All parents want to raise children in better ways to make them happier and smarter. They send them to better schools and buy them new toys, new games, new tablets, new things…etc. These days most parents leave their kids at school all day long and spend little time with them in the rest of the day. In fact, to achieve these goals parents have to look at different aspects. Children want something else. They want to spend time with their parents.

Having time with your kids at home on weekends and holidays is one thing, but taking them on family holidays is even greater importance if you compare them with what goes on at home. So many families have stress-filled lives.

Science proves that family vacations positively impact in your family fulfillment and your children—relationship between parents and child—physical health and mental health—and more.

Here are some scientific proofs that make your kids live happier and smarter.

Buy experiences instead of toys

Experience is something that really touches the feelings, especially with positive experiences; for instance, having elephant ride in Angkor Wat or watching Cambodian circus.

A family with 3 kids on an elephant ride
A family with 3 kids on an elephant ride. Photo courtesy of VB Cambodia.

According to Oliver James, a Britain’s leading child psychologist and best-selling psychological author, family vacations are definitely valued by children, both in the moment and for long afterwards in their memory. So if you’re going to spend money on something, it’s pretty clear which option makes more sense.

Also, research repeatedly indicates that, even if we go on buying more stuffs, adults really consider experiences like travel as far more fulfilling. “Kids are no different. It’s just that they value different aspects of that travel.” says James.

Family members’ anticipation is key

What makes a family vacation joyful? The truth is the involvement of family members. Their anticipation boosts family holidays to the top level of happiness.

The anticipation of a pleasant experience is enough to light up all the right areas in our brain, producing feel-good hormones. It’s not the actual holiday experience itself that make everyone happy; it’s the effect of anticipation.  Dutch researchers who surveyed a large sample of vacationers vs non vacationers noted marked differences in pre-trip happiness; differences in post-trip levels of happiness were much smaller.

Children are ready for a family holiday
Children are ready for a family holiday. Photo courtesy of Nar Pro.

How to increase happy anticipation

  1. Counting down the days: young children can count down to anything. They often ask many things before departure.
  2. Book a family-friendly hotel or resort: your kids can join choosing a hotel. This helps you to reserve the right kid-friendly hotel for them. The hotel that has kid swimming pool, playground, big garden. Especially, a big family room for your comfort with your young kids.
  3. Research destination: build anticipation by getting to know your destination. Get your kids and spend time together looking at beautiful photos or videos of the place you’re heading to.

Moreover, the Harvard study concludes that involving children in organizing family vacations teaches solving skills and gives them an authentic responsibility: becoming co-creators of a happy family. Thus, getting your kids involved in the preparation of your family vacations will make them smarter and happier.

Family vacations deepens and strengthens bonds

Traveling together is the best way to bond as a family. It keeps your connection and communication better and better.

Dr. Margot Sunderland, a child psychotherapist, says, “the most precious gift we offer our kids on family vacations, a present our kids may not ask explicitly for, but secretly yearn for the prized gift of time.”

On family vacations, parents aren’t focused on work and chores, but on play. “Dad or Mum, building sandcastles, playing football on the beach, running in and jumping over waves, swimming in the pool. It looks like fun, but it’s also “attachment play”, and it’s vital for bonding. Attachment play also enhances self-esteem, sending a child the psychological message: “You have my full attention. I delight in you. I delight in being with you.”

A family plays football on the beach
A family plays football on the beach. Photo courtesy of Northern Beaches Council.

In other words, family vacations build deeper and stronger bonds between parents and their kids.

Get outside to get happy and build concentration skills in your children

Another way you can make the most of family vacations is to spend most of our travel days outside.

A large study that used GPS data from more than 20,000 British people confirmed something that we all suspected: we are happier when outdoors, because of the natural sunlight that increases our levels of vitamin D. Also, exposure to green landscapes has been associated with psychological health and lower levels of depression.

Children swimming in waterfalls Phnom kulen.
Children are swimming in waterfalls Phnom Kulen. Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor.

Surprisingly, natural destinations become much more popular for local Cambodian people. They begin to believe in the evidence that a walk together in green space calms the body, lowering blood pressure and stress hormone levels and even cholesterol — so everyone can benefit from it.

Being outside plays an important role for your family happiness. It also helps build concentration skills in your children. Research has revealed that improvements in a child’s attention and concentration levels after being in nature for only 20 minutes. Green-play settings were found to be as good as, or better than, medication for children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).

Get active within family vacations

Exercise is another way to boost your family’s mood. Simply, you just get your kids to walk by the sea, swim in hotel swimming pool or run around the playground. It’s also possible to have a short-run with your kids like a marathon but for sure you don’t need to fast.

