In Praise of Family Travel

Keith Bellows is the author of "100 Places That Can Change Your Child's Life: From Your Backyard to the Ends of the Earth" (National Geographic, $18.95). (National Geographic/Charlotte Observer/MCT)

Keith Bellows is the author of "100 Places That Can Change Your Child's Life: From Your Backyard to the Ends of the Earth" (National Geographic, $18.95). (National Geographic/Charlotte Observer/MCT)

Charlotte, N.C. — Keith Bellows, 61, has gone more miles than most of us. The editor of National Geographic Traveler magazine was born in Africa — Leopoldville, in what was then Belgian Congo — partly raised in Canada and educated in the United States and Scotland. Writing has taken him to lots of places around the world.

So has being a parent.

His 100 Places That Can Change Your Child’s Life: From Your Backyard to the Ends of the Earth is a cross between a vacation manual and a 274-page wish list and covers quite a bit of ground. Entries are two or three pages at most, and each also holds several of 10 kinds of breakouts that range from kid-friendly places to eat to fast facts to close-in tips to conversation-starting quotes.

It’s an ambitious approach best suited for rainy-day browsing and conversations at the kitchen table. Photographs would have been helpful. As it is, there are a few simple, woodcut-style illustrations — a guy in a kilt for the Edinburgh, Scotland, pages; a junk for Hong Kong; nothing for the Taj Mahal.

“Know Before You Go” items point to books, movies and music parents and kids can use to further tickle interest, but Internet sites (which could do the same, perhaps more easily) are few and far between.

Also missing is any concept of cost — for getting there, staying there or spending there, regardless of destination. It’s fair to assume the cost rises the farther you are from your home, but the absence of any sort of yardstick puts many inspiring 100 Places-sired family-vacation discussions on a wishful but no-go footing. (“Yes, Angor Wat would be swell, Billy, but .”)

Bellows talked about his new book in a January interview.

Question: Why did you write 100 Places?

Answer: Many fail to realize power of travel as a learning tool. My parents took me all over the world; there’s no better way to learn about world than traveling it. But the generation emerging now has difficulty locating New York City on a map, let alone understanding the notion of foreign culture.

Send them to school, that’s where they’ll learn this? Far from it. A passport is the new diploma. Research shows Americans are increasingly wondering about the value of a college education. If you want to “go to college,” travel.

And “foreign” travel doesn’t have to be overseas. You can teach children about, say, Chinese, Vietnamese or Laotian culture by digging into ethnic neighborhoods closer to home. The point is to help them understand that we’re in an increasingly globalized world. As a country, we are challenged to have world-ready workers. To do that, we have to have world-ready children.

My oldest, now 25, was 3 months old when we took him to Jamaica; our 8-year-old and 7-year-old have also been traveling from an early age. We’re constantly looking for the next place to take the children.

Q: How did you select the 34 destinations in North America?

A: I was trying to choose places that were good entry places for child and parent to discover together. Part of the book is as much about parenting as travel — the idea of trying to see cultures through a child’s eyes … to go beyond the museum and kids clubs and trying to give examples of how to see and experience.

The ideas in the book can be applied anywhere you go. It’s not about a kid-size version of the adult world.

By time you’re an adult, you’re pretty desensitized to things — blase about much of the natural world. Wildlife is just something in a zoo.

But a child sees things differently. My son will go out to Chesapeake Bay and prowl around looking in tide pools until he finds a hermit crab or another creature. He can spend hours doing that. He’s captivated.

Think of a child on hands and knees looking through the grass. When was the last time you did that? Adults forget about the complexity and wonder of the world.

Q: Any simple strategy?

A: Yes, but it’s something adults have a hard time doing. Sit back and let the children take charge of their curiosity. You can stand back and just be an observer.

I live in D.C, and when our children were a little younger, we’d plan stuff for Saturdays. But we got to the point where we’d get in a car and just go somewhere — Chinatown, the mall — with no sense of agenda. We’d just park the car and get out and say to them, “Which way do you want to go?”

On a cold, blustery day in Chinatown, it was they who wanted to go into the oriental herb store and see the herbs. They were the ones who wanted to go to the restaurant and try a kind of soup.

Under the Lincoln Memorial is a sort of mini-museum dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. — the children found that, I didn’t. They sat there for 20 minutes, entranced by its short film and some of the memorabilia.

Q: How about some practical advice?

A: You can go wrong at any of these places in the book, but what are your aims? Pick place that speak to your kids’ interests. Try to connect the dogs between child’s natural inclinations. Go somewhere you’re not familiar with, and discover with your children. 100 Places barely scratches the surface. Any place can open itself to a child.

I will tell you this: A child will get more out of two hours spent in a place he’s never been than he will by spending two hours in a classroom. That’s guaranteed.