famous comic-strip dog once mused:
Sometimes I sit and think
Sometimes I just sit.
Over the years the kids have impressed me with their willingness to try new foods. It was very easy to eat schnitzel and strudel in Vienna but how many children will hook into a plate of dumplings and stew, or anchovies, cooked to perfection, in Prague? Street foods are their favourite and such a great way to hang out on the streets, basking with the traveller’s glow.
When we go to art galleries the kids love it when there is a room where they can draw or paint. They both love any kind of kinaesthetic learning space in museums too. I always think it gives them a bit of time out from looking at things as well as whetting their creativity.
Asking questions about what the kids liked best etc.. is often very illuminating. Even places that are a little dull for children can lead to some surprising insights. When I notice a glazed look entering the eye I usually give the kids my camera and say ‘frame a cool shot of something…’ or failing that, ‘take my portrait’. This never fails and sometimes becomes quite time-consuming. Notice the portrait below, taken by Miss 8, and how carefully she has framed the shot. It is very balanced.
You are what you share
Maybe this is true but I loved the very quotable quote on the cafe window in Vienna. It seemed odd in a way as the Viennese seem very reserved compared to many other people. One local person, who had lived in the city for three decades, told me that it people tend to have their small circle of friends and it is hard for anyone, even other Viennese, to break into the circle. Another person told me that Viennese think you are slightly deranged if you smile randomly or say hello in a friendly way to someone you do not know.
I am finishing this blog post on the morning work recommences. A few people have already said it must be hard to go back to school after travelling. Funnily enough, I don’t mind at all. I have a great job and being an educator is satisfying, important work. We are privileged as a family to have these interludes and getting back to hard work (Miss 11 is studying for the spelling bee state finals) will make our next travel seem well-deserved and special. We have already, on the long flight home to Australia from London, worked out a few plans. Berlin, Amsterdam, The Orkneys and maybe even the Isle of Man seem likely. We went swimming at our favourite place in Kiama, on return, in glorious weather. Life is good.
I will let a philosopher, Immanuel Kant, have the last word about how to live a fine life:
“Rules for Happiness: something to do, someone to love, something to hope for.”
Featured image: creative commons licensed (BY-NC-SA) flickr photo by Darcy Moore: http://flickr.com/photos/darcymoore/15578264401