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Memorable Vacations, Despite Limits of Preschoolers’ Memory

Why it’s worth the time, trouble, and money to travel with your preschooler.

Admitted bias: I grew up in a family that valued experiences over possessions – they’re cheaper, more meaningful and longer lasting than material goods.

When our children were preschoolers, we debated taking them on a work trip to Hawaii. It meant taking them out of their beloved school, laying waste to the routines we needed to manage two overlapping 75% work schedules and the demands of raising two little, active people. Weighing letting them miss eight days of school (unlikely to destroy their academic careers), we cut a deal that included giving show-and-tell when they returned.

Within days, our daughter was floating alongside me as I walked in a quiet lagoon. Face down on a small raft with a clear window, she watched turtles scuttle along underneath her in the waist-deep water. Excitedly, she rose up on her hands and shouted “turtle!”, spilling her floatie and dumping our non-swimming daughter into the salt water. Her mother thought she was a goner. Years later, after many retellings, all she remembers is the allure of swimming with turtles and nothing of her near-drowning.

Thank you, limits of childhood memory.

Because children’s brains, including their memory files, are continuously growing and being reshaped, there are limits to what they can actually recall about events that happened before the age of five or so. Only a few images make it through, especially ones stored with negative and positive emotions. But that does not mean families should forgo vacations until children can recall everything. Though pre-k travelers may not remember the itinerary, or even the destination, they are laying down an experiential foundation that will help them enjoy the novelty, exploration, problem-solving exercises, and frustration management that make periodically leaving home for an adventure with people you know and love feel more like a treasure than a nightmare.

We are all just different on vacation. Parents tend to be more present and in the moment, and they are often less stressed and more playful. Although children may not recall the context of such moments, they recognize how they feel and enjoy the familiarity when a memory is repeated later. The U.S. Travel Association surveyed 2,500 adults and 1,000 youth about family memories and found that the “most vivid memories” of family life were often centered on vacations, even when the details were fuzzy.

So, save the dates, make a plan, and hit the road with your three-to-six-year-olds. It doesn’t need to be fancy: It’s the going that matters, not the budget. Here are some ways to make your next family trip fun-and just possibly more memorable:

  • You affect how many vacation moments your children might remember when you let them elaborate on questions and statements like “What happened then?” or “Tell me some more about it.” Interrogation is not the point – shared remembering is;
  • Your positive or humorous spoken reflections on your time together, as well as some memory-jogging mementos or souvenirs, can also strengthen details in your children’s minds;
  • My favorite travel tips for vacationing with three- to six-year-olds: 1) Open itineraries rule. Children can’t take 10 steps on the beach without finding something they need to investigate. And be patient – scientist at work! 2) Do bathroom recon everywhere you stop, which you should do frequently, unless everyone is happy. 3) During airline travel, walk the aisles and terminals, and bring along training pants for longer flights.
More from Kyle D. Pruett M.D.
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