A word that can strike terror into the best regulated families.
Before we adopted, holidays were the times when we most missed having a family. It all seemed so delightful – playing with happy children on the beach, fun cycle rides, family games and joy all around. Of course, these are the typical happy delusions of the childless and I have yet to meet anyone, adopter or otherwise, who won’t admit that some aspects of holidaying with children are challenging to say the least.
But for us adopters, the challenge can be far greater. The disruption to routine, the uncertainty, the heightened stimulation can all be huge triggers to behaviours which we then have to deal with in the glaring spotlight of the public eye. Stress levels can go through the roof and we can get home from holiday vowing NEVER to be so stupid as to try that again.
And yet, we usually do. And for good reason, too. A lot of positives can come out of holidays – in terms of relationships, new experiences, and learning more about one another. You will build up a store of shared memories, funny anecdotes and photographs that you can return to again and again. And in later years, when your youngsters are teens and perhaps you are struggling to connect with them, a shared laugh over the family photo album will work wonders.
Being prepared is not going to prevent the bad stuff happening, but it definitely won’t hurt. Here are the fruits of our experiences of holidays over the past 13 years.
Lots of forewarning or a big surprise?
As ever, not a straightforward answer. Some children will stew and worry themselves sick at the prospect of a whole lot of unknowns, so telling them well in advance is completely disastrous. Other children panic when things are sprung on them last-minute. I have one of each kind, as I have discovered after making the “wrong” decision for both of them in turn.
My daughter needs a picture timetable showing every single day of the holiday. I use the internet to find pictures of the actual places we’ll be staying in if possible, pictures of the vehicles, the people and the likely activities. She accepts that I can’t plan ahead 100% accurately, and when we get home enjoys “correcting” my timetable with actual pictures from the holiday. (Added bonus, she then has an instant holiday photo album.)
We discovered early on that our son finds a picture timetable of any sort really triggering – perhaps because of those little picture booklets so beloved of social services that were given to him before his many moves in foster care. We tell him the week before we go away, and verbally go through the plans with him several times to get them fixed in his memory. He is far less forgiving if plans change (his particular brand of autism makes for a certain amount of rigidity) so we don’t tell him that something is happening unless it is absolutely certain.
We want to be together
Why? We have children that squabble over EVERYthing. “Mummy, she’s looking through MY window!” was one memorable complaint. So, when we fly or go by train, we don’t sit together. In fact, we sit as far away as possible from one another. I take one child and my husband has the other and we swap over on each leg of the journey. On a long train journey through France, we booked seats in completely different carriages on opposite ends of the train. It turned out that “going to visit one another” was quite a pleasant activity and broke up the journey nicely while providing a little light exercise.
[Side note: I accept this only works if there are two of you. Taking a few kids on holiday on your own is a whole other ball game, and one on which I am not qualified to offer any advice. If you, as a single parent are annoyed reading this and feeling ignored or uncatered for, perhaps you could contribute an article specifically on the trials and tribulations of single parent holidays. I am sure it will be invaluable.]
In the car, we take turns sitting in the back with one child while the other child rides up front. This sort of works, although there can still be kicking seat backs and noisy arguments to contend with, which brings me on to the next thing, which is ENTERTAINMENT.
Nature abhors a vacuum and boredom is the vacuum that is filled with arguments, fights, whining and general unpleasantness in our family. Here are some ideas that have helped us keep various aged children occupied on holiday over the years. And please don’t think you can rely entirely on their electronics to keep them absolutely engrossed. On long journeys, even these can begin to pall. Devices run out of batteries, planes can’t take off while they are on, and so on. In short, you will need some back up.
Arts and crafts
Stickers and activity books are really cheap and cheerful these days, but be careful if staying in a rented place as you don’t want to find a bunch of stickers plastered all over the walls and furniture. The same applies to felt tip pens. I never take them on holiday, but if you do, supervise when in use and remove and hide when not. Coloured pencils and paper or colouring books are generally a safe option. Don’t forget a pencil sharpener, though.
Little toy animals
These can be talked to, lined up, sorted into families and have stories told about them. We used to bring a bunch of Sylvanian Family animals along on holiday and take photographs of them in interesting places. My Little Ponies, a hairbrush and a selection of hair accessories make for a nice, quiet hairdressing activity.
