I love to travel, but it recently occurred to me that I enjoy the research and planning process almost as much. I know it’s not everyone’s idea of a good time, but I think it’s so much fun to sift through websites, blogs, and TripAdvisor reviews for different destinations and activities that I hope to enjoy with my family. Since having my second daughter, I’ve noticed that most of my favorite travel resources are primarily geared towards three target audiences: 1. People without kids, 2. People with very young kids, and 3. People with older kids. As I now have a very young kid and an older kid (my daughters are 10.5 years apart), the tips and suggestions I found didn’t always apply to my situation. For that reason, I’ve been reflecting on what works for my family, and I decided to share this information in the event it would be helpful for families with similar age gaps. Without further ado, here are a few tips for planning fun adventures with both big and little kids in mind:
Consider a breakfast picnic.
Picnics are often considered a lunch or dinner activity, but there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t organize a picnic for the first meal of the day. In fact, there are many benefits: popular destinations are often less crowded in the morning, you’ll be met with cooler temperatures in the summer, and breakfast foods can sometimes be easier to gather or prepare than other meals. Don’t want to prepare anything? No problem – pick up donuts or bagels along the way. For those with big and little kids, there’s an added bonus: you can squeeze in a fun adventure for your big kid before your little kid’s morning nap (plus your little one may even sleep better thanks to all the extra stimulation). For some inspiration, here are a few photos from a breakfast picnic we had at Great Falls Park last June.
Print the Junior Ranger Activity Booklet so your big kid can get started ahead of time.
Many national park sites have Junior Ranger booklets available on their website, and printing them at home can be a big help. For example, I printed one of Shenandoah National Park‘s Junior Ranger booklets the evening before our most recent visit in October. Daughter #1 was able to complete activities like word searches and crossword puzzles at home, which gave her a nice introduction to the sites we were going to see. While going through the book with her, I discovered that attending a Ranger Talk was a necessary step for earning the badge at this park, so we were able to plan our trip around one of the two Ranger Talks that were happening that day. She completed the remaining tasks that required illustrating or journaling what she saw while we were in the park. This ensured that Daughter #1 was able to finish the book with plenty of time to earn her badge in person before Daughter #2 decided we were done for the day.
Identify the must-see site/activity in your destination and do that first.
This one is so simple, but it totally changed the way I approach day trips. Every parent knows that babies are magical, snuggly, ticking time bombs. If you wait until later in the day to embark upon your most anticipated adventure, the likelihood of your plans changing due to a meltdown, diaper explosion, or other baby-related reason dramatically increase. That’s why I now try to make sure the main event is also the first event. You could easily get your big kid involved by having them help you pick the activity, or you could simply talk it up to get everyone excited about it (just have a backup plan in case your first choice is inaccessible for some reason). This way, even if you have to leave early, big kids are excited that they get to do the thing they’ve heard so much about, while little kids are likely alert and happy enough to enjoy something new as well. And if things go perfectly and you wind up spending the whole day in your destination, everything else you get to see and do is just the cherry on top.
Budget time for two visits to a particular destination.
Sometimes it’s not easy to pick the must-see site in a given place. Some places have ten must-see sites. If you’re on vacation in a new place and there is a site you and your family are really excited about exploring, there’s nothing wrong with going there more than once. This seems obvious for bigger destinations like huge national parks, but it works on a smaller scale, too. For example, while we were in Cape Charles last July, there were a couple of really hot days that were uncomfortable for my then 10-month-old. The four of us enjoyed a morning beach visit to Kiptopeke State Park. Daughter #1 and I really wanted to see more of the park, so we returned for a second visit while my husband stayed back at our Airbnb for Daughter #2’s nap time. We had the opportunity to explore the trails, visit the playground, and go for a swim together, and it was great to have that extra, one-on-one quality time with my big kid. Had my husband not been with me, I also could have pulled off two morning visits with both girls. Either way, I’m so glad we didn’t try to cram everything we wanted to see and do into one visit – that would have been a lot less fun for everyone.
Bring a friend for the big kid (and maybe even for you).
Several of the adventures mentioned and pictured above are ones that I have done alone with my two girls, and they’ve been great. Still, sometimes it’s nice to have a little company. I definitely move at a slower pace if I’ve got my little one strapped in the baby carrier or toddling along next to me, and I honestly wouldn’t want to move any faster. Daughter #2 can spend ages playing with a stick or crumbling a leaf, and there is so much wonder and learning in these tiny scientific experiments. My older child, on the other hand, is ready to take off. Bringing a buddy gives her the opportunity to socialize with others, as well as the freedom to zip ahead a little farther on a hike. That means that I can enjoy a slower pace without feeling guilty for not keeping up. If other parents come along, I have the added benefit of additional eyes, ears, and hands, as well was my own opportunities to socialize. This was the case when we went on a Labor Day hike in Pocahontas State Park with a bunch of cousins, and it was fantastic. In other words, go ahead and plan that group hike – you won’t regret it!
Don’t underestimate the appeal of a new playground.
A workshop leader at a teacher conference once told me that “the brain craves novelty,” and that has stuck with me. She said it within the context of creating meaningful learning experiences for students, but I think it also applies to family adventures. An easy way to generate novelty is to find new and exciting playground equipment for your older kid to explore while you help your younger child experience new slides and swings. For example, Daughter #1 adores rope and zipline courses, so I will occasionally search for playgrounds that have similar features.
If your big kid claims to be too old for playgrounds, look into ninja or challenge courses. For example, the Monticello Challenge Course in Burke, VA bills itself as being for ages 13 and up (although younger kids definitely use it, too), so it’s a great way for teens to burn some energy while little ones run around in the grass or watch the puppies in the adjacent enclosed dog park. This list by Family Trip Guides is my go-to resource for finding thrilling new playgrounds in Northern Virginia. For more inspiration, here is a blog post I wrote about some of our favorite playgrounds that also have bonus attractions nearby.
There’s plenty of magic in your own town/neighborhood/backyard.
Occasionally, big adventures are just not in the cards, and honestly, sometimes it’s better that way. I remember a mild December day when I really wanted to take my girls somewhere new and fun, but the morning turned into one long list of tasks to complete. I felt the day slipping away as we edged closer and closer to lunch and nap time without a plan or a packed-up car. Grumbling to myself, I loaded up the kids and drove 1.8 miles to a little network of trails behind our local nature center. I worried about mustering enthusiasm for a place we had been multiple times before, but authentic excitement found us quickly. We spotted deer and what I believe was a heron. We tossed rocks into a little creek. We scrambled up larger stones to a bridge that had a view of the lake. Daughter #1 happily scampered about and Daughter #2 dozed off peacefully in the Ergo. It turned into a great morning for all of us, and it was actually refreshing to not travel far from home.
Lately, I’ve come to learn that an adventure with my big and little kids doesn’t have to be much of an adventure at all. There is joy to be found with the help of some bubbles, books, and a picnic blanket on our back deck. There is comfort in the familiarity of the same old walk around the block, coupled with the excitement of noticing something new. There are memories made while having dinner together (and there is nothing wrong with starting an episode of Ms. Rachel on one TV and American Ninja Warrior on another so I can make said dinner in peace). We’re all just doing the best we can, and that will always be good enough.