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Preparing Kids Ahead of Time Makes for Better Holidays

My dad has a favourite expression: "You see what you know." In other words, if you're walking down the street and you know that a certain building is there, you'll look at it. Otherwise, you'll pass it without a glance. Kids operate the same way. Ever wonder when you're travelling with them, how they can pick out a McDonald's at 200 yards? To you, it may only be a squint on the horizon but to them it's already a welcoming haven, a comforting reminder of the familiarity of home.

Preparing kids so that they will know more of what they are about to see always pays off. They'll become more excited about the journey, see more while there, and feel some familiarity with the new scene. Books, tapes and videos, pamphlets from tourist offices, and even food can create positive vibes about a place even before you get there. Here are some tried-and-true methods:

Food: You can usually get to any kid through his stomach. Before we went to Jamaica this year, I brought home rice and peas, and spicy chicken from Toronto's Real Jerk restaurant. I also served coconut cream pie and bottles of ginger beer (non-alcoholic) with pirates grusking from the labels. What kid could resist? We turned the heat up to 90 degrees and put on some reggae music. Only one kid enjoyed the spicy meat. But all three were looking forward to more desserts like the one they'd just consumed at one sitting.

Books: Librarians and staff in the children's book stores have always been tremendously helpful in finding books for different age groups set in whatever region we're travelling to. Reading Anne of Green Gables makes P.E.I. come alive before the car has left the driveway; coloring Thomas the Tank Engine eases fears about a first train ride; playing with a folding cardboard farm book creates enthusiasm for an upcoming farm vacation while acting out Paris scenes with paper dolls from the Madeline books can ensure squeals of recognition on the first sighting of the Eiffel Tower. For little ones, a picture book like Richard Scarry's Cars and Trucks and Things that Go or sticker Activity books with planes and trains explains how transportation works: "No, the dogs and cat, guinea pig and ten hamsters will not be flying with us," explained in advance could have prevented the floods of tears or tamtrums that we once got when it became clear the animals were not coming too. Books with characters such as Paddington Bear and Winnie-the-Pooh set in Britain, Linnea in Monet's garden in France, or Pippi in the South Seas set the scene for young imaginations.

Author Kati Rekai, who lives in Toronto, has written a series of books that follow the adventures of three dogs and a cat as they discover European countries and Canadian cities. Some kids relate so much to Mickey, Taggy, Puppo, and Cica as they discover the world that they want to follow them exactly. Rekai, who always travelled with her children, began the series when she could find no such books for her own kids. Filled with colourful drawings of actual settings, the paperback books are available from Canadian Stage and Arts Publications, Toronto. Tel: (416) 785-4300.

Tourist Offices: Tourist offices are happy to mail information for free. They usually send maps and loads of colorful brochures. Kids can cut out pictures of things they would like to see and stick them on the family bulletin board or fridge. Make a giant kitchen calendar on bristol board and paste up scenes of where you'll be on what day. Or glue pictures into a scrapbook that youngsters can add to while travelling. As one mother said, even a drab old bus ticket or a cocktail fork from a restaurant takes on a new light when pasted into a keepsake album.

Tapes and Videos: Video stores can provide hundreds of settings. Our kids recognized the Capital building in Washington from the movie Dave. Before we visited San Francisco, we rented Bullitt with Steve McQueen. There's a great car chase scene up and over the steep hills. We saw Murder on the Orient Express before taking European trains and Cool Runnings before Jamaica. The possibilities are endless.

Those Who Have Gone Before You: If you know families who have travelled with their kids, ask if they could show off their family photos or videos. We held an informal slide show this week for a family who is about to take their first trip to visit relatives in Holland. When the evening was over, their ten-year-old daughter was almost squealing with excitement. "How many more weeks until we go?" she implored. I can guarantee that, despite the differences from home, this little traveller will have a great trip.





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