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What’s the best gift for developing brains? Travel

December 7, 2018

One year for the holidays, Dad gave us all a trip to Hawaii. He was on to something.

Parents, there’s a good reason for giving the gift of a vacation to your children: It fuels their brains.

Research backs this up.

Young children who vacation do better in subjects such as reading and math, according to a 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Education.

Neuroscientists and psychologists have begun to explore why travel can be so enriching, and it has to do with something called neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to form new pathways down synapses. All the novelties of travel — from a view of mountains instead of hills, to frolicking on the sand instead of snow — can enhance a brain’s neuroplasticity. Put simply, new sights build brains.

Family trips fuel more than expanded brain networks. Neuroscientist and psychologist Jaak Panksepp, who worked at Washington State University, unwrapped two key brain systems, called play and seek. Explore a new beach together, and you are exercising the seek system. Push one another off a dock once you get to the beach, it’s the play system at work.

When these two systems are activated, we and our children feel happy. Every vacationer intrinsically knows this from experience, but Panksepp grounded it in neuroscience when he found that these activities release feel-good neurochemicals such as dopamine.

Margot Sunderland, a British child psychotherapist, told Parents magazine that activities such as roasting marshmallows on a campfire and hiking through a forest can act as brain fertilizers. “Spend time exploring together in a new space, and you’re making your child smarter,” she said.

You see your children’s eyes light up when they kayak for the first time, or twirl in a teacup at Disney World or spy wildlife in the North Woods. Turns out their brains are lighting up, too.

Send your questions or tips to Travel Editor Kerri Westenberg at travel@startribune.com, and follow her on Twitter: @kerriwestenberg.

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