My daughter Mackenzie just turned 7. At her birthday party at the Playseum, she stood in front of a child’s version of a world map—no country names, just illustrations of objects like whales and palm trees and pandas. I watched, astonished, as she pointed out dozens of places—Paris, Antarctica, China, Australia. Then it dawned on me: She really knows her geography.
I believe the world is the best classroom we have and that a passport is every bit as important as a diploma. This idea—and my kids—inspired me to write 100 Places That Can Change Your Child’s Life, which explores our planet with those values top of mind.
I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to travel and learn firsthand about different cultures all my life — starting when I left what was then the Belgian Congo, my birthplace, at age four — and it’s something I wish for every child, including mine.
I took my first-born son, Adam, abroad when he was just three months old. Since then he has traveled extensively—from the Grand Canyon to the Norwegian fjords, from Big Sur to Berlin, from the Andes to Alaska. Now, my other two children, Chase and Mackenzie, are following his lead.
Here’s a glance at their emerging view of travel, and what it’s added to their experience of childhood:
Q: Of all the places you’ve been to, which ones are your favorite and why?
Mackenzie Bellows (Age 7): New York City, because I went to the Museum of Modern Art and saw “The Starry Night” painting, and Florida because I love the water and Sea World. I like Jamaica, too, but I scraped my leg there and almost needed stitches.
Chase Bellows (Age 8): The Galápagos—there are amazing animals that you can get close to. Seals come right up to you. One was a baby that had just been born. He lay on my foot.
Q: What places are on your travel dream list?
Mackenzie: I want to go to Paris and see the Eiffel Tower and eat real French bread. And see the “Mona Lisa” and lots of Monet paintings. I want to go to Ireland because I love the color green and there are so many horses there. And I want to see leprechauns.
Chase: The Amazon. It’s this giant river with a jungle attached. I want to see piranha—they can eat a cow really fast. I want to go to Egypt to see the pyramids and the tombs. And I want to go back to Wisconsin. We went there in the summer.
Q: What do you do on a long flight to make the time go faster?
Mackenzie: I draw animals like dolphins and monkeys and bears—oh, my!
Chase: I draw and play on the iPad. You can’t play chess because the planes tip over.
Q: What are your favorite foods to eat while traveling?
Mackenzie: That’s a good one. When I was in Ecuador I ate all the free cookies in the airline lounge. French fries and chicken tenders, of course.
Chase: Oh, mango juice. Mushed-up ham and cheese sandwiches. I really like cake. But I will have nothing to do with fish.
Q: What exotic foods have you tried?
Mackenzie: Plantains in Ecuador. And crab is pretty weird–it tastes mushy–but I like it.
Chase: Rice pudding.
Q: When you’re packing for a trip, is there anything you just can’t leave home without?
Mackenzie: My blue blanket.
Chase: My favorite toothbrush.
Q: What advice would you give to another kid going on a trip?
Mackenzie: It’s good for the brain and you will have a good time. And to bring water, of course.
Chase: Don’t cry about security. Be patient.
Q: What’s your favorite thing about traveling?
Mackenzie: It’s really fun to go on planes. And I get to be with Dad and Mom and my brother Chase.
Chase: Eating new foods and staying in hotel rooms. Oh, and, playing on the piano—if I can find one.
Q: What’s your least favorite thing about traveling?
Mackenzie: When I’m in the plane and my ears hurt.
Chase: When my sister leaves things behind. But I love traveling. It takes me out of my mind.
Q: What animals have you seen while on a trip?
Mackenzie: In the Galápagos I saw blue-footed boobies and pelicans. I also saw sea lions, frigate birds, flamingos, and parrotfish. Oh! And sea turtles and bottle-nosed dolphins. And a whale bone.
Chase: Seals, lizards, dolphins, manta rays, giraffes, and starfish in the Galápagos. Crabs on Chesapeake Bay.
Keith Bellows is the editor in chief at National Geographic Traveler magazine, where he spearheads efforts to encourage parents, corporations, and schools to view travel as a critical learning tool.