Little toy cars
Don’t forget that girls enjoy racing cars around as much as boys do. A playmat with a map of a town is a light and easy thing to pop into a suitcase. It’s best to pack the cars away while you are in transit, though. Especially on planes. They will inevitably roll away and you will be coping with a loudly wailing child while rummaging around strangers’ legs – not much fun.
These are the toy du jour and are silent and seemingly absorbing, so a definite useful addition to the entertainment arsenal.
I never leave home without a pack. Useful for keeping the whole family occupied while waiting for meals in restaurants. Even quite young children can enjoy a game of Beggar My Neighbour, Go Fish or UNO.
I don’t recommend Snap! It provokes too many arguments (and sometimes violence) in my experience. Note: Happy Families requires all the participants to be good readers.
Pen and paper games
As with card games, we find these really useful in restaurants. Our children have never been good at sitting still and waiting patiently. “Having a chat” is not something they relish (or are even capable of most of the time). Our most popular games are Squares, something we call “General Knowledge” (which, fortunately does not require any) and Picture Consequences. The rules of these games, and the card and talking games are at the end of this article.
These are lifesavers on car journeys in particular. Of course, we all play some version of I Spy, but there are other useful ones such as Car Cricket, My Great Aunt Came to Dinner, Scavenger Hunt and Silence is Golden. The rules are at the end, if you are interested.
We used this as a reward for good behaviour and it was sometimes effective. It was particularly good to distract them when things started heating up emotionally and tempers were fraying on a long car journey. We have a bag filled with small pocket money/party bag style toys. “If you can be nice to one another for 10 minutes, you get to have a dip in the bag.”
You don’t need any extra information on these, I am sure. Just to say don’t forget the chargers, enough plug adaptors if you are going abroad, and extra battery power packs. A portable DVD player and a bunch of DVDs is also a good idea if you are going to be in a country with no English telly and/or the Wifi is ropey.
On holiday, we get each child to carry his or her own small backpack containing entertainment supplies and, very importantly, food. Especially when travelling by air, you can get sideswiped by unexpected long waits without access to food – notably when for some reason the plane is delayed on the tarmac after you have boarded. Hungry, anxious, dysregulated children trapped in close proximity to hundreds of usually disapproving members of the public is SUCH a fun way to start a holiday – not! Yours may be the kind of children who scoff the lot on the way to the airport, so make sure you carry extra supplies for emergencies.
When they were little, my children enjoyed the novelty of having unregulated access to treat food, so those lunch boxes are an especially happy holiday memory for them. I wasn’t too fussy about the health aspect, to be honest – we were off on holiday, after all – but I don’t need to tell you to avoid messy, sticky food, or things with lots of sugar and colourings. Food that takes a bit of time to work through is good, and a small packet of wipes can go into the backpacks for clean-up operations.
These were the bane of my existence when my son was younger, and they are EVERYWHERE. Once, on a ferry, after spending all the change we’d given him on video games, my son begged us to let him “stay and watch” the other players. We sat outside the entrance to the arcade and were surprised how long “just watching” was keeping him occupied. When I popped in to check, he was busily doing the rounds, begging other adults for money. Embarrassed much?
When my son was particularly obsessed by them, we wouldn’t take him into motorway service stations at all as there are always arcades in those, usually right next to the loos so unavoidable. Once inside an arcade the only way to get him out again was to pick him up and carry him screaming and thrashing back to the car. I am surprised, and even a little dismayed, that we were never challenged when doing this. It surely must have looked like we were abducting him. We soon learnt that a takeaway and a pee in a bush were preferable for him and fortunately he outgrew the obsession before the latter became socially unacceptable.
I am including this information not, I am afraid, because I have a wonderful solution to the problem, but because before having children I had never noticed how ubiquitous the dratted places are. At least if you are forewarned you can plan distraction strategies or even try to pre-negotiate acceptable usage of them (good luck with that).
“Proper” camping seems like a really good option, taking place as it does in nature, away from the over-stimulation of modern day life. You have your own, contained space, and if you are the kind of person who happily foregoes a bit of creature comfort, then this must be an ideal holiday.
Our one and only attempt ended so disastrously – think pouring rain, a newly adopted toddler who believed every tent in the vicinity was his to enter and unpack at will, a blocked drain in the only small hand basin on the site which kept regurgitating breakfast cereal, swarms of wasps, the discovery that the other newly adopted toddler was allergic to wasp stings – that we never had the courage to try again.
Which is a shame, because it looks lovely.
