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Long Travels with Children


We often wish that summer holidays could go on and on… well, they can! For this summer issue Monica Shah, our education columnist, interviewed mothers who have organised family super-breaks and sabbaticals. Perhaps this will tempt the travellers amongst you to organise an amazing opportunity – and give the armchair travellers something to dream about!

Even the European traditional summer month away from home seems a long time if you are used to shorter holidays. Many of us love travelling, but once you have kids and start planning beyond a month away, so many factors have to be considered that it takes real determination to see it through. So how can you plan an extraordinary break that will be worth all the work that goes into arranging it? What if you have children under school age or your child will not be staying long enough to join an alternative community with its own culture and social life, such as a school or playgroup? And how will you balance your desire for adventure with the children’s needs for comfort, familiarity and routine?

Be aware that super-breaks require much planning, with the key factors for stabilising dynamics for the children decided well in advance. If such a project tempts your organisational taste buds, read on.

Two months of bliss

Anne travelled to the US for eight weeks last year with her husband and their two boys Frederic, aged two, and Christopher, aged four, for a four-location trip which went unbelievably smoothly. “We were surprised – at the end we said we would not change a single thing.”

The first part of their trip was four weeks on the coast, followed by ten days inland, ten days in California and eight days in New York. In each place, she reports, they found a rhythm as a family that structured their days – from going to the beach, to finding a regular playground, and choosing a café where they all wanted to be in the mornings. Anne described to me the simplest pleasure of all: just being together as a family without constant demands. The parents feel incredibly lucky to have been able to take this amount of time:

“It is tempting to not just rest and relax. We are so used to being productive it can feel wrong not to achieve too much. But the benefit for our family was so clear, and what does it mean, to be productive? We are just all used to thinking that way!”

Even if it seems intangible, a great reason to invest time, money, and energy into a super-break is for quality of family relationships – in other words, for the sake of love. Not making too big an adventure out of a very long holiday can result in the biggest reward of all: contentment and peace with each other that nourish your family bonds for years to come.

Practicalities

Anne recommends taking special, familiar toys with you rather than too many clothes or equipment, which can be bought cheaply all around the world. Take things that will absorb your child in play, and not just temporarily. You can afford to use an iPad more than usual for entertainment and travel games on long-haul flights, but they won’t satisfy as the main play resources for the entire time you are away.

To minimise the risks and maximise the fun, try not to be too ambitious when choosing accommodation. Basically, kids are creatures of habit, and luxury hotels are slightly lost on them. Plus which, your downtime at meals should not be spent monitoring manners in elegant restaurants. Furthermore, a toddler can manage a “pit stop” at best, and familiar food can help young children to feel at home. Where you stay can become a mini-base from which you make shorter trips and visits to people you know, and if you ensure you have enough space, then your family will not be thrown together in unusually confined circumstances.

Minor shifts in your children’s routines can make a difference, too. You don’t need to worry as much as usual about strict sleep times in the lead-up to long journeys, and with time zone changes, even set meals can be varied to ensure smaller meals, more frequently, until their bodies are adjusted to the new place.

Three to four months – an amazing experience

In the academic world, sabbaticals are extended periods of leave, from three to twelve months. They can be either paid, to achieve something different after about seven years of regular service, or unpaid as a career break. In my opinion, if you push yourselves to your limits, after many years of living abroad every ex-pat should have one as a reward for the sheer hard work involved!

The question is what to do about education if you stay abroad as a family for longer than ever before, without wanting to settle down in a place. The answer: not settling down is not really an option for children, so it is better to work on ensuring a structured form of education than on avoiding school.

Since 2008 in Switzerland obligatory school has started at age four or five with kindergarten, so you will have to notify the school you are leaving, or, if you want a place held, ask for permission from the school authorities to take your child out for four to six months. It is evidently a more convincingly enriching experience if you can enrol your child in a school abroad, which will also make your long stay abroad more interesting and worthwhile. Before you leave, a preschool will prepare your child for school earlier than in the state school system, buying time for your international sabbatical project later. Until the age of about eight you have more flexibility than once children are in junior or middle school and starting to prepare for secondary entrance exams.

A common goal of attending a new school in another culture, given that your stay may not be long enough to learn a new language, is to provide a foundation for flexibility and international living later in life. “Children are strong and adaptable,” says Kathrin, mother of Tilda, aged four, who regards both New York and Zurich as home. “Our work in both cities meant we could not have considered this unless Tilda was happily attending preschool. She settled quickly for our first six-month stay and the following year pretty much instantly at the start of the next three-month stay.” Having a familiar home base in each of the two countries makes a difference of course, and adjustment is easier if going back and forth is possible. Kathrin advises, “Tilda is aware of the differences between the two places, such as where she can run safely outside and where she cannot. If you keep your daily routine and provide a stable environment, you can live wherever you like, even the language will be no obstacle – keep explaining and be curious.” In other words, your children can drink in your passion for diverse experiences, which will make your effort rewarding.

Marianne, an English specialist of German origin at the University of Zurich, traveled to New Zealand with her five-year-old daughter Helene for four months when on sabbatical. Helene not only attended school when English was a new language for her, but her level was such that, “She was dreaming in English after only six weeks,” and her mother planned for her daughter to attend a bilingual kindergarten in Zurich on their return. In addition, she ended up introducing English as one of their daily family languages at home.

Even if your stay is not long enough to absorb a new language fully, provided you choose your destination with your children’s futures in mind, it is possible to start a process of language learning via intensive immersion abroad and continue it on your return. However, you do need to sustain the new language as your child grows older; she will not retain it without ongoing input.

The unanimous verdict on “Should I stay or should I go?”: If you are fortunate enough to get the chance and have the energy and resources to make it happen, DO IT.

By Monica Shah