We're gearing up for a trip to the Pacific Northwest, just the three of us, to visit friends and explore, explore, explore. If you need us, we'll be wandering the Oregon coast, people-watching in Portland, and drinking coffee in Seattle...and I think I'm most excited about the latter. I've been fascinated by the city of Seattle for as long as I can remember, and this is my first opportunity to visit.
When I was small, I was fascinated by cities and faraway places of all kinds, and I can point to a few reasons why. I had one of those tiny personal slide viewers, an original model, complete with a set of vintage slides of national parks, all of which must have belonged to my grandparents. I would sneak away into a corner and flip through the slides--the real-deal Instagram experience--for hours, relishing the goosebumps I'd get from the sights: Carlsbad Caverns, Zion National Park, Muir Woods, Yellowstone, Yosemite. And my parents cultivated my interest, providing me with library books and pictures and information, and whenever possible, actual traveling. When we traveled, we would spend weeks preparing, looking at pictures of what we'd see, learning about the surroundings, gearing up for the things we'd experience. When we came home, we would make homemade books about our adventures. (San Francisco was one of those standout adventures, and I still have the books, both store-bought and homemade, from that time. Now, when my family complains about how far away I've moved, I have to remind them that it's their fault that I never lost my obsession with San Francisco, because they started it.) But there were a lot of places I was interested in that we simply couldn't travel to, so they invented little characters--imaginary rabbits, in fact--who would "travel the world" and then tell me in detail about their explorations. I still have those handwritten books, too: "Rabbits Go to Australia;" "Rabbits Go to the Moon." The point is that it's important to cultivate curiosity in advance of the opportunity. Listen to the music you're going to hear before you go to the concert. Learn just a little about where you're going before you get there. Preparation kicks your senses into gear, because it facilitates recognition and observation.
With Sam, I notice that he HUGELY enjoys things he recognizes. If we're walking around the city together, he might get a little stir-crazy in his stroller, but if we get anywhere near the Golden Gate Bridge or the Transamerica Building (both of which he's obsessed with pointing out), he suddenly becomes much happier. He looks for these landmarks everywhere...in stores, on book covers, on posters of the city, on billboards. And he doesn't just do it with those two points of interest: he does it with anything I've pointed out to him a few times. It's like he lives in a life-sized version of Where's Waldo, and thus everything is interesting to him because everything is a potential discovery. It puts him on the lookout constantly for things he recognizes (stop sign! Golden Gate Bridge! Seagull! Low-flying plane!), which means he's less likely to get bored when we're out on adventures. And, in the process, he discovers new favorite things, which in turn get added into the Great Search for Interesting and Squeal-Worthy Things.
So, this week, in preparation for our trip, I've started introducing Sam to the places we'll be exploring so that when we get there, he'll have a frame of reference. I think this part is absolutely crucial to the idea of curious adventuring, especially with tiny kids. This big, wide world is all a blur to them, maybe even a scary and unfamiliar blur, until they can grasp onto bits and pieces of things they know and can relate to. Whether or not they have a sense of recognition in their surroundings can sometimes make all the difference in whether they are a passive nervous stowaway or an engaged travel buddy. (It also makes a difference in how I relate to Sam when we're out exploring: as a high-maintenance appendage to manage or as a fellow adventurer.) Having a frame of reference also gives you a platform for real observation, for making connections, for being in the moment and making the most of the experience.
I ordered the book Good Night, Seattle to add to our collection (I absolutely love this series of bedtime stories set in cities around America, pointing out all the important landmarks, though they lose points for their typography hack job, if you are OCD about that sort of thing), and we also made a book of sights we'd see in Seattle with photos I printed from Google Images (and card stock and zip ties...more on homemade books later). We've been looking at pictures of people we're going to visit. Also, I showed Sam a couple of pictures of the Space Needle and then made a game of pulling up pictures on my phone of the Seattle skyline and then asking him to point out the Space Needle (which he is now obsessed with, and it's definitely become a Squeal-Worthy Thing. Well, I'll probably squeal when I see it, too).
Being prepared doesn't have to mean putting in a lot of time and energy (or making a book, although that's fun and free, if you have a few minutes). It's more about a sense of awareness and intentionality. So, what do you have coming up? Family vacation? Trip to the zoo? A festival in your town? A good hike? Here are a few ideas for generating curiosity and general excitement:
-Talk it up with a lot of enthusiasm: who? what? when? where? (use precise names if possible--street names, names of people you'll see, landmarks, etc.)
-Check out a couple of library books
-Print out a couple of pictures to tape to the fridge
-Have a countdown
-Make a little homemade book on card stock with brochure or internet pictures
-Utilize your tech: pull up pictures on your phone of sights, people, or places you'll see (this one is perfect for waiting rooms, or the breakfast table--dude, mealtimes can take forever around here. I've got to keep us entertained)
I'll report back on our adventures in a few weeks. Space Needle, we're coming for you!