Have suitcase, will learn: Globe-hopping journalist touts benefits of family travel experiences

Globe-hopping journalist touts the benefits of family travel to expand the horizons of children

02/01/2013 5:33 PM

02/01/2013 5:34 PM

Keith Bellows, 61, has gone more miles than most of us. The editor of National Geographic Traveler magazine was born in Africa, partly raised in Canada and educated in the United States and Scotland. Writing has taken him to lots of places around the world.

So has being a parent.

His “100 Places That Can Change Your Child’s Life: From Your Backyard to the Ends of the Earth” (National Geographic, $18.95) is a cross between a vacation manual and a 274-page wish list. Bellows talked about the new book in a January interview.

Q: Why did you write “100 Places?”

Many fail to realize power of travel as a learning tool. My parents took me all over the world; there’s no better way to learn about world than traveling it. But the generation emerging now has difficulty locating New York City on a map, let alone understanding the notion of foreign culture.

Send them to school, that’s where they’ll learn this? Far from it. A passport is the new diploma. If you want to “go to college,” travel.

And “foreign” travel doesn’t have to be overseas. You can teach children about, say, Chinese, Vietnamese or Laotian culture by digging into ethnic neighborhoods closer to home. The point is to help them understand that we’re in an increasingly globalized world. My oldest, now 25, was 3 months old when we took him to Jamaica; our 8-year-old and 7-year-old have also ben traveling from an early age.

Q: How did you select the 34 destinations in North America?

I was trying to choose places that were good entry places for child and parent to discover together.

By time you’re an adult, you’re pretty desensitized to things – blasé about much of the natural world. Wildlife is just something in a zoo.

But a child sees things differently. My son will go out to Chesapeake Bay and prowl around looking in tide pools until he finds a hermit crab or another creature. He can spend hours doing that.

Think of a child on hands and knees looking through the grass. When was the last time you did that?

Q: Any simple strategy?

Sit back and let the children take charge of their curiosity. I live in D.C, and when our children were a little younger, we’d plan stuff for Saturdays. But we got to the point where we’d get in a car and just go somewhere – Chinatown, the mall – with no sense of agenda. We’d just park the car and get out and say to them, “Which way do you want to go?”

On a cold, blustery day in Chinatown, it was they who wanted to go into the oriental herb store and see the herbs. They were the ones who wanted to go to the restaurant and try a kind of soup.

Under the Lincoln Memorial is a sort of mini-museum dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. – the children found that, I didn’t. They sat there for 20 minutes, entranced by its short film and some of the memorabilia.

Q: How about some practical advice?

Go somewhere you’re not familiar with, and discover with your children. “100 Places” barely scratches the surface. Any place can open itself to a child.

I will tell you this: A child will get more out of two hours spent in a place he’s never been than he will by spending two hours in a classroom. That’s guaranteed.

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