Melanie refused to be hurried. She wanted to inspect every leaf, turn over every rock and dip her hands in every trickle of mountain water.
Exasperated, her older siblings, Matt and Reggie, hurried ahead of us on the trail in Mt. Rainier National Park. Soon Melanie demanded to be carried but every minute or so, wanted to get down to examine something else. "Good thing we weren't attempting a really long hike," my husband, Andy, said, straining with 37-pound Melanie on his shoulders. I wondered if we would ever get to the top of the waterfall. (We didn't.) Melanie was alternately hungry and thirsty, taking her sweat shirt off and putting it back on.
That's traveling with a 3-year-old: frustrating, exhausting and, at times, havoc-wreaking with any agenda. She was always starved just after we left the restaurant and wide awake when the rest of us were ready for bed.
But having Melanie along as we toured Oregon and Washington state this summer was an adventure I wouldn't have missed for anything. She made all of us stop and look at every turn, enjoying every place all the more. She had an opinion on everything: the devastation from the volcano eruption of Mt. St. Helens ("The mountain blew up on us?" she asked); the ugly giant Pacific octopus in the aquarium ("He's too yucky!"); the snowboarders on Mt. Hood, the varying quality of chocolate milk at different locales. She made us all laugh.
The trick to traveling successfully with preschoolers, I decided, is to slow down and look at the world from their perspective, rather than expecting them to adapt to an adult world.
"We don't go to countries where the main activities are fine dining and art museums," said Susanne Nowicki, who traveled to Malaysia with her 3-year-old and to New Zealand with that child and a younger son. "Forget those romantic dinners for two. It's not going to happen."
"We went berry picking instead of antiquing," said Diane Hammond, who recently returned to her home in Newport, Ore., from a trip to North Carolina with her young daughter.
Of course, there was the time in Malaysia when Nowicki sat in the back of a cab reading "Curious George" to her daughter while her husband raced out to look at temples.
Hammond's daughter, meanwhile, was terrified of the airplane bathroom and refused to use it on a cross-country flight, causing her mother more than a small amount of anxiety.
"Sure, I would have liked to have spent a lot of time in those temples. I'd come all that way. But it seemed a small price to pay for having her along," said Nowicki, who lives near Chicago and is planning a fall trip to Australia.
"We listened to the night bugs and smelled the pine needles," Hammond said. "We walked around the neighborhood a lot. We had a wonderful time."
Her advice: Bring "sleep friends," and even a night light from home to make the nighttime ritual easier in a strange place. Another mother, in fact, said bringing her child's sheets from home made all the difference.
But forget lugging huge bags of toys. A few will keep the kids amused \o7 en route. \f7 In a new place, Nowicki said, there's so much to see and do, preschoolers won't even bother with their toys.
"Let the kids pick what to take along," said Gillian McNamee, a professor at the Chicago-based Erikson Institute, the graduate school and research center for advanced study in child development.
McNamee is also the mom of a well-traveled 5-year-old daughter and year-old son. She never leaves home without a skein of rope (for making tents from hotel blankets), a flashlight (to play with in the tent) and a bag of Legos (because they can be used over and over again in different ways).
"Audio cassettes are the backbone of our trips these days," she said. Young children respond especially well to stories their parents have taped for them.
McNamee recommends, if possible, planning the trip so that there will be other adults and young children. If you're lucky, you may even be able to trade off some child-care chores.
Don't forget to let your preschooler in on the planning, said veteran Chicago nursery school director Sue Brenner. That doesn't mean letting a 3-year-old decide whether to go to London or San Francisco. But let them pick whether they would prefer a zoo or a museum with dinosaurs in the city, a canoe ride or a hike in a national park. "They'll feel they have some control," Brenner said. They might also learn a bit about making decisions.
Show them pictures ahead of time of what they will see and do so it won't be totally unfamiliar.
That's why we've been looking at books on Yellowstone National Park. But even the pictures haven't dissuaded Melanie's notions of what she'll find there. Surely if there are so many animals, there must be elephants and giraffes, she said.
\o7 Taking the Kids appears weekly. \f7