Education while traveling was a major consideration for us in planning this trip. After 5 months on the road I thought it was about time I shared some of our tips, tricks, and favorite travel educational toys, games, apps, and more.
Education at Home
In the US folks put a lot of emphasis on preschool education – and many 3 year olds will be enrolled in some form of preschool for at least a few mornings a week. Many kids are even in full time daycare/preschools as typically both parents work – so by the time a 5 yr old enters kindergarten they are already used to a full day of routines, sitting still, and learning.
Aurora and Jasper didn’t enter daycare until they were 2, with big thanks to working part time and having amazing grandparents near by to watch them when I worked. At 2, we felt like they need more of a formal setting in which to develop social skills, language, basic math, motor skills, etc.
So we enrolled them in the most education driven (reading by 5!), schedule driven, cleanest (a must for OCD Matt), full day daycare in our area. The kids loved it (our wallets did not) – and they thrived, learning letters very quickly, writing, days of the week, counting, sign language, Mandarian (what??), and bringing home perfectly constructed crafts.
We figured the 4 days home with us they would have more “free play” time. But as I was thinking of leaving work, we started to look for part time preschools and somewhere our priorities shifted. The kids would be in at least 13 years of formal education, why push them into it at an even earlier age? We didn’t want to totally structure their imaginative and creative play years.
When we lived on Cape Cod for a couple months before leaving for our trek, we went the extreme opposite and enrolled them in a cooperative preschool 2 mornings a week. This school reminded me of something out of Berenstain Bears – a 1 room, red school house, where the kids decide which stations to play at.
There was a short circle time (for reading and basic learning) and some craft each day. They didn’t even start learning letters (nevermind writing them) until age 4. We liked the community feel of this school, and it was nice having a setting where the kids could learn socialization with other students, and respect for teachers, but also have lots of fun.
Education on the Road
While traveling I’m trying to strike a balance between the two types of education – obviously there is tons of opportunities for fun and experiential learning (everyday is an adventure), but I also want to continue to challenge them academically with basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. The minis both love learning so much – they are like little sponges absorbing everything around them (much smarter than Mommy & Daddy’s aging brains!)
Here are a few ways we teach Aurora and Jasper while we are on the road:
Formal as they are – the kids love workbooks!! Each page has a new activity or game, and the kids have no idea that solving a maze is helping improve their fine motor skills. They are also great as they double as coloring books and – since we are trying to keep it light for our travel education materials – multipurpose is key!
The pages include basic math skills, reasoning, letter writing, etc. We went with a large 320+ page workbook for preschoolers – although on the heavier side for our luggage, the kids plowed through them in a few months. The pages also rip out, so once they completed a page the book got lighter.
We also have workbooks just for handwriting skills that are smaller.
Since we’ve been traveling, we’ve also been buying workbooks as we go – though finding them in English is sometimes a challenge!
Our Kid’s Travel Journals are also really cool travel education tools. These paperback journals have page printed with questions to help kids think about and reflect on their travel adventures. There are also opportunities for drawing, taping in ticket stubs, and more.
These travel journals are intended for shorter length trips but it’s easy to adapt them to whatever type of travel you’re doing. Working on the journals is a family activity for us and we all sit together to talk about what we did in each spot. We help the kids by writing down their answers and then they draw pictures to go along with what we wrote.
Sensory: Play Foam and Sandcastles
Kids love sensory activities – where they can get their hands into things – feel the textures and be creative!
Play foam is an excellent choice for on the road play – as its super light, doesn’t dry out, easy clean up (none of which can be said for play dough), and can be manipulated into any form. We bought a bunch of this, put it into a ziplock bag, and its great anywhere – even on planes!
Sand is another great on the road sensory activity – no cost or luggage weight assuming you have beach 🙂 We brought a few rakes and shovels but left them in El Nido as the kids prefer their hands and we can always pick up a plastic cup if needed for sculpting.
Physical Education: Trekking, Swimming and Games
We don’t call ourselves Trekking with Twins for nothing! We make the kids trek everywhere! They definitely do more walking than most kids their age – we sold their stroller when they were 2.5 yrs old and started making them walk to gear them up for the trip. They aren’t always happy about it (and we do fold and put them on our shoulders for long hikes) but they are in great shape.
