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Going on vacation? Here are 7 ways to engage your child’s executive function skills while preparing

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

The holidays are upon us! December is typically a busy month for traveling. If your family is planning a get-away, you’ll need to start preparing soon.

Are you overwhelmed by everything that needs to get done before you go? Don’t do it all yourself! Instead, make it a group effort and have your children help you out. Not only can your children take some of the work off your plate, but while helping you prepare for your trip they will also simultaneously develop their executive function skills. Not to mention, in the long run, it will help them increase their independence and learn to prepare for future trips, sleepaway camp, and college.

Think about everything you need to do to get ready. Maybe sit down with your child and make a list of every task. Then, give them choices of things they want to do to help out. You might get some moaning and groaning, but try to make it fun and maybe add an incentive (like going somewhere or doing something of their choice while you’re away).

To get you started, here are some things that can go on your list. I’ve also included the specific executive function skills each activity involves.

How your child can help prepare for a trip and simultaneously develop their executive function skills

(1.) Write a packing list

Before having them write a packing list, be sure to remind your child where you’re going and to look at the weather forecast.

You might want to suggest some ways they can write the list. They can do it in a standard list format, in a graphic organizer template, or by creating a mindmap, either by hand or in an online program such as iMindQ, InspirationMaps, Coggle, or MindMaple (see Resources for links).

Colorful mind-map of things to pack before going on vacation
Example of a handwritten mindmap for packing

I find it most helpful to organize a packing list into categories. Categories might include clothes, shoes, toiletries, entertainment, food, equipment (like bikes, helmets, and air pumps), electronics, and miscellaneous (don’t forget your masks!).

Executive function skills: Writing a packing list involves planning, organization, working memory, flexible thinking, and self-monitoring.

(2.) Pack their own bag

After they have created a packing list or obtained one from you, your child can try to pack their own bag. First, they’ll need to answer some questions:

  • Where are my clothes? (This is especially important if you’re going somewhere with a different climate than where you live)

  • Are my clothes clean? If not, will they be clean in time for me to pack them?

  • How much can I bring? (Do I need to pack light?)

  • What bag should I pack?

  • Where is the bag?

  • Should I just dump my clothes in the bag or fold them and keep categories of clothes together?

If they haven’t participated in writing the packing list, it would be helpful for you to give them one you’ve written, instead of having them guess. You might want to monitor their progress, confirm they’ve packed what they need, and be available to assist or answer their questions (see my section on self-advocacy below).

Executive function skills: Packing takes a great deal of organization, planning, flexibility, self-monitoring, and time management (everything needs to be packed before it’s time to leave!).

(3.) Arrange the bags in the trunk

When it’s time to fit all the bags and other things into the car, put everything in one place so your child can see how much there is and determine the best way to fit it all in (leaving room for the passengers!). Be patient- it may take a few tries. And obviously, depending on your child’s age and strength, they’ll likely need help with the physical labor.

Trunk full of luggage
Our full trunk before going on a long road trip

Also, be sure to confirm you have everything. Once my husband forgot to put my son's suitcase in the car and we ended up having to buy him all new clothes after flying across the country to Arizona!

Executive function skills: Arranging the trunk will engage your child’s visual/spatial skills and require flexibility and trial and error. Think of it as a 3D puzzle. It will also involve self-monitoring.

(4.) Plan travel activities

Have your child brainstorm or research the different activities they and other members of your family can do while traveling. There are lots of old-school games, such as I Spy, 20 questions, and the license plate game. Or maybe they can come up with a song list (for singing or listening).

Executive function skills: Determining activities for the trip will require flexible thinking, time management, planning, and organization.

(5.) Schedule the daily/hourly activities

Have your child research your destination to come up with things they’d like to do as a family. Give them a calendar or list of the dates and have them fill in the activities you can do each day (and maybe even during specific hours on some of the days).

Executive function skills: Scheduling requires planning, time management, organization, and flexible thinking.

(6.) Plan the route

If you have a child who likes maps, they might enjoy this task. They can highlight the route on a paper map or use mapping software or an app to find the route. Maybe suggest they write out the route with specific directions (right/left or north/south). They may think this is very old-school, but boy I wish I’d done it years ago when I didn’t have a paper map and my phone lost its signal on a long road trip!

Boy looking at map
My son has always enjoyed studying maps

Executive function skills: Mapping the route will take planning and flexible thinking (especially if there is more than one leg to your trip, options of public or private transportation, or a choice to take highways or back roads).

(7.) Estimate the time it’ll take to arrive at your destination

If you have your child stick to pencil and paper and take away apps and GPS capabilities, this task will take some math skills. Your child will need to know the distance of the trip and the speed of travel, be able to estimate the number of and length of rest stops and/or layovers and consider the possibility of hitting rush hour in some locations (which, I can tell you from living in the DC area, can add a lot of time to a trip!).

Executive function skills: Determining the length of a trip involves time estimation, time management, planning, organization, and flexible thinking.

Don’t forget self-advocacy

Be sure to remind your child that if they need help doing their tasks, you’re available to assist. They just need to ask. But simply screaming your name to get your attention won’t do. Instead, they should respectfully approach (or text) you to communicate their needs. When your child indicates a need for assistance, have them show you what they’ve done so far (if anything) and then state their request or question.

Self-advocacy is a critical skill throughout life. It will help your child clearly express their needs, create a sense of ownership, problem solve, and resolve conflicts. Self-advocacy will also help your child be self-sufficient, well-respected, and confident.

Enjoy your vacation!

I hope you’ll find engaging your children in the tasks required for planning your trip helpful and rewarding (for all of you). Not only will it take a load off yourself, but it will provide real-world, practical opportunities for your child to develop their executive function skills and ultimately their independence.

If you’ve noticed your child has difficulty with executive functioning, reach out for a complimentary consultation.

Be safe, have fun, and Happy Holidays!


These are just a few of the many free and paid online mind mapping software options available:

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