Kids are swimming at hotel pool
Kids are swimming at hotel pool. Photo courtesy of Leading Family Hotels & Resorts.

You probably may not realize what benefits of exercise within family holidays your kids would get. Here are benefits from exercise active kids will have from active activity:

  • stronger muscles and bones
  • leaner bodies
  • less risk of becoming overweight
  • a lower chance of getting type 2 diabetes
  • lower blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels
  • a better outlook on life

Family vacations make your kids smarter

According to Dr. Margot Sunderland’s analysis of family vacations, she states that:

What is less widely known is that family vacations can also advance brain development in children. This is because on a family vacation you are exercising two genetically ingrained systems deep in the brain’s limbic area, which can all too easily be “unexercised” in the home. These are the PLAY system and the SEEKING system.

The brain’s PLAY system is exercised every time you bury your child’s feet in the sand, tickle them on the pool lounger, or take them for a ride on your back.

The brain’s SEEKING system is exercised each time you go exploring together: the forest, the beach, a hidden gem of a village.

A family walk in Nature at Angkor Wat
A family walk in Nature at Angkor Wat. Photo courtesy of Angkor Zipline.

These brain systems were discovered by Professor Jaak Panksepp, a world-leading neuroscientist at Washington State University. When your family vacations adventures and experiences activate these systems in your brain and your children’s brains, they trigger well-being neurochemicals including opioids, oxytocin and dopamine. Panksepp calls them “nature’s gift to us”. This “nature’s gift to us” reduces stress and activates warm, generous feelings towards each other and a lovely sense that all is well in the world. With all the anti-stress aspects of these systems firing, family members get to emotionally refuel.

The amazing thing is that these systems are like muscles: the more you use them, the more they become part of your personality. Or, as the neuroscientist Bruce Perry puts it: “Emotional states become personality traits”.

So when you take your child on a holiday, you are supporting their explorative urge (SEEKING system) a vital resource for living life well, and their capacity to play (PLAY system). In adulthood, this translates into the ability to play with ideas, essential, for example, to the successful entrepreneur.

Kid on the Zipline at Angkor Wat
Kid on the Zipline at Angkor Wat. Photo courtesy of Angkor Zipline.

Dr. Sunderland adds that “really using the brain’s PLAY and SEEKING systems well, as often happens on a family holiday, brings about brain growth and maturation in the frontal lobes, the very part of the brain involved in cognitive functioning, social intelligence and well-focused, goal-directed behaviors that may last a lifetime”.

A relationship between family vacations and IQ?

Of course, family vacations give you and your children times to explore new environments full of experiences that are strong in combined social, physical, sensory interaction, and learning experiences. These environments are “enriched” environments.


family together in the pool;

walking together through the forest;

touching long tall grasses waving in the wind;

getting up early for sunrise;

hanging out together under warm sun;

running in the waves;

meeting new people;

All good things enrich your lives.

“Enriched environments turn on the genetic expression of key brain fertilisers in the frontal lobes, enhancing executive functions such as stress regulation, attention, concentration, good planning and ability to learn, also improving physical and mental health,” Dr. Sunderland explains.

As brain fertilisers are triggered, IQ in children becomes higher. So, spend time exploring together with your kids in a new destination, and you’re making your kid smarter.

Create the best memories of family vacations

The best way to enhance your family’s positive feelings towards your vacation for a long period of time is take more photos. Recent research from the University of Southern California found that people who took pictures of their pleasant experiences reported were happier. Taking pictures seem to help us engage with experiences more deeply, in a way similar to mindfulness.

Family at sunrise at Angkor Wat
Family with 3 kids at sunrise at Angkor Wat. Photo courtesy of Grasshoper Adventures.

And you get the chance to live your life with those enjoyable moments long afterward when looking at the pictures over and over again.


Just because science proves all benefits of family vacations, you should at least taking your children on family holidays once or two a year.

Whether somewhere to the sea, natural places, cultural and historic sites, you should get your kids in preparation of the trip, get them to do little exercise together, take more photos and more in the trip in order to create long-lasting memories and family bonds.

Eventually family vacations give a lot of benefits as a family and make your children happier and smarter.

What do you think? Do you agree with these scientific proofs? Please feel free to comment below and give your opinion!


Dr. Margot Sunderland, a child psychotherapist, is Director of Education and Training at The Centre for Child Mental Health.

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How Taking Photos Increases Enjoyment of Experiences

12 Scientific Proofs Why Family Vacations Make Our Kids Happier and Smarter

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The science behind why you should spend money on family holidays instead of toys

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