We also love swimming with the kids and these lightweight Puddle Jumpers are awesome even though they do take up room in the suitcase. We used them a ton before we left on the trip, and we use them almost everyday here.
The Puddle Jumpers allow the kids to swim independently and develop their kicking and paddling skills. We just got them snorkel masks in the Philippines and they have even been swimming in the middle of the ocean over reefs several times with the assistance of the Puddle Jumpers.
We also travel by boat fairly often here in Southeast Asia – and I have yet to see a child size (never mind toddler size) life jacket. We put the kids in these most times we are on a boat (they’re a U.S. Coast Guard approved Type V PFD).
We also play the typical toddler games like tag, marco polo, hide & seek, ring around the rosey, duck duck goose, etc. on the road.
Jasper has been obsessed with puzzles since birth! It keeps him occupied and focused for longer than any other toy, and fortunately they are light and easy to pack in ziplock bags. We are doing our best not to loose the pieces and both the kids like working together to build them.
I bought a puzzle of the U.S. and of the world before we left – they have cute pics of landmarks, animals, & capitols on the maps. So once they have finished building- we always follow it up with some geography lessons about either where we are going, where we are from, etc. – perfect multipurpose again!
Engineering and Math: Legos and Flash Cards
Both kids loved Duplos before we left – so we bought a normal sized creative Lego set before we left. We love this set – though it doesn’t come with any Lego people so we’ve supplemented with a few we’ve bought along the way (Asia has no lack of “genuine replica Lego” people for sale).
The set we bought comes with a little booklet to show you how to make various animals, cars, and scenes. Most of the time though the kids can just be creative in building new things.
We also bought a “grass” pad to build upon which is helpful.
Not sure how many we’ve lost along the way – but this toy keeps the kids entertained, helps with their fine motor skills (normal sized Legos are actually really hard for toddlers – so teaching them and being patient is key), and allows them to be creative.
I also like this kit as its not specific to building just one spaceship or something, and it’s also very reasonably priced! The kids use the Legos almost every single day and I’m continually impressed by their creativity.
We’re also working on math skills with some flash cards. Math War Addition and Subtraction Game Cards are a fun way to practice number recognition and teach basic arithmetic. We modify the game rules as necessary to suit the kids’ skill levels.
Writing & Drawing: Boogie Boards
Boogie Boards are a relatively new product. I hadn’t seen anyone using them in the States before we left – but we LOVE them! If there was one toy I would recommend for travelling, planes, going out to dinner, car rides – it would be these!
Before we were big fans of the travel size Magna Doodle and used a pair for our previous traveling adventures. The Magna Doodles were in pretty rough shape before we left on this trip, and finally AJ’s pen tip broke leaving it useless. So we upgraded to electronic doodle pads (Boogie Boards).
Boogie Boards are smaller and lighter than the Magna Doodle, and using the stylus pen that comes along with them has really helped with the kids’ grips, writing (we practice letters on them), and drawing skills. It keeps them quietly entertained as they draw pictures of what they’ve seen that day while we wait for a meal or take a long van ride.
The boards have a small “erase” button that is supposed to refresh the screen 50,000 times before it runs out of battery life and the whole board needs to be replaced (the battery is sealed and is not replaceable). We’ll let you know how long that takes us – hopefully they’ll make it through the trip.
These gadgets are so cool that locals and other foreign travelers often ask to test them out. They’re a big hit with other kids we meet.
User tip: We put a string through the loop in the stylus pen before we left and duct taped the other end to the Boogie Board. That way if the kids drop the pen its still attached to the board (I had nightmares about the pens rolling down the airplane aisle on take off).
Reading: Books, Learning Books, E-Books, Flash Cards
Children’s books are tough when travelling – kids love books, but they are heavy! In hard copy we limited the kids to a few paper back favorites and some specifically focused on early reading.
All of our other children’s books for traveling are purchased as e-books – perfect weight for packing! Its nice to be able to purchase new books from abroad to keep things fresh as well. There are many free kids e-books available from Amazon as well as most of the traditional favorites. The kids love reading these on their Kindle Fire HDs.
We are also lucky to Skype with grandparents back home for bedtime stories. This is a great way to keep families engaged with us while travelling and have a constant stream of books from home or local libraries.
