This summer, skip the toys and take a family vacation instead

Think back to your childhood. What do you remember most vividly about it? If recent research is to be believed, it likely won’t be the toys you got or things you played with, but the vacations you took with your family and experiences you had. New research shows that it is our experiences, notably the time we spend with our families when young children, that shape us and our lives. So instead of buying the newest and greatest toys this summer, take your kids on a vacation because they’ll remember it better and get more out of it anyway.

Sure, I had some awesome toys as a kid. I remember Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figures, a rideable tractor, and my bike quite well. I must have spent countless hours toiling around on the tractor through the yard. I know I spent many nights entertaining myself with a Turtles pizza disk throwing machine and trying to reach under the refrigerator to get the disks that flew under. However, it’s the trips we took as a family, even the menial ones out shopping that I remember best.

I remember our first trip overseas, to Germany incredibly well. The experience flying, hearing conversations in other languages, and seeing historical sights far older than anything I’d ever see at home all shaped my teenage years. Trying new food I wouldn’t otherwise experience set me up for an adventurousness with food that has stayed with me and increased, culminating in eating shrimp brains the other night, and grilling octopus without batting an eye. In fact, trying beer on the trip actually kept me from ever wanting to drink it until after I was 21, though I’ve been making up for lost time since. Now, we travel to places like Croatia, Singapore, and Norway, eating up the local cuisine, beverages, and culture.

A love of travel has been shown to be passed down from parents to children. Enthusiasm about traveling to different places, notably where culture and food are concerned, is contagious and shapes children as they grow. According to research, the happiest memory 49% of adults surveyed reported from their childhood was of a family vacation. During vacation, families spend more time together than normal as well as spending higher quality time when individuals are happier, less stressed, and more engaged. Getting away from the normal routine and work reduces stress and means that time spent together on vacation is more likely to be happy, joyful, and memorable. Additionally, the majority of parents report having concern about the amount of time they share with their children, and more report wishing they could spend more time with their children. Vacation also reduces stress in kids,who yes, do feel stress from daily routines like school. Vacation provides an outlet to spend more happy time together.

Vacations have health benefits for kids as well. Time on vacation is typically more active than normal life with more walking, activities like swimming, kayaking, biking, or more. This activity has noted health benefits both in the short term and in the long as active children lead active lives. Vacation time has also been shown to result in brain development benefits too. Vacation and notably new experiences result in new neural pathways being built, activating receptors in the brain that are not otherwise activated. These receptors are still being studied, having only been recently discovered, but they have already been shown to result in increased brain growth and development.

When planning a family vacation, seek new experiences and sights, but don’t plan only activities that you will find interesting. Children find different things interesting than adults and need different plans. Rather than high art and culture, look for unique experiences that they will find novel. Just encountering unexpected subtle differences from daily life may be enough to occupy kids. Just like you may be surprised to find that your kids enjoy playing with the box of a toy more than the toy itself, it’s the little things they might enjoy on a vacation the most. They might find cafes offering different and unique food particularly riveting, or maybe even just the different types of clothes or toys featured in stores. Kids are adept at detecting small differences from their normal experiences, and these differences will keep them occupied and entertained.

So instead of buying the next video game console or Furby this summer, book a family vacation instead. Not only will the kids remember it far better later on, but it may actually help them become more healthy and cultured later in life. It may also facilitate brain development. In the short term, they’ll have decreased stress and get to spend more time with parents, and in the long term, they’ll be shaped by the things they see and experience along the way. So the perfect present might indeed be plane tickets, not a Nintendo.

This post originally appeared on dadontherunblog. DadOnTheRun features stories and lessons learned by new father of twins, runner, technologist, and homebrewer Tyler. When Tyler isn’t running after his 1-year old twins, he’s running in half marathons and marathons, or out in the woods with his rescue dog, Hershey. Follow DadOnTheRun on Facebook or Twitter.