Traveling happily with preschoolers means slowing down to see things their way


September 11, 1994|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Melanie refused to be hurried. She wanted to inspect every leaf, turn over every rock and dip her hands in every trickle of water.

Exasperated, Matt and Reggie hurried ahead of us on the trail in Mount Rainier National Park. Soon, Melanie demanded to be carried. But every minute or so, she wanted to get down to examine something else.

"Good thing we weren't attempting a really long hike," mhusband, Andy, said, straining with 37-pound Melanie on his shoulders; we'd forgotten the child backpack at home. I wondered if we would make it to the top of the waterfall. (We didn't.)

That's traveling with a 3-year-old: frustrating, exhausting and wreaking havoc on any set agenda. She was starved just after we left the restaurant and wide awake when the rest of us were ready for bed. We couldn't take our eyes off her for an instant because she'd race away.

But having Melanie along as we toured Oregon and Washington state for my next "Taking the Kids" book was an adventure I wouldn't have missed. She had an opinion on everything: Mount St. Helens' volcano ("The mountain blew up on us?"); the Giant Pacific Octopus at the aquarium ("He's too yucky!"); the quality of chocolate milk at different locales. She made us laugh.

She made us stop and look at every turn, and we enjoyed each place all the more. "A deer!" she announced, with sheer wonder in her voice as we were making our way back down the Mount Rainier trail. We watched that graceful doe until she headed back into the woods.

"Look at the snow on the mountain," she demanded. And together we admired the breathtaking vista of Mount Rainier's summit.

The trick to traveling with preschoolers, I decided, is to slow down and look at the world from their perspective rather than expecting them to adapt to an adult world.

"We don't go to countries where the main activities are fine dining and art museums," agrees Susanne Nowicki, who traveled to Malaysia with her 3-year-old and to New Zealand with her two young children. "Forget those romantic dinners for two. It's not going to happen."

"We went berry picking instead of antiquing," adds Diane Hammond, who recently returned to Newport, Ore., from a trip to North Carolina with her young daughter. Says Ms. Hammond: "We listened to the bugs and smelled the pine needles. We had a wonderful time."

There was the time in Malaysia Ms. Nowicki sat in the back of a cab reading "Curious George" to her daughter while her husband raced out to look at ancient temples.

"Sure I would have liked to have spent time in those temples. I'd come all that way. But it seemed a small price to pay for having her along," says Ms. Nowicki, who lives in suburban Chicago.

Ms. Hammond's daughter, meanwhile, was terrified of the airplane bathroom and refused to use it, causing her mother no uncertain grief. Her advice: Bring "sleep friends" and even a night light from home to make the nighttime ritual easier in a strange place.

But forget lugging huge bags of toys. A few will do. In a new place, Ms. Nowicki explains, there's so much to see and do, preschoolers won't bother with their toys.

"Let the kids pick what to take along," suggests Gillian McNamee, a professor at the Chicago-based Erikson Institute, the graduate school and research center for advanced study in child development.

Ms. McNamee is herself the mom of a well-traveled 5-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son. She never leaves home without rope (for making tents from hotel blankets), a flashlight (to play with in the tent) and a bag of Legos (because they can be used over again in different ways).

"Audio cassettes are the backbone of our trips these days," Ms. McNamee adds. Young children respond especially well to stories their parents have taped for them.

Her advice: If possible, plan the trip so that there will be other adults and young children. If you're lucky, you may even be able to trade off some child-care chores.

Don't forget to let your preschooler in on the planning, adds veteran Chicago nursery school director Sue Brenner. "They'll feel they have some control," she explains.

That doesn't mean letting a 3-year-old decide whether to go to London or San Francisco. But let them pick whether they'd prefer a zoo or a museum with dinosaurs.

Show them pictures ahead of time of what they'll see and do so it won't be totally unfamiliar.

That's why we've been looking at some books about Yellowstone National Park. But even the pictures haven't refuted Melanie's notions of what she'll find there. Surely such a giant park will have a gigantic playground attached. "That playground is waiting for me," she says confidently.

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