On the Go With a Preschooler
Use vacation to foster your youngster’s growing independence
The preschool years bring an end to the terrible twos (in theory) as your child blossoms into an imaginative, playful, increasingly more independent being. Toilet training is mastered, and tasks like getting dressed, brushing teeth and self-feeding are achieved. Able to entertain themselves with a coloring book or action figure for longer periods of time, kids this age can understand basic rules and play more engaging games that help pass the downtime involved in travel.
Preschoolers are unabashed icebreakers – you can often count on them to strike up spontaneous friendships at the beach, pool or airport. Communication skills really start to take off, which is both a blessing and a curse. A greater vocabulary can be used to express pleasures, observations and desires, but the flip side is that whining notches up to a whole new level.
Your “threenager” may be restless, stubborn and opinionated, but it’s a ripe age for exposing them to travel. These are the golden “why” years, where your curious want-to-know-it-all is full of questions about the world you’re exploring together. You’ll both educate your child and inspire yourself as you see the world through your child’s wide eyes. Most preschoolers are naturally adventuresome and keen to try new experiences, but you have to watch ‘em as this can translate into mischievous behavior.
Like in all ages and stages, a parent’s attitude is the key to successful travels with a preschooler. Forethought, preparation, flexibility and sense of humor are more essential than anything you pack in your suitcase. Here are some secrets, suggestions and tips that can help minimize the stress and maximize the enjoyment of traveling with a preschooler.
Make getting there half the fun
Well, half is pushing it, but try not to think of the journey as tedious in-between time to be endured. Consider it focused, uninterrupted, quality family time you can enjoy together. Have a top-of-the-lungs all-ages sing-a-long while your trapped in the car. Snuggle up and read books on the plane. Reminisce, make up silly stories and play games in the hotel room. Make time to giggle. These special moments may be more memorable for your child than seeing the sights.
Involve your child in the travel planning
This is the age when your child becomes a more active participant in the travel experience. Let your preschooler have some input in the packing and planning stages, and watch the enthusiasm bloom. No longer a passive passenger, your child can help make decisions – or at least express an opinion – about such biggies as where to go, what to bring, who to visit, what to do and where to eat on the trip. Preschoolers love to feel empowered.
Flip through brochures and picture books about your destination. Look at maps and plot the route you plan to take. Discuss what you might see and do at stops along the way and once you get there. Anticipation is a big part of the thrill of travel.
Call ahead to the hotel or look online for the local tourism office and get information on any events, festivals, attractions and activities to do with kids in the area. Note any age restrictions, hours of operations or budgetary considerations so you can plan accordingly. Together, jot down a loose itinerary of things you want to fit in, factoring in a balance of active options, quieter pastimes and rainy day/stay-out-of-the-sun opportunities.
You probably don’t want to squeeze in any more than two outings per day. Preschoolers tend to have more patience and focus in the morning, so try to schedule the more energetic pursuits before lunchtime and the more low-key activities in the afternoon. Flexibility is key, though, as you never know when bad weather, a closed venue, illness or a sour mood will strike.
A case of one’s own
Your preschooler’s very own backpack or roller bag is sure to be a prized possession for your little traveler. Having a hand in selecting some special toys and outfits for the trip will be a source of pride and will help instill a sense of big-kid independence. You might want to have a hand in the final choices (really, how many Spiderman action figures does one kid need on a week’s vacation), but give your child a sense of control over some aspects of the trip and it’ll pay off in spades.
Maintaining order and discipline
It’s a fine balance. You want to let down your guard and relax the rules while on vacation, but you don’t want to be a pushover or encourage bratty behavior that may persist when you return home. Maintaining discipline when you’re traveling can be tricky. Preschoolers are starting to know your expectations and the rules of acceptable behavior but are still in limit-testing mode, pushing boundaries and figuring out what they can and cannot get away with. You don’t want to set a precedent that’ll come back to haunt you. Siblings in particular have a knack for acting up on holiday, and you’ll be in constant referee mode if you don’t lay down the law periodically.
Be firm on the non-negotiables such as no hitting, no grabbing, no screaming plus any safety compromises, but cut your kid some slack on the lighter infractions. Extended bed times, extra treats, one more swim and other rewards and privileges can be negotiated through good behavior. Remember, it’s more effective to reward the positive rather than punish the negative. Travel can be a big upheaval in a preschooler’s life, so a little extra patience, tolerance and understanding will go a long way.
Pack a pal for your preschooler
Once your child hits the sociable preschooler stage, it’s worth considering traveling with extended family or compatible friends who have similar aged kids. One of the most versatile playthings you can give your 3-to-5-year-old is another child to play with. Unless you’ve got built-in sibling companions or your child is apt to make pool pals and beach buddies, traveling with others can be a convenient option. You can share the costs of accommodation, can rotate meal prep duties and swap babysitting, giving each couple a well-deserved break so that they won’t need a vacation to recover from their vacation. Traveling with grandparents is another good choice that gives everyone a chance to balance quality family time with restorative downtime. Ensemble traveling can be a memorable win-win scenario for all.
Traveling is an exciting yet stressful endeavor for anyone, but with a preschooler (and other children) in tow, it can be mentally and physically draining at times. If possible, treat yourself to a little alone time or couple time during your trip. Switch up with your spouse so that both of you have some personal downtime, be it morning, noon or night.
Check with hotel personnel for recommended babysitters or consult the local Yellow Pages for a child care agency (agency sitters are screened, insured and bonded for your peace of mind). Consider a cruise or family-oriented resort that has a Kids’ Clubs.
Check for age and hour restrictions, but these often have wonderful preschooler programs full of arts, crafts, treasure hunts, costume parties and play. Your child will have a blast while you get a chance to recharge your batteries, which in turn makes you a better parent. Definitely spend quality one-on-one time and make special memories with your child, but give yourself a break from time to time or you’ll burn-out.