My family and I have just returned from two weeks in Italy. It was an adventure of visual and gastronomic delights!

Our children, 6 and 8 years old, say they had a great time. They talk about Michelangelo’s David. They know Rome was started by one of two brothers, Romulus and Remus. They know Florence is a place for market finds, such as leather, jewelry, t-shirts and soccer balls. They know the roads in Tuscany wind in and out, up and down.

And they are excited to show their treasures to their class, as they return to school today.

How did we tour Italy with two young children? The steps below made our trip a success.

1. Don’t expect too much

Sometimes I piggy-backed my six-year-old. He was happier, and I used it as an excuse to work my stomach muscles (which I needed to do with all that fantastic food we ate!).

2. Let go of expectations and “must sees.”

I took frequent DEEP BREATHS during minor sibling squabbles, or during discussions where even adults had to make a decision to choose one person’s activity over another’s.

Though we wanted to see the Accademia AND the Uffizi gallery in Florence, our day reached a point of choices, and we decided to let one go. One day, we figure we’ll return and see more.

Using our intuition, we managed to keep an open mind, and respond to our children’s energy levels. Our youngest also doesn’t like last minute changes, so when we decided to do something different, we gave him advance warning, allowing him time to adjust his own expectations.

Though I personally wanted three days in Florence, we decided to spend one of those days around the villa where we stayed. This gave the children a bit more sleep and child-centered activity (there was a pool!). We went for a long walk through the grapevines, and drove into the nearby town of Radda for a short visit.

3. Create challenges

Children love a game. If a casual walk through an art gallery becomes a search for clues or a “where’s Waldo” type of search and find, children become engaged and much more interested. They also remember more of their visit.

How many unfinished statues by Michelangelo were in the Accademia?
Which fresco were they going to find in the Sistine chapel?
Which city or village had the best gelato?
Where are we on the map?

At the end of the day, we looked for direction markers back to the car, to make our final steps happier:

“Where is the sign for the duomo?”
“Do you recognize this corner?”
“Which way do you think our car is now?”

4. Ensure daily journal writing

While they write in their journal (3 sentences for our six-year-old, and 5 or more for our eight-year-old), we ask them what they saw, what they remembered, and what was important to them.

Because I planned this activity weeks ahead (and both children were aware of this), this became the major source of homework for both of their teachers.

5. Don’t push for a full day

Each day was either early or late, not both. Though they missed out on some sleep, we made time to relax each day with a sit-down lunch in the piazza, or with time to play the new nintendo ds on the hotel bed. Our son bought a small soccer ball early in the trip. He and Paul made it a challenge to play a bit of soccer in each Piazza.

6. Use bribes

Yes! Despite my resistance to this method, telling a six-year-old that gelato is only 3o minutes a way does wonders to dismiss whining.

Knowing that a day of rest followed a busy day helped both children walk a little farther to see one last sight.

7. Let them do things they want to do

At home, I would never let them swing around the hand pole on a bus or subway at home, but in an empty space at the airport, a post is fun to swing around, and suddenly a child who “can’t walk” is full of energy.

If we choose between two activities, we give our children a say in those choices. For lunches, we ask them to make a healthy choice. My daughter almost always chose milk to drink, though sometimes it was chocolate milk. When we had two directions we could take, we asked them to choose.

8. Keep essentials close by

I always had one or two full bottles of water with me. Though it added weight, it subtracted whining.

Sunscreen and bug spray were well used.

Both children had their own money to spend, but we kept it for them.

9. Stay grounded

When we entered the basilica in San Gimignano, we saw walls of well-preserved, but quite graphic, frescos of Jesus birth, life and death, of creation, and of other events in that time. My daughter wondered, “why they were killing all the babies?” I wanted to protect her from her anxiety, but instead I took a deep breath, grounded myself and talked about some of the history of these scenes, including how people reacted to their fear, and how sad it is to have any killing at all. I also told her how blessed we are to live in the time and place we do.

10. Reiterate the amazing length of history

Over and over, we oohed and ahhed at the buildings that still exist after 1200 and 2000 years ago, and the images and carvings from hundreds of years ago. We bought a little book that had overleafs of what each Roman building looked like when they were new, to give more perspective to the crumbled walls of the coliseum and the forum.

11. Appreciating the opportunity for real life education

I couldn’t help but speak about how lucky we were to be able to see and (sometimes) touch ancient history. As well, we were lucky that the children’s school recognized this as well, giving us more time to simply marvel in our journey.

…as our children get older, traveling becomes easier. We hope that instilling appreciation for the world now will help them to appreciate it in their own way as they grow.

I, for one, am so fortunate to have visited Italy, with the persective of my children, and the slow enough pace to be present in the beauty that surrounded me…not to mention the yummy wine, and the tasty olive oil flavoring all our fresh food! My “skinny” jeans will have to wait a few weeks before they are comfortable again:)

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  • Vasudha R Posted July 21, 2010 11:03 pm

    I was referred to your blog by a friend and I really enjoyed reading it. I love the tips you gave on traveling with kids. I recently took my 9yr and 7yr old children to India and we visited a temple town and showed them temples and historical landmarks. I did pretty much follow most of the things you have written and it made the trip both enjoyable and educative.

  • Leigh Harris Posted October 21, 2010 9:46 am

    Hello Vasudha,

    I'm glad my experience helped to make your experience more enjoyable. India sounds like a remarkable place. I'd love to hear more about your trip!
    Love and light, Leigh

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