4 Ways to Add Educational Value to an International Vacation

(and how we did it in Cancun, Mexico)


If I say Cancun, you say…what? Beaches. Sun. Lounging poolside.

We recently took the family to Mexico. We played for hours in the pool, and followed that with time on the beach.  We rode the waves, built huge sandcastles, and watched gorgeous yellow fish swim by our toes in the shallow water.  Our vacation bulged with plenty of fun, frolic, and relaxation.

cancun beach

Would you like to know what else we did? We learned new things! We learned about crocodiles and tamales. We studied archeology, linguistics, and more. Having been home from this vacation for some time now, I am convinced that this real-world immersion in another culture will remain with my young boys for the rest of their lives.

Family vacations do not have to be 100% leisure or 100% educational – they can be 100% both.  The privilege of being a homeschool family means that learning happens every day, in small moments, with life-changing consequence.

Here are four ways that our family maximized a recent vacation to Mexico by extending the educational value of this international trip.  My young boys would claim there was no “teaching” involved; it was pure fun! That is just what this mom loves to hear.

1.    Foreign Language

We explored the Spanish language.  This was an adventure for both of us, as I studied Japanese in school – whew! Since my son is only five years old, without previous exposure to other languages, I did not introduce topics like masculine and feminine voice, or verb conjugation! We simply brainstormed a few phrases we use regularly, and then learned how to say them in Spanish.

We found success with such phrases as “Hello” and “Goodbye,” or “Thank you” and “You’re Welcome.”  Older children might also consider “How much is this?”, “Do you speak English?”, “How do you say…?” or “How are you?”

Practice the phrases around the house for a while, and then consider using them in public. Say, at the grocery store or the library. The more comfortable your child feels with the phrase, the more likely he is to use it in the country you are visiting.

2.    History and Culture

If you are not familiar with a country, this might take a little preparatory research on your part.  Discover a famous or interesting historical event that occurred in the city you are visiting. Perhaps a famous explorer once visited there, or the people once practiced an interesting religion.  Introduce this tidbit to your children before you go.  You might consider using other tools to get them excited, such as documentaries on Netflix or videos on YouTube.

Again, we chose to work on a basic level with our young boys.  Cancun is rich with Mayan ruins. I could have introduced many aspects of the Mayan culture to them such as the calendar, the art, the religion, etc.  Our vacation fell close to Columbus Day, so we chose to focus on the civilization being one of the original cultures of the New World.  We also discussed the architecture and compared it to 21st century American architecture. We watched several movies and read a few books before leaving to help introduce the concept.

maya museum

In Cancun, we spent one morning at the Maya Museum.  It was right on the main hotel road and easily accessible by bus, and the entry fee was extremely affordable.  We saw remains of the ancient Mayans and many artifacts that they used in everyday life.  Also at the museum is San Miguelito, an archeological site recently opened with five buildings available to view, including The Great Pyramid, which is 26 feet tall! The boys enjoyed walking this area and thinking about what it much have been like to live there over 800 years ago. This experience reinforced the ideas we learned at home, making it one they will remember for a lifetime.

maya museum 1

3.    Gastronomy

Each culture has a culinary distinction. Mexican food, Chinese food, Thai Food, German food (ooo…I’m getting hungry.)  Before you head out, talk about the “typical” food for the region you are visiting.  What do your kids envision as the traditional meals served by families in that culture? Older kids might even enjoy learning about regional differences in a country. For example, many children associate Italy with pizza and pasta, but the coast of Italy is rich with seafood dishes.

Once you have hypothesized about the traditional dishes served, make time to cook a few at home. Take the kids grocery shopping in a cultural market in your area, or talk about ingredients that might not be available at your super market.  Take note of your favorite dishes and what you liked best about them.

Once on vacation, be sure to sample the same dish you made at home. Was it as readily available as predicted? How similar in flavor was your home meal compared to this one? Did you like it as much? Was there a special twist on the recipe, or was it what you expected?

Older kids might enjoy taking the gastronomy challenge a step further by searching for local spices as souvenirs, or discovering a regional cookbook for creating new dishes at home.  Some countries readily offer cooking classes to tourists – a fun and enriching family experience.

4.    Zoology

The animal lovers in your family might be more interested in habitats that habaneros.  My big guy loves to learn which animals are native to a particular region and what their home environment looks like.  Talk with your children about the landscape of the region you are visiting.  Is it dessert or forest, or maybe both? What types of animals usually live there? What do they eat; where do they sleep?

My son has an infatuation with Diego, so we used this as a springboard for our study on Mexico.  We discussed how the habitat of Mexico changes as you drive from Cancun to the more inland cities within Mexico, as well as the changes from north to south.

As we studied the changes that tourists and Mother Nature have caused in Cancun, we came across the Croco Cun Zoo.  This is a conservationist zoo in Cancun.  It started as a crocodile farm, but was almost destroyed by a hurricane in the 1980s.  That devastation led to the metamorphosis of the zoo, which commits to conserving several local species.

In addition to seeing crocodiles, visitors can learn about monkeys, parrots, deer, turtles and much more. Spend about an hour and a half with a knowledgeable guide on this interactive tour.  You can hold a crocodile, parrot, or snake, and your guide will give you ample time for photos. It was the perfect way to learn about the local animals and environments.

Has your family made a vacation into a 100% leisure and 100% educational experience? How did you do it? We’d love to hear!

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