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For a while after my family returned from a year of travel around the world, it seemed we had ruined sightseeing for my children. After so many monuments, museums, and walking tours, their reflexes had been honed sharply to view any outing smacking of culture with suspicion and a reflex of opposition. 

We’d overdone it. Despite knowing we wanted to just wander around new places and observe “what was what”the unvarnished city buses and playgrounds that made up people’s real lives—our tortured relationship with how we “should” be traveling kept pulling us in other directions. After all, were we really going to travel all the way to China and not see the Great Wall? Go to Peru and not ascend Macchu Pichu? 


It would take us months, but eventually we found the right balance between being “tourists” and being “travelers,” more likely to wander off the beaten path, making friends and eating local food. Not surprisingly, we much preferred the latter. We even gave it a name: “Interloping.” It wasn’t quite the right word, but it stuck.

Not glamorous or Instagrammable, interloping was the art of parachuting, Zelig-like, into someone else’s quotidian existence. It was the opposite of checking famous landmarks boxes. It was eating frozen yogurt at a suburban Chilean mall. Playing tag at a neighborhood playground in Tokyo.

People weren’t putting on a show for tourists in these places, but living their lives that day in their corner of the world. And by wandering through them, we got to feel their rhythms, what mattered, and experienced a taste of what it would be like to be from there. We were imposters as much as interlopers, but we learned more about a country traveling this way than we could ever have imagined. 

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Simple Ways to Keep Kids Engaged While Travelling

Wandering on its own isn’t necessarily a recipe for success with little kids, though; leave things too open-ended and, if they’re like my children, they’ll let rip a firehose of questions that can really ruin an afternoon: Where are we going? How long will it take? What will we do when we get there? How long will we stay? Can we have a snaaack?  

Here are a few simple ways you can focus your family wandering and keep kids engaged:

  1. Bring a soccer ball. 

    Often, we would set out in a new city with only a simple mission to guide us: find a promising spot for pickup. We learned that if you are a kid and you have a soccer ball, you can make friends anywhere, anytime. It’s why we replaced lost and shredded balls all year, despite the impracticality of packing them. 

    In Madrid, our soccer ball wandering led us all over town and, eventually, to an impromptu game on the plaza of some church. In Vina del Mar, Chile, it was a city park adjacent to the beach. In Johannesburg, a dog park. Our kids would be so motivated by the promise of a game that they’d lead us all around, up one street and down another.

  2. Head to the mall.

    Head to the mall, or any place, really, where actual local people shop. If you’re willing to let your kids select a few exciting treats to sample, like a curious-looking candy bar or a piece of fruit they can’t get at home, they’ll gladly wander along, discovering the flavors, smells, preferences, and habits of a place.

    My seven-year-old and I once spent a morning in a Saigon minimart browsing Vietnamese school supplies and noticing how they differed from what we had at home. In Santiago, Chile, an excursion into UniMarc, just another supermercado to locals, led to an afternoon of wonder: Chilean pop music on the speakers, unfamiliar cereal brands, and unrefrigerated eggs in the aisles. I bought a homemade sweater at a remote Norwegian gas station. We sampled grilled silkworms at a night market in Cambodia.

  3. Make it a treasure hunt.

    And I don’t mean an actual scavenger hunt, though some tour operators do this extremely well. Rather, orient your wandering by identifying an item you want or need to buy, and enlist your kids to help you find it. It can’t be anything too general (“t-shirt”) nor something so specific that it limits the places you might find it (“bandaids”). Rather, invite serendipity and the thrill of the hunt by picking something slightly obscure.

    For the longest time on our travel year, that object was a vintage cast iron citrus squeezer, which I’d spotted one in a Colombian kitchen and had to have. The kids would have an eye out for stores that might have one, and we wandered city after city loosely keeping an eye out for this holy grail. It took us into a Berlin kitchen supply shop, up and down the aisles of an outdoor Peruvian housewares market. Eventually we found one at a vintage store in Nelson, New Zealand. I still love and use it in New York. 

The "Wow" Factor for Kids

Worried your wandering isn’t providing enough travel “wow” factor for your kids? Let me remind you: It doesn’t take much to impress kids. Just ask anyone who’s watched a toddler spend Christmas morning playing with cardboard boxes from the trash pile.

We went to Machu Picchu and the kids only cared about the centipedes. We spent a small fortune on safaris in Zimbabwe and South Africa, but my son and daughter were just as astonished by a Durban petting zoo. 

Wandering with kids can be one of the most surprising joys of travel. Setting out for the day without a plan can lead to, well, you never know what it can lead to, which is the point. 

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Book by this Author:

BOOK: Following the Sun

Following the Sun: Tales (and Fails) From a Year Around the World With Our Kids
by Margaret Bensfield Sullivan.

book cover of Following the Sun by Margaret Bensfield Sullivan.A must-read for any parent pondering extended family travel. Following the Sun offers a refreshingly honest account of one American family’s decision to uproot their conventional life and embark on a year-long adventure around the world with two small children -- with nothing more than carry-on bags to travel for a year to twenty-nine countries spanning six continents.

Following the Sun transports readers along their ambitious itinerary through vivid descriptions—cloud forests in Peru, horse races in Mongolia, sunsets in Zimbabwe—and in the process, answers commonly asked questions: What did they pack? Where did they go? How did they stay sane with their kids around all the time? It also answers plenty of questions no one asks, ever. Like what to do when your five-year-old projectile vomits on a crowded Saigon bus, or what not to do, under any circumstances, when piranha fishing in the Amazon.

More than a travelogue, Following the Sun reveals practical hacks and hard-won wisdom—about travel, about the world, about being parents—and offers a glimpse into what can happen when a family steps off the treadmill of daily life to experience adventure together while they still have the chance.

For more info and/or to order this book, click hereAlso available as a Kindle edition.

About the Author

photo of Margaret Bensfield SullivanMargaret Bensfield Sullivan is an author, illustrator, and family photo curator whose work combines a personal passion for archiving with the visual storytelling skills she honed over nearly two decades in brand marketing. Margaret was a partner at WPP's marketing and branded content agency Group SJR, where she designed storytelling campaigns on behalf of clients like TED, Target, Disney, and USAID. She left corporate life to spend a year with her husband and two young children crisscrossing the globe, visiting 29 countries and six continents. She wrote all about their adventures in Following the Sun: Tales (and Fails) From a Year Around the World With Our Kids (December 5, 2023).

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