In the year before we left, I read two books that really influenced how we took our sabbatical with four kids, and I am eternally grateful. The first book I read was David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback (a thick biography of Theodore Roosevelt). I know that a biography of a president seems like an odd book to mention in connection with traveling with kids, but did you know that Theodore Roosevelt spent a year in Europe with his family when he was eleven? He kept a journal. That was my first takeaway. The two older kids (10 and 12) and I wrote in our journals every single day without fail. It was non-negotiable. I knew we’d never remember our trip in the same way if we didn’t write it down as we were doing it. Sometimes we didn’t feel like it, but we’re all glad now that we stuck with it and have those memories written down.
The second thing I took away from Mornings on Horseback, however, was what Teddy wrote in his journal. While his family visited museums and concerts together (which is all well and good), what Teddy really loved were the times after he would have an asthma attack that his father would take him out into the country to run around old ruins to his heart’s content. Having the opportunity to explore and imagine in the wild, overgrown ruins was what he remembered best about his trip–what he longed to do as an eleven year old boy.
The second book I read was one my sister told me about, At Home in the World by Tsh Oxenreider. This is a fairly recent book by a blogger. She and her husband sold their house in the Pacific Northwest and traveled around the world for a year with their three young children (with only a backpack a piece–I thought of this the whole time I packed, and it’s truly how we ended up with only two suitcases total for six people for five months; more about that in another post). Tsh said at the end of the book that when she asked her children what they loved best about their trip, they things they invariably mentioned were places they could play freely–the amazing wilderness playground in Germany or the city playground in Turkey or playing house in the fields of New Zealand with friends.
I took these two related themes to heart; children need time to explore and play. While we certainly took in our fair share of museums and we visited lots and lots of historic sights, I tried to balance those two things with places that my four littles could explore and play and imagine without the aid of an audio guide or informational signs. We visited lots of ruins (ruined abbeys were a favorite), where I let them just run around and play and imagine. I didn’t try to give them a history lesson about monks or kings.
We visited a miniature village where they could play hide and seek and pretend amongst the tiny houses.
We visited lots of nature reserves and deer parks and forests (and places like the Fairy Glen on Skye), where they could explore and pretend to be Robin Hood or whomever.
Apparently graveyards also make good play places, because at our one house in Suffolk (a manse), the kids were out in the graveyard (with permission!–our host specifically left us a note saying the kids were welcome to play in the graveyard) and surrounding gardens and trees every day playing hide and seek and who knows what else.
And we always tried to find a good local playground in the places we stayed, where they loved playing with local children. The very best playground I’ve ever seen in my life anywhere was the Eoropie Dunes Play Park in Ness on the Isle of Lewis.
They also played in the middle of London at a playground around the corner from the British Museum.
There was a big playground through a hedge-gate at our AirBnB in Edinburgh.
We had a playground within our Droompark in the Netherlands and at several of the castles and palaces we visited in the UK.
We also had a great neighborhood playground that we could walk to in the Cotswolds, where they played often. (There was even a “secret” trail right behind our house that led through the woods to the playground. Bonus fun!)
I am so thankful that I read these two books. They helped me see the world through a child’s eyes and make our trip special for the four little people whose imaginations are expanding every day. I truly think finding this balance between museums, history, and free play helped us avoid burnout and allowed our sabbatical to be memorable and fun for my kids.