How Family Travel Helps Kids Understand Their Own Stories

We often travel to get away from home, shed routines, and find fresh perspective. Yet travel can also be a way to understand your past and have a better sense of your place in the world. Heritage trips that trace your own origins or explore cultural history are a powerful way to have a memorable trip, especially for kiddos. 

When she was six, I asked my daughter where she’d want to travel if she could go anywhere in the world. “Korea!” she answered. “Why?” I asked. “Because I speak Korean,” she replied confidently. I’m not sure how far she would get on “hello,” “thank you,” and “more bulgogi please” - her only three Korean phrases - but I loved that she felt connected to her culture. Her dad is Korean-American and when we see his parents we love asking about traditions and family history (and eating our fill of homemade Korean dishes). But we want them to really experience Korean culture for themselves someday. 

As an adult or a kid, visiting a place where you have family history is a powerful way to travel. Genealogy websites like Ancestry, WikiTree and MyHeritage are growing in popularity, and so are trips to track down ancestors and understand one’s own origins. A family friend recently traveled around Sweden with 14 cousins, finding as many living relatives as they could. They wanted to hear family stories before they were lost. 

For second or third-generation immigrants, heritage travel is an important way to stay connected to language, relatives, and culture. American-born kiddos are often amazed to find they have family who loves and cares for them, even though they live across the globe. And it’s pretty amazing when kids learn that even if they don’t speak the local language, smiles and good will can overcome most barriers. For many who travel “back home” regularly, the top draw is food! Forget the hotel restaurants that a traveler might go to; the more homemade the better. From Grandma’s home-cooked dinner to a favorite street food, there’s no faster route to nostalgia than food.  

Exploring your heritage doesn’t have to mean an expensive plane ticket or a passport stamp: nearby festivals are a great way to experience the living traditions of your own culture, or any culture that you find interesting. I grew up going to the Scottish Highland Games in Vermont and loved the dancing, bagpiping, and finding out which plaid tartan belonged to “my” clan. As an adult, I took my kids to the Seaside Highland Games in Ventura and the Korean Festival in Los Angeles to experience their heritage. And we also went to Danish Days in Solvang, California, a Holi celebration in Pasadena, Ghanaian drumming in LA, and an Abenaki art festival in Vermont. We’re not Danish, South Asian, West African, or Native American, but these were great ways to immerse ourselves in another culture. In some ways, heritage festivals are a more distilled version of a country or culture: the focus on traditional dress, food, games, music, and dance is what you’d hope to see if you traveled abroad, but the reality is that with modernization and globalization, these examples of living history can be hard to find. 

Living history museums offer a year-round taste of the past. Wherever you travel next, search to see if you can visit one: kids love the costumes, crafts, and interactive opportunity to ask an “old-fashioned” guide questions. Here in the U.S., living history museums shed light on American history. Our family just visited Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, learning how to make a rope, build a barrel, and what to sing when hoisting sails all like sailors in the 1800s. Like many New Englanders, my family can trace a serpentine path to one ancestor on the Mayflower. That’s a boring fact to a kid until they step aboard a replica and imagine what that journey was like, or grasp the fact that the Pilgrims would not have survived without the help of Native Americans.

For international adoptees, heritage travel is an important way to connect to one’s birth culture. There’s the sheer joy of being among people who look like you, the delight of discovering your origins, and also tricky emotions to navigate if there are barriers to belonging. Whatever your reason for venturing abroad and connecting with your heritage, it’s sure to be memorable and life-changing for the whole family. 

About the author: Amanda Reid is the former Head of Brand and Social Impact at WAYB, and is currently living on a sailboat with her family. She spends her time writing, steering, boatschooling, and planning the next adventure, big or small.