A guest post by Jan Zwilling.
In the autumn of 2014, my wife, daughter Matilde (then almost two years old), and I embarked on the biggest adventure of our lives as a family. We left the urban liveliness of Berlin to explore the woods, lakes and mountains of Ontario and the New England states. This four-week journey in a motorhome satisfied our thirst for adventure as parents. We simply assumed or hoped that Matilde would share this itch.
At the same time, however, I read an article by David Dobbs in National Geographic about whether there is an “explorer gene” that predefines our wanderlust to a certain degree. I feared that the little one was not born to be wild and that we were imposing our way of travelling on her.
As it turned out, my fears were baseless and our trip was a great experience for all three of us. Here is how we approached different aspects of the trip to make it a success.
1. Plan for Flexibility
By definition, an adventure is something that deviates from the everyday routine and takes into account that unexpected things may occur. Letting go of controlling everything is a major recharge for body and soul. Yet, with a child you suddenly start to love routines and habits as they make your life a lot easier. Throwing them overboard for a month was a risk. We tried to balance planning and flexibility to address this risk by renting a large motorhome. The biggest issue we faced in the first 22 months of Matilde’s life was how to make her fall asleep. The first six months were especially troublesome and frustrating in this respect and we knew that changing sleeping places for her every night could potentially ruin our trip. With a
We tried to balance planning and flexibility to address this risk by renting a large motorhome. The biggest issue we faced in the first 22 months of Matilde’s life was how to make her fall asleep. The first six months were especially troublesome and frustrating in this respect and we knew that changing sleeping places for her every night could potentially ruin our trip. With a motorhome the bedroom was the same the whole time, which proved to be a good choice. Nevertheless, we had to abandon well-established rituals of going to bed; she was not keen on falling asleep alone and we started laying down with her until she was asleep the very first night. Replacing old habits with new habits was the foundation for adventure.
2. Playgrounds are Everywhere
With good sleep assured, we were ready to explore throughout the day. Our main goal was to get outside and hike through gorgeous places like Algonquin Park, Adirondack Mountains and the Acadian shore. We made a habit of not making specific plans for each day and decided every morning what could work and how we felt. Most of the time we hiked for three to five hours to have some time left for relaxing and playing. Although we had some issues when the little one could not decide whether to walk on her own or to be carried on the back (a good carrier is essential!), hiking turned out really well. As soon as she discovered that she can pick up leaves, climb on fallen trees or throw stones in the water, nature was her playground. Every child is curious, so just tease the curiosity for the nature that surrounds you – and know when it’s time to hit a “real” playground.
3. Involve Them in Everything
A key aspect for Matilde’s compliance on the trip turned out to be involvement. When you’re basically alone for four weeks, you need good vibrations in the expedition team. So, after some days we started to discuss what to cook and where to hike, although she did not understand half of it. We stayed at the lake throwing stones if she wanted to (and she did it for hours) or let her walk in her tiny hiking boots even if it took us ten times longer to get to our destination. This does not come naturally, but after some days this approach was in our blood. I must admit that her wishes became overwhelming at times, like when she wanted to touch every trail sign we passed from her position on my back. Don’t dare to forget one, daddy!
What we’d do differently next time…
We planned our route in detail, but retained the flexibility of changing it by not booking a campground everywhere in advance. Still the route covering two Canadian Provinces and four U.S. states turned out a bit too optimistic. We managed not to drop a major location, but the amount of time dedicated to driving was questionable at times. The curiosity of the parents to see new places battles the comforts of sticking to a few locations with a child. Now that we’ve seen a lot of this region, we would concentrate on one or two spots next time.
In his National Geographic article, David Dobbs stated that 20 percent of people have the gene variant, which is supposed to stimulate the desire to explore. Thinking back to our trip I have tried to figure out whether it’s an indication that Matilde has it or not. The more I think about it, the less important it seems; children are curious and open for everything you’ll confront them with. I like to think that we shape her interests and desires as much as she shapes ours.
A shared experience like this, even if it holds obstacles and setbacks, is the best thing you can do for your child, yourself and your family.
About the Author
Jan Zwilling lives and works in Berlin, but feels at home in many places around the world. He spent several months of his student days in Portugal, innumerable weeks on the road with a motorhome in Canada and hours photographing northern lights in arctic Norway. He studied Geography and now makes his living in Science Communication. His passion, however, is nature and adventure photography and writing. He is currently preparing the launch of “Paradise Found” to tell stories about the natural paradises of our planet.