How a Child Psychologist Approaches RVing with Kids

Desiree Walters' children walk in front of a massive fallen tree.

Living full-time on the road with school-aged children was something that my husband and I had considered for a long time. As a child psychologist, I knew that this experience would provide unequaled enrichment for my children––educationally, physically and mentally. When the pandemic began, my husband, seven-year-old son, eight-year-old daughter and I were cooped up in our small Brooklyn apartment. Trying to shield their mental health from the isolation and fear of the pandemic, we decided to change the narrative. Instead of being forced to isolate, it was our chance to head towards safe outdoor adventures in a self-contained motorhome. Instead of focusing on what our kids were missing, we focused on experiencing new adventures and spending more time together as a family.

Once we made up our minds, it was easy to make the switch. It only took about six weeks from when we began contemplating the idea to when we were traveling down the road in our Class A Tiffin motorhome. As first time RV owners and full-timers, there were many new things we needed to learn––how to downsize our lives, how to drive the RV, where to park it, how to maintain it, how to work remotely––but “learning on the job” just increased the connectedness of our family.  Overall, we felt much more content and satisfied with our experiences and time together.

RVing can provide an abundance of opportunities to positively impact your child’s development. As parents, we just have to take a minute to provide them with the right opportunities and space to grow. So, I’m sharing some of the ways we structured our travel life to provide an environment that allowed our children to blossom. Of course, every family is different, and your approach may need to be tailored to your child’s age, but these tips are what helped us the most.

  1. Cultivate a team mentality. We knew that if we wanted to succeed at our new RV lifestyle, it was imperative that the four of us work as a team. So, we all had assigned responsibilities. When we arrived at each new campground, the children cleaned up their space and swept the floor, while I took care of the indoor setup, and my husband handled the outdoor setup. By asking everyone to pitch in, we were able to get outside and explore the new campgrounds on our bikes sooner. If we went on a hike, we would give our kids the responsibility of carrying the backpack with water and snacks. Assigning duties to kids shows them that they are important members of the family whose contributions are essential to daily life.

  2. Give everyone a voice in decision making. Agency is a vital component of everyone’s well-being. Children in particular love to feel in control of their choices and like they have a say in influencing the outcome of decisions. When kids believe that their choices can change the world around them, they are much more likely to become well-adjusted adults. So, on the road, we provide ample opportunities for our kids to make decisions. For instance, we let them choose which activities they’d like to do in a new place, which days of the week they’d like to have off from school, what special subjects we should cover in school and what kind of meals we should plan. And because we’re experiencing new things every week, their decisions seem much more significant to them––with immediate effects.

  1. Support their independence. Children grow when they have a chance to try new things, especially if they’re given the chance to fail at them. Success is a wonderful teacher, but when kids are allowed to fail, they also learn resilience. Our job as a parent is to help guide them through age-appropriate activities. Supporting their independence could be as simple as teaching them how to make their own eggs in the morning (even if they make a mess), or trusting them go to the playground without adult supervision (with walkie talkies, in case there is a problem).

    While these are experiences our children will encounter at some point in their lives, I have found it easier to nudge my kids toward independence when we’re traveling. With every new change of scenery comes a new experience to engage in. Also, campgrounds are often intimate, traffic is usually minimal and slow-moving and playgrounds are within earshot. I’m much more comfortable telling my kids to ride their bikes until the sun sets in a campground than in the city. It gives our kids the opportunity to feel in control, practice making independent decisions and test out different sides of themselves without feeling watched. After every new surge in independence, they are significantly more confident in their choices.

  1. Model flexibility in your own actions. As the navigator/planner in the family, RVing has taught me to be flexible. Long gone are the days of making plans weeks in advance. We move once a week, so it’s not uncommon to hit some sort of travel snafu. When things go sideways, we need to make quick decisions and adjust our plan. This means we’re constantly modeling behavior for our kids, showing them how to adapt with confidence and weigh how our decisions affect our future circumstances. When unforeseen changes interfere with our kids’ expectations, we also provide support, allowing them the mental space to practice being flexible in their own expectations.

     

  2. Connect with nature. Studies show that children thrive outdoors, so when we set out, we made it a priority to connect with nature. We wanted to experience the tallest trees, darkest skies, hottest deserts, highest mountains, longest beaches, deepest canyons, largest animals and the strangest plants. We planned our routes to take us through as many national parks as possible. We picked campgrounds that had trails and playgrounds, things that would make our kids want to stay outside all day. It doesn’t matter how old your kids are, they’re always happy to dig in the sand and dirt, using their imaginations to create fantasy worlds with sticks and shells and rocks.

  1. Provide lots of hands-on learning opportunities. Children learn in so many different ways. Since their traditional schools were shut down, we embraced hands-on learning. Research shows that memories are strongest when they combine all our senses. Experiencing the Alamo in person leaves a longer-lasting impression than reading about it in a book. Or, what better way to learn about a nearly extinct mammal, the Humboldt marten, than by searching for it among old-growth California redwoods? National parks are particularly great for understanding ecosystems and learning history, especially through the Junior Ranger program. Traveling offers endless chances to teach our children life skills, too. We’ve shown our kids how to start a fire safely and how to fix a drawer that doesn’t close properly. Lastly, being exposed to diverse landscapes and people really helps create a framework for respect, which increases their awareness of the needs of other people and nature itself.

  1. Give them a physical challenge. Every new location brings its own natural landscape. On our adventures, we experience new physical challenges related to our surroundings. We learned how to scramble up boulders, paddle board without falling, squeeze through slot canyons and hike a trail that turned out to be more of a challenge than we’d expected. With every new challenge, our kids started out hesitant, worried that they might not be able to complete the task in front of them. And every time they were successful, they were inspired to set the bar a little higher for themselves.

Most of us invest the bulk of our time in what we value the most. The decision to spend uninterrupted time with your kids shows them that they are vitally important––to you, to your family, and to the world. And when kids know this, deep down, they feel safe, loved and free to try new things without fear. There’s no better way to grow strong and confident adults than giving your kids new experiences, fresh challenges and intimate knowledge of the natural world. Lucky for you, all that is just a road trip away.