Although the UK version usually looks a bit more like this. (Still looks good, though.)
What we chose instead was the European camping option, which actually worked out fairly well for us. (We used Eurocamp, but there are others, such as Canvas Holidays, Suncamp Holidays, etc. Haven does something similar in the UK).
On the plus side we could hire a three-bedroomed mobile home each time so the kids could be separated at night – a real boon. We had our own loo and shower, which was a blessing with two rather incontinent children. And we were able to give them a bit of freedom to cycle around and make friends and visit the little on-site shop on their own.
On the downside, the much anticipated relief of being able to pack the children off to the Kids Club so we could have a break was rather shortlived, with harassed play leaders buttonholing us at pick up and talking about the difficulties of keeping our children safe.
In our experience, the young people who do this job are by and large enthusiastic and good-hearted, but nowhere near experienced enough to cope with the challenges that children like ours can throw at them. Interestingly, though, once our children got their Autism diagnoses, it all got a bit easier. The play leaders seemed to feel a bit more comfortable and confident with that label and more willing to make concessions and be more inclusive.
Other negatives for us (just because they are not necessarily things we enjoy – they might be positives for you) include ARCADES (*%@!£$%&*), and the sometimes over enthusiastic on-site entertainment.
It is certainly not an idyllic back-to-nature experience. You may well spend more time explaining to your children why you won’t hire a go kart for six hours every single day than having life-affirming walks with them beside beautiful waterfalls and the like.
Still, there are swimming pools, and sometimes rather nice restaurants (in the French ones we’ve been to) and usually a supermarket in the vicinity filled with lots of lovely wine (if that’s the sort of thing that floats your boat).
One of our kids was a wanderer. At home (after finding him in the driving seat of our car, ignition on, his sister as a passenger – both neatly buckled in “for safety” you understand — at 5 am, ready to go for a drive), we swiftly learned that a high-up bolt on the front door was an absolute requirement. On holiday, he would wake up at the crack of dawn and head off to do some solo exploring or visiting.
If we were able to lock the front door, he would climb out of a window. We were once staying in an encampment in South Africa with an electric fence around it, and he actually managed to wriggle under it. He was neither electrocuted nor eaten by wild animals – so much for natural consequences. And so much for us being able to sleep peacefully on holiday.
Then we discovered portable travel alarms. I don’t have shares in the company that makes these, but I should, given how frequently and enthusiastically I recommend them. They work really well. You simply slip the two metal prongs into the door jamb and when the door is opened, the alarm goes off. We have used them externally on the windows of mobile homes, too. It also meant the children would stay in their own rooms in the morning and not get together to wreak merry mayhem while we slept on, unawares (they were both extremely good at quiet mutual mayhem making). And while the loud, unpleasant noise is a real disincentive to opening the door, in a real emergency there is nothing actually stopping them from doing so. Perfect.
Especially once they are a bit older, and you are a lot wearier, you will start dreaming of a few days’ break without your children. Are there any safe, lovely places that they can go on holiday on their own, you wonder? Not very many, I am afraid. Below are the ones I have encountered.
After Adoption Therapeutic Residential Camps
These are run specifically for adopted young people. They are funded by the Post Adoption Fund and you will need to get a social worker to refer you. They have a very high staff to camper ratio, so all sorts of children can be accommodated, even the more vulnerable ones. Each participant is carefully assessed beforehand. You can email firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to find out more.
My daughter went on one, with mixed results. She enjoyed herself and was beautifully cared for, but she has mild learning difficulties and had a bit of trouble fitting in with the other girls. Also, we had to drive her all the way to Devon to attend, although I suppose we could’ve waited until there was one held in a venue closer to us.
My only experience of PGL is from when my daughter has gone on a couple of school trips with them. She attends a special school so their trip was not a “normal” PGL holiday. I imagine that there was a higher staff to pupil ration, for instance. She had a whale of a time, and I’ve never heard anything negative about them, so it could be worth exploring. https://www.pgl.co.uk/
I have just heard about this adoption charity and noticed a section on their website about residentials. They mention a summer camp, which sounds hopeful. Definitely worth looking at and finding out a bit more about it. https://www.theopennest.co.uk/
And that’s about the size of it — at least for this article.
Have you got any brilliant suggestions for stress-free holidays for adoptive families? If so, please do send them in.
Holiday Game Rules
For at least three players.
