Family Field Trip
Discover more than 75 family-friendly cultural activities and adventures in a new book by local author and educator Erin Austen Abbott.
Written by Erin Austen Abbott | Illustrations Provided by Chronicle Books
In Oxford, we are regularly surrounded by opportunities to enjoy art, food, music and culture. But every time we step outside the front door with our kids, they are learning about the world around them.
When I was a very young girl growing up in Oxford, my mom would pack up our station wagon and take my brother and me out on a long road trip each summer. We’d wind through the South, slowly making our way down to Florida. Sometimes we’d stop in New Orleans to eat beignets and slurp Vietnamese noodle bowls or ride through Atlanta, stopping for fried chicken and fresh peach pie. I would spend the hours in the car staring out the window, observing, daydreaming, and snapping mental images of all the places I wanted to come back to and visit one day. Every trip was different, as we rarely took the same route to get to our yearly destination.
When we arrived in Florida, we’d spend our days at the beach, then gather around a large table at night, enjoying peel-and-eat shrimp, laughing and talking. Usually we were joined by family friends from abroad — people from countries I hadn’t yet visited. These friends taught us foreign words and phrases, and sometimes they prepared dishes I wasn’t familiar with. It was during those meals that I learned some of the Southern staples I took for granted, like sweet tea and hush puppies, were not on menus around the world. Those meals — full of new languages, tastes, and customs — made the world seem so much bigger to me.
It was those early years and my experiences with travel and culture that informed many of the decisions I made in the decades that followed. It also shaped how I went on to raise my own child. Our goal is always to make each day feel like a field trip — fun but with learning involved.
My new book, “Family Field Trip” is full of ideas and tips for cultural experiences the whole family can enjoy, whether you’re at home, exploring your neighborhood, or taking a vacation. It’s a resource for raising kids who will grow into empathetic, curious, well-rounded citizens of the world.
Excerpts (below) from “Family Field Trip” reprinted with permission from Chronicle Books
How to Celebrate New Foods, Expand Your Child’s Palate, & Start a Supper Club
When I was a child, I went to a summer camp that prided itself on hiring international counselors. There were staff members from two dozen different countries, and each Tuesday, we celebrated International Day by eating traditional breakfasts, lunches, and dinners from one of the foreign countries. We also signed up for games and crafts commonly found in that country, and for the evening campfire, we gathered to learn songs, dances, language, and other customs that were common to the country of the day. I loved International Days at camp so much that I use them as inspiration in my own home today — starting with food!
Exposing children to cultures from around the world isn’t an overnight process. It requires planning, patience, and time, but I promise you that it will be worth it. When we teach children about cultural diversity, we help them become comfortable with traditions that might be different from the ones they’re used to and we improve their understanding of what makes the world such an amazing, rich place.
Expanding a Child’s Palate
These days almost every restaurant has a children’s menu, but I very rarely order from the children’s menu for my son. Children’s menus usually have the most flavorless and unhealthy options — the choices are often processed, high in sodium, and full of refined sugars and fats.
Some people were shocked to hear my son ate spicy Indian dishes or sushi early on, but it’s because we never treated food as something that he shouldn’t like, and we didn’t wait until he was older to introduce certain foods. Try to avoid assuming that your children won’t like something. My husband and I always say, “It’s only weird if you make it weird.”
Starting a Supper Club
My family and our friends have visited places like Vietnam, France, Spain, Peru, and more — without ever leaving our home. Through our supper club dinners we try foreign dishes, learn simple phrases, and dance to traditional music. Supper clubs are a great way to bring world schooling into your own home. Here’s a guide to starting your own.
Figure out where you’re “going”: First, pick which country you’re going to explore during the supper club meal. Use a globe or map to locate the country that you want to feature.
Plan your guest list: It might just be family or you might include other friends with children.
Plan your menu: Next, decide which dishes you would like to make. Try making something that you have never made before. Supper club is about expanding your outlook and tasting new flavors.
