You know the feeling. You’re standing soaking in the history of some ancient site you’re visiting as part of your family holiday. There might even be a panoramic view to take in. You think to yourself - this is amazing. And then you turn to one of the small ones in your travelling party and he or she is yawning, their head tilted back with the effort. They ask you: "Can we have an ice-cream?".
You know then, that your time admiring this marvel from the stone or medieval age is running out. So, how do you keep a band of easily bored kids interested? How can you make time for yourself to see something interesting on a family holiday, while at the same time bringing the kids along for the ride?
Get their hands dirty: Museums and historical sites in days gone by suffered from one big problem. Everything was either behind a glass screen or taped off completely. A recent trip to the Céide fields (Céide is roughly translated from Irish as ‘bogland’) in Mayo in the West of Ireland works for visitors big and small. There is the obligatory interpretative centre, topped by a glass pyramid-shaped viewing tower. To reach the fields you walk up a fairly steep slope to an exposed barren hill, which looks down at the picture postcard sea-stack and blow-hole of the impressive Downpatrick Head.
The site contains a series of stone walls which thousands of years ago were painstakingly built by primitive farmers, who landed there even before the pyramids were thought up by a Pharaoh with a God complex. Our three small boys - ranging in age from four to nine - were flagging, but a demonstration by the tour guide of how the walls were discovered, by driving an iron t-shaped pole a couple of metres long into the bog got them interested. Bringing the boys down to ground level and showing them how they could easily stick their own fingers into the ground stoked their senses to the point that pretty quickly they were all claiming to have discovered a new wall under the bog. So get their hands dirty and their brains will do the rest.
Leave it to their imagination: Your kids have a much more better imagination than you do. A visit to Trim Castle in County Meath, about two hours from Dublin, was a case in point. Before even going on the castle tour, a walk around the castle walls and then inside to the moat is a chance to let the kids imagine themselves as invading forces climbing the walls, or slain Normans as they roll down the sloping grassy walls that mark the former moat. So get involved, pretend you're a Norman - throw in a few scary French words. You don’t even need to be scary if your kids don’t have French, just shout a lot and run after them and talk about boiling them in oil when you catch them - and that will have the desired effect.
So turn a trip to ‘another boring Castle’ into a game of invading Normans, Vikings or barbarians, you could even play around with history and thrown the Romans in - ‘Ecce Romani!’ (if you’ve got a bit of latin). The rest of it your children will fill in with their imagination. The point is to make some time for the stuff that’s not on the tour.
Time travel: Kids love time travel movies. You lose that fascination a bit when you grow up, but for kids, time travel seems perfectly plausible - if there are black holes then why not? This may seem like an easy one when you’re standing in a hall full of dinosaur bones - but there’s only so many dinosaurs kids will put up with before you need to keep their interest going until the refreshments shop. So, bring them back in time and get them to imagine the lava strewn ground, while these huge creatures roam majestically around. Talk about how birds are one of the few creatures left that hatch from eggs, just like the dinosaurs did.-Explain how if T-rex had wings, then maybe he would have flown to a jungle in the rainforest and maybe that would have slowed down the loggers. The American Museum of Natural History has this one down to a tee. Kids can feel replica bones and there are eye-level models of dinosaur talons and footprints to them a sense of the scale of the beasts that once roamed the earth. If you’re lucky there might be a chance to hold the skulls of our close ancestors and get close to some meteors, which will tie your time travelling piece together. And on the way home, the birds flying over their heads will take on a new significance.
Let them be the guide: It's all very well you wandering around a forest park admiring the flora and fauna as a patchwork of opulently coloured leaves crunch under foot. But for kids, a treasure hunt for a dead dog’s grave is much more exciting. Belleek castle woods in Ballina, County Mayo is a beautiful woods with charming walks that bring you through the castle walls, but it’s also a treasure hunt - so let them decide what they want to see first. A search for the grave of the former Castle occupant’s deceased best friend - 'Phizzy' the Golden Retriever was first on our kids list, so that’s where we went first, holding the harbour walk for later. So, let the kids be your guide, ask them what they want to see first and you’ll quickly get them on your side.
Know when to quit: There’s a fine line between your family happily skipping along the road and talking about what they saw at the museum and one of them screaming to high heaven that they their leg is ‘broken’ after all the miles you made them walk.
Yes, you will find yourself being accused of grievous bodily harm and mental torture if you push it too far. So know when to take a break - look out for glassy eyes or bored looks as you take their picture with the Loch Ness monster in the background holding his thumbs up.
There’s only so far you can take them back in time before they’ll bring you sharply back to the present. But if you go about it the right way, you can all have fun and you might even learn something!