You are trying to collect sets of all four cards of each number – all the 4s, all the Queens, etc. The player with the most sets wins.
Deal 5 cards to each player. Place the remaining cards in a pile face down between you.
Players can look at their cards and sort them into groups by number. It is very important not to let anyone else see your cards.
Player One decides which number she is going to collect first. She MUST have at least one of the cards in her hand already in order to start a collection. Let’s say, she decides to collect 3s. She can ask any other player to give her all of his 3s. If that player has any 3s, he must hand over ALL of them. If he has none, he says, “Go Fish” and the asking player must pick up a card from the pile. If the asking player is given a card her turn continues and she can ask any other player for any other number cards (bearing in mind she must hold at least one of that number in her hand). If she has to pick up, it is the next player’s turn to ask.
If players pay attention, they can work out who is holding which cards, based on what numbers the others ask for.
Once a player has collected a set of four same number cards, she places them face down in front of her.
Once all the sets have been collected, they are counted and the player with the most sets is the winner.
Beggar My Neighbour
For two or more players.
The aim of the game is to get all the cards.
The whole pack of cards is dealt equally between the players.
Players should not look at their cards. They just place them in a pile, face down in front of them.
Player One places a card face upwards in the centre.
If it is an ordinary number card, the next player places a card face upwards on top of it.
If it is an Ace, the next player must put 4 cards down, one at a time. If it is a King, the next player must put down 3 cards, a Queen, 2 cards and a Jack, 1 card.
So, for example, if Player One lays an Ace, Player Two must start placing four cards down. If all four of the cards are ordinary number cards, Player One gets to pick up the whole pile of placed cards and put them at the bottom of his pile.
But if Player Two lays one of the cards mentioned above, then Player Three (or Player One again if there are just two people playing) must start laying the number of cards as specified above.
Again, if all the cards laid are ordinary, Player Two gets to scoop up the whole pile of cards and play another card from the top of her pile, but if a royal card is laid, play moves on to the next player who must start placing cards on the table.
The game is over once one player has collected all the cards.
This game is a real equalizer as no skill is required – winning is pure luck – and it is impossible to cheat!
You will know this game as Old Maid – but I think that’s a dreadfully sexist name, so I’ve changed it.
For three or more players
The aim of the game is to avoid being named as the Old Goat by being left with one King in your hand.
First, remove three King cards from the pack so that there is only one left.
Next, deal the entire pack equally among the players.
Players should sort through their cards and remove any pairs they find. Pairs should be placed face down in front of you. It doesn’t matter how many you have or how many single cards you are left with.
Take care that no one sees the cards you are left with. Hold them in a fan, but keep them close to your chest to prevent any peeping. If you are holding the single King, make no sign that you have him. Secrecy is key.
Player One holds out her hand to Player Two (not showing the fronts of the cards, of course). Player Two should take one of the cards (any one he chooses). If this card makes a pair with one in his hand, he should remove the pair from his hand and put it down on his pair pile.
If it happens to be the King, he should NOT react. He must keep a poker face. He does not want the other players to know he has it, as he will then struggle to pass it on.
Player Two now holds out his hand to Player Three to choose a card.
Keep an eye on how people select cards. If you notice that the person who is taking cards from you always chooses from the middle of the fan, say, that could be very helpful information when it comes to trying to make them select the King and relieve you of its presence, should you be unlucky enough to have picked it. If everyone manages to keep a straight face the King can go round and round the circle without it being generally known. This delicious secret is part of the fun of the game.
If a player succeeds in pairing up all of her cards, she is out of the game and safe.
Eventually there will be just two players left with three cards between them and then a final showdown occurs with a nail-biting choice to be made. You can shuffle the cards around behind your back and use whatever technique you can think of to try and make your opponent pick the King.
The player who is left with just the King and no other cards is the old goat.
My Great Aunt Came to Dinner
For two or more players.
Player One says, for example, “My Great Aunt came to dinner and we had roast beef.” Player Two says, “My Great Aunt came to dinner and we had roast beef and cauliflower cheese.” Player Three says, “My Great Aunt came to dinner and we had roast beef, cauliflower cheese and popcorn.” And so on and so on.
You can choose anything at all to eat and drink – it doesn’t need to make sense.
But while choices can be silly in the extreme, every item must be remembered in the correct order.
Miss one out, and you are out (if there are a few of you) or the game is over and you can start the whole thing again.
For long non-motorway car journeys.