Make a shopping list: If you can’t find everything at your usual grocery store, try a local international grocery store or specialty market for less common spices and ingredients that you might need. If that isn’t an option, turn to an online marketplace.
Gather some books: Head to your local library and check out all the books you can find on the country that you are featuring — these could be art books, travel guides, or cookbooks. Have the books on hand so you and your guests can browse through them during the evening.
From Super Blooms to Super Moons, Making Space for Wonder
We live in a time where children are often so rushed, from school to activity to activity to dinner to bath to bed. But opportunities for wonder are all around us, all the time. You just have to be open to it.
There are so many everyday things that you can do with your children to instill wonder, whether while traveling or at home, to encourage them to be curious about the world. Building wonder into daily life can be as simple as slowing things down and making room in the day for your children to be still, observe the world around them, and ask questions. For example, when you are in the car, encourage your children to look up at the sky. Often on road trips, my son will tell me he just feels like looking out the window for a while. I catch him making note of the trees, the clouds in the sky, the birds overhead. I can read the wonderment on his face, and seeing it through his eyes gives me so much joy. When we travel, we love to get up early and take our time walking around and exploring a new place, not rushing from one thing to the next. Sometimes we’ll even watch the sunrise as we listen to the sounds of a place greeting a new day.
Try This: Finding Wonder as an Adult
Here’s a little practice to help you get into a wonder mindset: Think back to your childhood and something you were curious about. For example, I used to spend a lot of time wondering about clouds, birds, and dreams. I would think about where dreams go when you wake up, or what it would be like to lie on a cloud or fly like a bird. Think back to what gave you that sense of amazement. Now think about how to apply that to children when you travel. What little details can you point out to them to foster a sense of wonder? Maybe it’s the way fresh snow hangs on a tree, or a flock of birds migrates across a city park, or holiday lights sparkle at an outdoor market. Do not be afraid to slow down. It’s OK if you don’t pack in every sightseeing excursion on a trip. Stay curious and make time for wonder.
Try This: Day of Yes
Next time you have a free day together as a family, plan a “Day of Yes.” In this activity, inspired by TV producer Lindsey Weidhorn, each family member gets to pick something fun to do and everyone has to say yes, then the next person picks something and everyone says yes, and so on until everyone has a chance to pick an activity (all suggestions are within reason, of course). It could be getting an ice cream, visiting a local museum, or going to a movie. It’s a great way to try new things as a family, and children will enjoy coming up with their own fun ideas (and hearing you say “Yes!”).
Making Art and Design Fun, Approachable, and Inspiring
You don’t have to be an artist or a designer to teach your children to appreciate art and design. Helping your children develop a love of art and design encourages them to consider the deeper meaning of things, fosters observational skills, and allows them to consider different perspectives.
Cultivating art appreciation in your children from a young age will open their minds to abstract concepts — a skill that will stay with them into adulthood — and provide opportunities to discuss history, materials, perspective, and artistic movements.
Sample Lesson Plan: Museum Exhibit Scavenger Hunt
You can adapt this plan to work at most exhibits and educational spaces, including aquariums, historical sites, planetariums, and more.
Spend some time on the museum website to view their visiting exhibitions and permanent collection. Then make a list of scavenger hunt items, and create a printout for each child with open-ended descriptions, such as “Find a painting that is mostly blue” or “Find a piece of art with fruit in it.” Include a few finds for each room of the museum to keep them engaged throughout the whole tour.
For younger children, you can include a picture key. Have a small prize at the end of the hunt for all children, as there doesn’t need to be a “winner.” For example, you can buy a treat from the museum gift shop or a new set of crayons. If you are visiting a museum while out of town and don’t have time to print the instructions for the hunt before your trip, you can use the hotel business center to print your materials.
Erin Austen Abbott
Erin Austen Abbott is a writer, early child-hood educator and former traveling nanny. She writes about parenting, art, crafts, design and more on her lifestyle blog, ameliapresents.com. Stories about Erin’s work have been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple, Mother Mag, Design*Sponge and more. Her first book, “How to Make It,” was published in 2017. She lives in Water Valley with her husband and son.