Educational Travel

What’s Good for the (Family) Bond Is Good for the Brain

If we didn’t have enough reasons to travel, we can now add the fact that “family travel is good for brain development” to our list.  

Many teachers are familiar with Eric Jensen, a former teacher and brain-based learning expert who has written numerous books on the topic, including Brain-Based Learning: The New Paradigm of Teaching (1995) and Teaching With the Brain in Mind (2005).  Then, there’s Dr. Margot Sunderland, a British child psychotherapist who’s spent decades working with children and families, and who authored the book The Science of Parenting (2006) as well as an article for The Telegraph in 2017, titled, “The science behind how holidays make your child happier – and smarter,” which I recently read. Considering some of the research and work by both of them, we can see just how important and impactful family travel can really be for us and our children.

The Scary Stats

Maybe you’re the perfect parent who has it all balanced, calmly keeping all of your plates spinning. Or, perhaps you are like me, and most every parent I know, who often feels as though we are frantically running between wobbling, wavering plates, only barely keeping them from crashing to the ground.

Well, in the 2017 article by Dr. Sunderland, regarding “holidays” (“vacations,” for those of us in the U.S.) and how they make children “happier — and smarter,” she points out some alarming statistics that seem all too familiar to me. They involve the play deficit within today’s oft-frenzied families (like ours):

  • Two-thirds of conversations between parent and child are about daily routine (Elizabeth Buie, TES).
  • 65 per cent of parents say they only play occasionally with their children.
  • One in six fathers say they do not know how to play with their child and a third say they simply don’t have the time to play (Parent-Play survey, Playmobil UK).
  • Only a quarter of children say they talk to parents more than once a week about something that matters (Child of Our Time)…  (Sunderland 2017)

The good news is that, according to the article, family vacations help bring us closer together, learn to relax, improve our concentration, and build confidence, positively affecting our brains. 

Play & Seek

As Sunderland writes, when we take vacations with our children, we are often engaging in activities that turn on both our “play” and our “seeking” systems.  These systems then release valuable chemicals in our brains, including dopamine, which Eric Jensen, refers to as “the ‘pleasure chemical,’” in his book, Teaching With the Brain in Mind (2005) because it is associated with creating positive moods and feelings.  These chemicals create a calm, open, pleasurable environment in which we get to interact together.

When we play with our children, say on the beach or in the pool, Sunderland says that we are “sending a child the psychological message: ‘You have my full attention. I delight in you. I delight in being with you.’”  It’s no surprise, then, that these are valuable bonding experiences for us because, as Jensen notes in Teaching With the Brain in Mind (2005), “positive emotions during the…experience create a great association in the brain.”  Sunderland refers to this parent-child engagement as “attachment play,” and says it “enhances self-esteem.”

The “seeking” system of our brain is triggered through exploration and discovery, things we all commonly do on family trips.  Whether we’re hiking trails in Rocky Mountain National Park, strolling through the cobbled streets of some quaint European town, or examining shells and small creatures on a beach, we are stimulating important parts of our brains. We’re tapping into our, and our child’s, natural curiosity.

In Teaching With the Brain in Mind (2005) Jensen tells us that “[c]uriosity and anticipation are known as ‘appetitive’ states because they stimulate the mental appetite,” and that, “…it’s the anticipation of positive events that drives up the pleasure in the brain…” (Perhaps this is why I love the vacation planning process so much.) Sunderland sees this “explorative urge” as “a vital resource for living life well,” and when combined with play, “translates into the ability to play with ideas, essential, for example, to the successful entrepreneur.”

Jensen’s book may focus on classroom teachers and how they can benefit from the knowledge of how our brains and emotions work, but we parents are actually educators as well. Our children are learning from us, and when we travel, we can actively capitalize on this time with them. 

How We Can Help

In his chapter regarding the “Emotional States,” of the brain (in Teaching With the Brain in Mind [2005]), Jensen suggests some ways that we can stretch our children’s learning and tap into their brains through these emotionally linked systems.  Here are just a few strategies that can be easily incorporated into our adventures:

  • Ask Questions: You can make brief, or depending on your child, in-depth inquiries about what you are seeing or experiencing as you travel.  Ask them what they think about something, how they would feel if…, or what they would do in a particular, educationally related scenario. I personally prefer creative thinking prompts as well, for my elementary-aged kiddos, such as, “If you were a pirate, why would you be on this beach? What would you be doing here”  Or, “Let’s pretend we’re early explorers discovering this place…”
  • Model: As parents, we are constantly showing our children how to be and behave with our own actions, whether consciously or unconsciously. When we travel and experience new things, we need to remember to model for our children how to be curious and enthusiastic about learning and experiencing new things. Getting yourself excited about things like the tiny crab on the beach and pointing out how it moves will eventually generate the same kind of focus and curiosity in your child. As Jensen says, “[w]e’ve all heard of infectious enthusiasm; it works!”
  • Create a Debate: The idea of actually getting our children to argue seems like something we’d rather avoid, but “debating” isn’t about having a brawl. Debating has more to do with engaging in an emotional experience to cement learning; so, don’t be afraid to initiate a back-and-forth discussion, or pointed conversation, about something you saw or experienced that day.  Jensen even suggests that “[t]heater and drama can create strong emotions,” as well. Kids could create their own puppet show (out of stick or finger puppets) about a topic or put on a play enacting a moment in history and based on what they learned that day.  I know my kids would have loved to enact a battle scene from the Colosseum in Rome, tigers and all, or maybe even pretend to be a gondolier in Venice (which would be a much safer choice).
  • Journaling:  As with discussing and debating, we can share our personal reflections and ideas in a journal.  Perhaps, each family member can write about whatever he/she found the most special or meaningful from that day’s adventures. Then, you can share and discuss them all later as a family.  This would have been a wonderful thing to do on our longer train rides, and even though my children were too young to write a great deal themselves, there’s no reason I couldn’t have asked questions and written down their thoughts for them share later.

Better Together

While Jensen’s work focuses on teaching, students and the classroom dynamic and Sunderland focuses on the family experience, both are about working at and experiencing things together.  These shared endeavors are what help make us smarter. In fact, according to Sunderland’s research, new, shared family experiences create an “‘enriched’ environment” that is “associated with higher IQ in children (Gunnell 2005).”

Basically, whether you’re going camping, taking a hike, building sandcastles on a beach, or exploring an urban jungle, if it’s a new experience that you’re sharing, exploring, and enjoying together, you’re building your child’s brain and the family bond.  So, when it comes to buying toys or electronics for your children versus taking a family vacation, as Sunderland puts it, “there is no competition.”


Jensen, E. (2005). Teaching with the brain in mind (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Sunderland, Margot. (2017, February 1). The science behind how holidays make your child happier – and smarter.  The Telegraph.

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