For many parents, traveling with 7- to 9-year-old children marks the golden age of vacationing. Once kids hit first grade, they can do so much more as our willing partners in adventure. They are fully toilet trained, and you don't have to bring the extra gear required for babies and toddlers. No more naptime means no more having to schedule sightseeing excursions around an afternoon "must be back in the hotel to put the child in the "crib" deadline. (Though I'm still a big fan of an afternoon siesta or "quiet time" for the whole family to rest and recharge before evening vacation activities.)
Most elementary school-age kids find such excitement in novel experiences, and parents get to re-discover the joys of travel and trying new things right alongside with them. As long as Mom and Dad think an activity is "great," generally kids at this parent-pleasing age will, too. After all, they haven't yet hit the 'tween stage yet, where you might be faced with a 12-year-old who is mortally embarrassed to be seen with Mom attempting poolside salsa dance lessons.
Of course, traveling with children ages seven to nine isn't all rainbows and sunshine. Here is a grab bag of tips for making the most of your next vacation and smoothing the way en route:
Have the kids pack their own luggage. "Seven is a little on the young side for this, but a 9 year old can definitely manage his own packing -- or at least the pre-packing," says Michelle Duffy, who blogs about her family's travel adventures at WanderMom. The mother of two boys, ages 9 and 13, says, "I write up lists of what to pack (three pairs of pants, five pairs of pants, etc.) and ask my boys to get their own bags ready. This means that I'm less likely to be accused of forgetting to pack a favorite T-shirt. They put their clothes in open suitcase for me to review, and I catch anything they've missed."
Make them keep track of their own backpack or carry-on bag. First graders are responsible for their own backpacks during the school day; they can learn to do it on vacation, too (though it's admittedly harder with all of the distractions). Instill in your kids early that they are in charge of their backpack treasures -- whether it's favorite toys, video-game players (with chargers!), or books; whatever they bring in their personal bag, they must carry it -- through airport layovers and to different hotels along the way. "It's amazing how this small step has caused my boys to evaluate what they really want to bring, and cut down on the amount of "stuff" we have to haul around," says Duffy, who is also the co-author of Traveling with Kids (Dispatch Travels).
Strike a deal regarding souvenirs. Whether it's giving the kids $10 to spend however they want, setting aside one shopping afternoon, or allowing them to bring their own savings from home to spend, set the rules about souvenir purchases before your vacation starts. This might help prevent feeling compelled to visit every single gift shop under the sun -- and you know how many you'll come across at zoos, museums and roadside attractions.
Set rules about electronics use. Most seven- to nine-year-olds these days have some form of personal video-game player, DVD player, mp3 player or iPhone Touch at their disposal while traveling. Make clear from the get-go what the limits are. Perhaps on a long road trip, for every hour the kids watch a movie or play with their Nintendo DS in the car, they need two hours of electronics-free time. Or maybe they can use electronics for one hour on a three-hour plane trip. Whatever the rules are, make them clear up front so there's no back talk when you tell them to hit the off switch.
Introduce your kids to the vacation destination through books. Just as you read picture books to your kids when they were pre-readers, now your children can read chapter books on their own to help them learn a bit about where your travels will take you. Duffy recommends two book series that cover a variety of different countries and periods of time: Magic Tree House (Random House) and Horrible Histories (Scholastic).
Carry a small blank notebook and pens or pencils in your purse. Nine-year-olds might look disparagingly at the easy word searches or coloring page found on the children's menus at restaurants, but they will happily play simple pen-and-paper games like Hangman to pass the time when restaurant service is slow, says Duffy. Having a pad of paper and writing utensil is key for passing the time while waiting for a bus, train or plane, too.
Pack goodies for the return trip. Seven- to 9-year-olds can quickly burn through all of the new movies, activity books and special snacks en route to your destination, whether it's by car or by plane. "But don't forget about the ride home," says Amy Whitley, mom of three children ages 5, 8 and 10, and the founder of Pit Stops for Kids "We've learned to pack two travel bags, whether for the car or the plane. The second one is stored away (inside another suitcase) and not opened until we're starting that long haul back home. Suddenly, there are new things to do!"
Check out activity book offerings from Klutz. This publishing company makes the best portable books, games, puzzles and crafts for kids to take on the road. Some of them include small parts; for example, you probably don't want dozens of little sequins from Make Your Own Twinkly Tiaras scattered all over the backseat of the car. But the books geared toward travel are ideal, such as TRIPtivities, Doodle Faces, Cat's Cradle and, my personal favorite, Kids Travel: A Backseat Survival Guide.
Consider alternatives for car-sick prone kids. Kids ages seven to nine are finally independent readers, "But what if your avid reader gets sick within two minutes of looking down at the page?" asks Whitley. She downloads audio books to an iPod, and has her eight-year-old listen with headphones. "If you have an iPhone, another wonderful alternative is Tales2Go, an app available by subscription which streams hundreds of audio books (and shorter stories) straight to your phone." Another option: visit the library before your road trip and check out audiobooks on CD that everyone in the car might enjoy.
Let everyone have a say in how vacation activities are planned. Perhaps each person in the family chooses how you'll spend one afternoon -- nearly anything goes (of course Mom and Dad have veto power). Kids learn how to compromise, and they'll "suffer through something they might consider boring (Dad's must-see museum or Mom's antique shopping), knowing that they'll get their special activity (paintball or ziplining) the next day.
Have the kids keep a trip journal. For reluctant writers, this might be a simple notebook and pen, in which you ask your kids to write just one sentence a day, suggests Duffy. For children who really get into it, you might have them decorate notebooks -- with images cut out of promotional brochures about the destination or stickers, recommends Whitley: "While touring four national parks last summer, our kids recorded their favorite moments from each day, as well as the states of all the license plates they saw and all the languages they heard tourists speaking." No matter what form your kids' journals take -- even if it's just a sketch a day -- they are an excellent way to record marvelous memories from your family trip.
Visit our Traveling with Kids 3-9 Forum for further discussions and advice.