I wrote this column 2 years ago while on a family holiday to the glorious Kruger National Park with our then 9 year old son (and lots of extended family too.) It was a short trip, but as always the tranquility and beauty and fascination of this place makes time slow down. So it seemed sensible and necessary to write something about the value of holidays for our children. And retrieving this piece from my archives reminds me that we should plan another trip to the bush, soon….
“Let’s enjoy the Kruger while it lasts,” said my 9-year old son, as we sat on the stoep of our rondawel. But in fact a holiday lasts a long time. There’s the pre-holiday excitement of running your finger over a map, planning the journey you will take; or seeing your child opening and closing his pen knife in anticipation of the many uses to which he will put it in the bush.
Afterwards, you have memories: the first boogie board ride, a black-maned lion chasing off a rival, a screensaver photo of your daughter eating a cheese-and-tomato sandwich on the beach.
Why is going away on holiday an important thing for children?
On obvious reason is that it broadens their minds. It’s hard not to believe that a well-travelled person has a richer view of the world and can see it from more perspectives. Out of our comfort zone, we are also bound to explore and experience our environment in new ways that promote greater self-sufficiency. Activities like camping draw children into the tasks of cooking, cleaning and dealing with unexpected problems with limited resources.
I stood recently on the bridge over a river in the Kruger National Park and watched a herd of elephants cross the river below. “See the matriarch.” said the guide, “She defines the agenda. She leads the way for her group and decides when they eat.”
In the same way, parents taking their children on holiday need to plan carefully and anticipate the likely pitfalls. Define your agenda. Here are some tips based on personal experience and those of family and friends.
There are different kinds of holidays to take: big glamorous holidays to exotic destinations, going away for the weekend, camping, staying with friends who live in different towns, visiting family, or even holidaying in your own town.
Try not to make the holiday about spending money, and try to choose age and stage appropriate experiences for children: it is no fun dragging a frustrated toddler around the art galleries of London during winter because you love art, or forcing your resentful teenage daughter to spend a fortnight in a tent in the Kalahari because you love the bush. Having said that, it is important to strike a balance between the needs of parents and those of children. With some imagination, compromises can be reached.
The next item on your agenda should be strategies to deal with complaints of boredom. You might be entranced by a third elephant sighting of the day but your children might be saying, “Not another boring, grey elephant. We’re hungry.”
Long car journeys are a potential disaster. Anticipate restlessness, sibling squabbles galore (“She’s on my side of the seat”) and the incessant repetition of the phrase “Are we there yet?” So plan ahead. Make frequent bathroom, leg-stretching and snacking stops. Use rewards and distractions. If your children are very young, wrap up old toys or small cheap toys in newspaper, then hand one out every two hours on the journey- watch their eyes light up with joy when they unwrap plastic cars and toys that they have forgotten you gave them 6 months before.
Get a checklist for your children. It might be of towns or cars you will pass on the trip, or a bird and mammal checklist – something that requires regular note-taking. Soon they will be counting how many they have seen already.
Then there are the more well-known things parents do, such as taking audio book CDs for children to listen to, playing I-spy or 20 questions or, if your budget allows it, taking portable DVD players. And don’t forget to take a couple of kids’ books.
If you can’t go away on a holiday, make the effort to holiday at home. It is worth using your leave time to connect with your children and have good family experiences. Go on day trips and picnics to local parks, zoos, aquariums, botanic gardens and museums. Be a tourist in your own town. Even if you don’t leave your house, try to create pleasurable memories by changing your routine – have breakfast for supper, make pancakes, camp in the garden, make a fire in the yard and toast marshmallows.
As I write this article, sitting on the verandah overlooking the Olifants river valley, I am at peace. Partly it’s the setting, the sound of river, birds calling and hippos snorting in the distance. Partly it’s the fact that my son is not here, but is circling inside the camp with his ‘binos’, as he calls them, trying to identify more birds.
I also know that too soon we must pack up and begin the long and unquestionably boring, journey home. But we will be sustained for a while by its memories and by hopes of holidays to come.