Player One starts to “bat”. Each car that passes you counts as one “run”. A truck is 3 “runs”, a bus is a 6. The player keeps adding to his score until he is bowled out by a red car.
The next player starts to “bat”. Scores accumulate over the course of the journey.
Only vehicles that are moving and coming towards you count.
This is (slightly) more fun than it sounds (just like real cricket).
Think of seven or so things that must be spotted. Make some really obvious, and others quite tricky (but possible).
Here is an example from a recent trip of ours: a yellow motorbike, someone riding a horse, a dog on a leash, a sailing boat, a man carrying a child, an ostrich and a broken down car.
Your choices are going to depend on where you are travelling, obviously.
Write your list on a scrap of paper to save arguments later.
Only sightings verified by two people count – a casual, “Oh, there’s a white donkey,” won’t cut it.
I usually offer a small prize if everything is spotted. There is no single winner, though – it’s a joint effort.
Silence is Golden
I resort to this one when things are getting too fraught and my patience is stretched to breaking point. “I challenge you to keep completely silent for 10 minutes. If you manage it, I’ll give you 50p.”
The amount of “gold” is, of course, dependent on the age of the child – it needs to be enough to provide an incentive, but not so much that it makes you wince, especially if you are going to be playing this “game” a number of times.
Giggles, hiccups, coughing attacks, snorting, burping and farting all count as noise. If one player deliberately provokes another player into making a noise, the time goes back to zero for both players.
Pen and Paper Games
For two or more players.
Draw up a grid of dots like this:
. . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .
You can change the number of dots to suit yourself, but make it more or less square.
Players take turns to draw a line to connect two dots – either horizontally or vertically, but not diagonally. In choosing where to draw a line, you want to prevent your opponent from being able to form a square with her next line. If a player manages to complete a square, she puts her initial in the square and has another turn until she can no longer complete squares with a single line.
Initially, it is quite easy to find a place to draw a line that will not enable your opponent to make a square, but eventually, it becomes impossible. Then, you must choose a least worst scenario – placing your line where your opponent can make a square or two, but no go ahead and complete the whole grid.
Just play it a couple of times and the strategies needed will become very clear.
The winner is the one with the most squares formed (count up the initials).
For two or more players, although more are better. You need to be able to read and write, although those in the family who can’t, can team up with a scribe.
Each player needs a sheet of blank paper and a pen.
Divide the paper into six columns.
Think of six categories. These can be adapted to suit the age of the players.
So, for example, you could have: Girls’ names, Boys’ names, Animals, Fruit, Cars, and Colours. (When I played this game as a child, a regular category we used was Cigarette brands – how times have changed!)
Write a category at the top of each column.
On a separate sheet of paper write down most of the letters of the alphabet (leave out the tricky ones like Z and Q and K). Circle each letter. They should be scattered randomly on the page, not in order.
A player shuts his eyes and stabs at the letter page with a pencil. If his pencil lands inside a letter’s circle, you are off!
All players write down one thing for each category starting with that letter. For example: Anna, Adam, Anaconda, Apple, Audi, Avocado.
The first player to write something for all six categories, shouts “Stop”.
Players call out what they have written for each category. If their answer is unique, they get 10 points, if it is the same as anyone else’s they each only get 5 points. No answer, no points.
If your players are very unevenly matched, you might consider doing it with a minute’s time limit, instead of the quickest person calling time.
Keep a running total of each person’s score.
Obviously, the winner is the one with the most points.
We have seldom had issues with people getting upset about losing overall, because it’s the kind of game that sort of fizzles out after a while without actually getting right to the bitter end.
For two to four players.
Player One draws a head at the top of a sheet of paper. The other players should not watch. It can be any sort of head, but should have a longish neck.
Player One folds over the top of the paper so that only the bottom lines of the neck are showing, then passes the paper to the next player.
Player Two draws a body from the neck to the waist (including arms, if desired), then folds the paper again so that only the bottom of the waist shows.
The next player draws an abdomen from the waist to mid-thigh and leaves just the bottom part of the thighs protruding once she has folded over the paper again.
Finally, the next player attaches a pair of legs and feet to the bottom.
Then the paper is unfolded and the (hopefully) hilarious figure is revealed.
[A note on the personal pronoun: For these game rules. I tried to use s/he his/her, etc, but it made already complicated instructions completely unintelligible. I have chosen to alternate between female and male instead.]