The Importance of Travel and Adventure for Mental Well-Being

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By Shannon Loehrlein, MSW, LCSW

I love to travel. My parents instilled a love of travel in me from a young age. My mother was a history teacher, and we would spend some vacations visiting historic sites (not my favorite as a middle school student). Other times we would visit Disney World or take a cruise. I know many children do not have this opportunity, and I have always considered myself fortunate.

This summer I had the experience of a lifetime taking my kids to Europe, Alaska, and Disney World. My busy summer made me think about the importance of travel for children.  

My kids are currently 9 and 4 and have both traveled since they were only a few months old. When they were very little, I would hear comments from other people about how I was crazy for traveling with them. Sure, we had our share of fits, meltdowns, and embarrassing moments, but the benefits have definitely outweighed the inconveniences. Here are some examples:

Exposure to Different Cultures. Our children visited Europe for the first time this summer. We traveled to Italy, Ireland, Greece, France, and Canada, along with some domestic stops along the way. Each country has its own culture, norms, food, and customs. 

Our children first learned, for example, that not all countries have free refills and ice. We had to remind them of this several times when they ordered a soft drink and wanted a refill. They also learned that in Europe it is not customary for hotels, homes, or businesses to be air-conditioned, teaching them adaptability.

Our children have visited some islands in the Caribbean, where most families have a different standard of living than average Americans. They observed kids expressing appreciation and thankfulness for what little they have, and this was an important reminder to them. During our visit to Alaska this year we came across a homeless shelter, and our children had some questions about it. It is important for children to have a basic understanding and compassion for families living in poverty.

Our kids also learned that in most countries around the world, eating out is a several-hour event and not a quick drive through. As Americans, we are used to having quick and efficient service and had to adopt a slower pace. In many cultures, fast meal service is considered rude and makes the customer feel like they are being rushed. 

Different Languages. Traveling to unique places exposes you to different languages and dialects, other elements of culture. Although many countries in the world speak English (such as Ireland), the accent and words can mean different things.

Europe is a melting pot, and unlike Americans, most Europeans know multiple languages. It was amazing to see how easily Europeans would go back and forth between languages. Our children learned a few phrases in Italian, French, and Greek, which they thought was a lot of fun. 

Kids do not have to travel out of the country to experience different cultures. Most schools offer language instruction. Our home school district has an entire program for children who speak English as a second language. It is important for kids to be exposed to others who are different, which teaches tolerance.

Learning Patience. Travel teaches patience to both children and adults. I would often remind my children to pack their “patience pants” on airplanes, trains, and waiting in lines. Europe had a huge travel boom this summer, and the crowds certainly confirmed this.

Patience is an important life skill that our children learn in school daily. Children must raise their hand, wait their turn, sit quietly, and share with other children. Children are not born with these skills.

Adventure and Mental Well Being. A few years ago, I took a free class from Yale University on the Secret of Happiness from Dr. Laurie Santos, who has spent her life’s work studying the psychology of happiness. One of the lessons that affected me most was about how we spend our money in relation to happiness. Dr. Santos noted that capitalism has contributed to people thinking that buying the latest car, phone, house, clothes, etc. will make them happy. Many of us are chasing that American Dream of consumerism and left feeling empty.

Dr. Santos discovered that what makes us happiest are experiences. Experiences can be as simple as going to the movie, going to the playground, swimming at the pool, or taking a vacation. Her conclusion was that families should spend expendable income on life experiences. 

My family decided to prioritize travel in our budget several years ago. Most American families take one or two trips each year. Many enjoy the beach, visiting family out of town, taking road trips, cruises, or visiting amusement parks or large cities. Everyone has a different budget, and you can incorporate travel and experiences at any budget. Some low-cost ideas could be taking your child to the local playground, swimming pool, the zoo, or a splash pad. Families can find fun activities to enjoy together on any budget.