Is a big trip with your toddler worth it? What memory experts say.

by Сашка

Your kid may not remember every detail, but it will have a lasting impression

“You know he’s not going to remember any of it, right?” It wasn’t the reply I expected when I recently told a (happily child-free) friend I’d be taking my 4-year-old son on his first African safari.

But she did have a point. As Bangkok-based expats and frequent travelers, my wife and I had already lugged our child across the globe before “airplane” was even part of his vocabulary. He took his first unassisted steps on a tatami floor in Tokyo, and by the time he turned 4, he had already collected more passport stamps than I had until well into my 20s. But my friend’s comment made me wonder: What does my son remember from his years as a globe-trotting toddler? Have the bucket-list trips we’ve taken been in vain?

After probing him for an answer over dinner one night, he recalled a fuzzy memory of a lighthouse he saw in Galle in southern Sri Lanka at age 2, but he had forgotten about the seven-hour train ride through the country’s tea plantations that followed. Neither did he remember that we shuffled down the snow-covered Great Wall of China a few months earlier, nor that we clinked (virgin!) mojitos in Cuba that New Year’s Eve. His first Christmas at his grandparents’ home in the Netherlands? Not a clue. An anecdote I shared from our first father-son trip to Bali at age 1½ was met with a blank stare.

He could, however, describe more recent trips much more vividly. He reminisced about the time he peed down a waterfall when I took him on a hike in the Northern Thai jungle just after his 3rd birthday. He brought up the light show at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands that we visited in the same year and talked about the time he rode a horse and played football with novice monks in Bhutan a year later.

The science checks out: The consensus among neuroscientists, psychologists and child development experts is that most children start retaining accessible memories around 4 years of age, but it might take longer in some cases.

“Since there’s a large range for when long-term memories begin and persist, it’s hard to say definitively when the right time is for a bucket-list trip for any given family,” says Rebecca Weksner, a Massachusetts-based psychologist specializing in pediatrics and a mother of three young children. “One child may recall it since the emotional experience may have been so strong as to create a lasting memory trace, while for another it may not.”

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More than a memory

The fact that children probably won’t remember the exact details of the safari, European city or national park trip they’ve taken before their 4th birthday doesn’t mean that those big-ticket trips are a waste of money and time.

“Travel provides multiple opportunities for new experiences, and therefore has the ability to activate different regions of the brain,” says Jessica Sproat, a child development specialist in Vancouver, B.C., who frequently brings her 3-year-old along on trips in the Canadian wilderness. “These activations strengthen the connections between neurons in the brain and increase its ability to change and adapt in response to new experiences, leading to increased learning capacity.”

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Exposing young children to foods, languages, animals and climates they might not encounter closer to home also helps them develop empathy, adaptability and social skills. “These novel experiences stimulate children’s curiosity and promote active learning,” Sproat says. “Children learn best through firsthand experience, and so being directly involved in cultures that are different than their own broadens their perspectives.”

And even though explicit memories of a trip might fade, psychoanalyst Claudia Luiz, who practices in New York and New Jersey, stresses the importance of “implicit memories,” which are formed subconsciously and are completely impressionistic. “Implicit memories get registered in the brain differently,” she says. “Instead of going into a memory bank, they set neuronal pathways that determine our future experiences.”

She explains that, although a 4-year-old might not remember the glory of a pony ride, they will remember it as an experience that brought everyone joy, which can set the tone for future expectations of pleasure, joy and fulfillment in a new experience.

Making every trip count

Vacations, especially those of the bucket list kind, often come with hefty price tags, so it’s worth looking into ways to have them benefit a child’s development as much as possible.

“Parents often ask their child if they’re excited to go to a particular place without realizing that their child hasn’t been there before and doesn’t really know what to expect,” says Melanie English, a licensed clinical psychologist in Seattle who often works with families. She suggests preparing children for a new-to-them destination by reading books and watching videos about the landscapes, people and animals they might encounter during their trip.

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Getting children involved in shaping the itinerary can also pay off. “Traveling requires problem-solving and flexibility that might not be necessary while at home and in routine,” Sproat says. She explains that, even though executive functioning skills such as planning and making judgment calls are not yet fully developed in young children, there are opportunities to include them in simple decisions before and during a trip, such as choosing between two activities or selecting a new food to try. All of which, Sproat says, “build foundational skills that support later developing cognitive skills and executive functioning.”

Sproat also emphasizes the importance of play and connection during a trip. “Children learn best through play,” she says. “And they want connection over anything else.” She advises parents to pay close attention to the facial expressions of their young children to notice what catches their attention, then label it and discuss what they have seen or experienced. (“That food is sweet!” Or “Look at that bird, that’s a …”)

Ryan Sultan, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, says trips involving active participation and sensory stimulation may leave a deeper impression on young children. “To make experiences more memorable, consider activities that cater to their interests,” he says. “A visit to a children’s museum or a zoo can be more memorable than passively sightseeing.”

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Tom Marchant, whose travel company, Black Tomato, has planned numerous bucket-list trips for families with young children, makes sure that their trips remain both manageable and memorable, and he suggests choosing a destination with an inherent “wow” factor (such as vibrant colors, dramatic sunsets and animals) that young children are more apt to remember. “We organize experiences that can be done in a short time frame so that a child’s wonder is maintained,” he says. “This way, we avoid young children becoming annoyed and tired, which could eclipse the richness of the experience.”

Be the traveler you want your child to be

Travel with young children introduces a whole new set of logistical and emotional hurdles, which often increase the more far-flung or complex a trip becomes. Consider how you handle unforeseen situations, because your stress can be contagious. English suggests having one-liners ready for when plans change (“Well, the flight time is longer, but you get to watch another movie now!”), and pointing out what your child is regaining when they miss something familiar (“I know you miss your bed, but this one is much bigger!”).

It also offers parents the opportunity to model skills such as problem-solving and adapting to new situations. “Young children learn through observation,” Sproat says. “Watching caregivers demonstrate these things will support them as their brains develop as well.”

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Don’t forget to debrief

What happens after returning home is just as important in making memories linger longer. My son and I often browse through the (printed) photo albums we’ve compiled from our previous trips and use them to rekindle memories that might have faded over time.

Sproat agrees that videos and photos are helpful in referencing travel experiences, because young children might not be able to recall them without visual aids. She also advises continuing pointing out similarities and differences between home and the destinations of previous trips. (“This is different than what we saw in …” or “This tastes similar to what you ate in …”) “This process of linking existing knowledge to new experiences strengthens cognitive associations, helps with knowledge transfer and improves memory,” she says.

But “don’t forget that what was meaningful to you may not have been meaningful for your child,” English adds. “They might surprise you with what they enjoyed most about their vacation.”

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Remember: Every child is different

Every child develops at their own pace. And that’s okay. Implicit benefits aside, family holidays are, after all, also opportunities to spend meaningful time together. “Parents should be less focused on the type of experiences they should provide to their children, and more focused on how their child is experiencing those opportunities,” Luiz says. “The more we can appreciate how our child is built genetically, the more we can create travel experiences for them that they will internalize as positive and exciting.”

Chris Schalkx is a Bangkok-based travel writer. You can follow him on Instagram: @chrsschlkx.

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