We also try to visit local libraries ourselves when we can for story hours – a huge hit with young children.
In addition to the books we use a couple sets of flash cards to help develop reading skills.
Go Fish Game Cards – Alphabet is a twist on the popular card game that teaches kids the different letter sounds as well as matching upper and lower case letters. Jasper and Aurora love this game and ask to play it all the time.
Our Phonics Flash Cards are a little more advanced but still helpful for our twins. Each card focuses on a sound and has pictures to help.
Art: Paper, Paints, Crayons, Scissors
I’ve loved doing arts and crafts long before the kids were born – including making fun scrapbooks of various travels. The kids were a great excuse to unleash my innner child with all sorts of projects that we did each week.
At home I was obsessed with Michaels crafts stores, and I think we had at least 10 bins of crafting supplies before we left. Obviously now we are limited… to a gallon sized plastic bag!
We brought 1 pad of white craft paper (perfect for painting, coloring, and cutting projects), some water color paints, markers, and crayons. We went with triangle shaped crayons as it helps with the kids developing their grip and they don’t roll away on planes!
We also have kids scissors (kids love to cut – hopefully only paper – and preschools develop that skill). We didn’t buy ours online, but these scissors look similar.
With all of these supplies the kids have created some really fun artwork along the way. Recently we’ve been stationary long enough for them to decorate their room with some of their favorite pieces!
Electronics/Apps: Amazon Kindle Fire
We brought along Amazon Kindle Fire HDs for each of the kids to use on our journey and they have been awesome. The kids picked out their own Kindle cover colors before we left and we even had them hand painted by umbrella painters in Chiang Mai (so fun!).
The Kindles are a perfect way for them to read the e-books and use apps, view videos, etc. They’re durable and inexpensive enough to entrust to young kids. Our twins have worn many lesser quality toys into early retirement but the two Kindles look and function as good as new after months of travel abuse.
The model we have is older but Amazon now offers the Fire HD Kids Edition which includes a “kid-proof” case, a 2-yr replacement guarantee (even if your kid drops it in the toilet), and a 1-yr subscription to FreeTime Unlimited. FreeTime Unlimited gives unlimited access to thousands of apps, books, TV shows, etc. at no extra cost.
The Kindle Fire HDs also have awesome parental controls. You can choose which apps,books, and videos are available to the kids and set specific screen time limits. You can even set different limits for apps, e-books, and video content. We’re big fans of the Amazon Kindle Fire HD for kids.
There are a bunch of free jigsaw puzzle apps – though those were more popular with our kids when they were younger.
I like the Sound House Alphabet tracing app that helps them see the mechanics of writing (would probably be an even better app with a stylus). 22Learn also produces a bunch of free preschool learning apps that we use like Preschool All-In-One Learning A to Z.
Most of the time when the kids like a free trial enough, we purchase them the full version of the game. They don’t spend too much time using the Kindles – but it’s great for plane rides and waiting for meals.
We also got these kids headphones to use on the plane or in buses while watching movies and playing games.
If you have any favorite preschool apps or kids games please let us know in the comments!!
If you’re looking for a fun, easily packable, educational travel game for kids (or adults!) then check out Spot It. The game basically consists of matching images between cards. The kids love it and it has taught them several new words because you need to say the name of the images that match. We have the standard edition but there are also a variety of others including a Frozen edition!
The classic Brain Quest is also an awesome travel game for kids. It’s small and packable but provides hours of entertainment and education.
We recently picked up a set of Uno cards and they have been really fun too. We modify the rules and play with the cards face-up but it’s still great for number matching and logic skills.
Traveling and Learning
Hopefully you’ll find some of these tips for travel education useful for your own adventures – be it for a weekend, week, or year away from the comforts (and myriad of toys & electronics) of home. If you have any favorite travel games or toys, including toys for airplane rides, please add to our list in the comments – we’d love to hear from you!
It may seem like we’ve packed a lot to keep the kids entertained and educated – and we have. An entire suitcase is full of mostly these toys & books. It’s a big priority for us as we don’t want them to fall behind their peers in more formal school settings.
One last tip – as we travel along we’ve donated whatever toys and books we aren’t using – another great lesson on charity for the kids!