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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Seeing the world through kids’ eyes

By Derek M. Norman

Riding atop his father’s shoulders, Villum Vejlin Sogaard arrived at the gate to board the ferry departing from lower Manhattan like a miniature, triumphant explorer.

His eyes darted from the downtown skyline to souvenir vendors to fellow tourists with tickets in hand. It was the 6-year-old’s first time in the United States and he was about to see one of the country’s iconic landmarks: the Statue of Liberty.

“I think it’s a must-see when you’re in the city,” said Simon Vejlin Sogaard, Villum’s father, who had traveled with several other family members from their home in Denmark. “It’s a great piece of history. And it was actually even more interesting to know the history behind the statue and what it stands for — which, I think, is more important.”

Villum was perhaps too young to appreciate, as his father did, what the statue represents. Instead, when he reached Liberty Island and made his way up the steps to cast his eyes on the giant green woman, her arm extended with a torch, he was awed mainly by her sheer scale.

The differences in the perspectives of Vejlin Sogaard and his young son are emblematic of what many families experience while vacationing, and they raise questions frequently asked by parents around the world: Do young children benefit from traveling to new places? If so, how? Do they find value in seeing historical landmarks and museums? And how might a trip through a child’s eyes differ from their parents’ perspective?

We set out to learn just that.

This year, The New York Times dispatched a team of reporters to popular tourist landmarks in several cities across the world, from Washington to Bangkok. At each location, a parent and child were both given disposable cameras and were tasked with taking photographs of what they each found most interesting. Their photographs offered us some insights into what caught their eyes.

“Culture. Knowing things from history. New experiences.” These were some of the things Maria Segura wanted her children to take away from their visit to the Colosseum in Rome. Her husband, Alberto, hoped a trip would increase their curiosity and thirst for knowledge. They had brought their three children with them from their home in Madrid.

“I like a lot of history,” said Julia, the Seguras’ 10-year-old daughter, whose expectations seemed to align with those of her parents. “It’s for understanding the present.”

Unlike her mother, though, who photographed sweeping views of the reddish brown stone and concrete that encircled the ancient amphitheater, Julia was drawn to a miniature model of the site inside the museum. In fact, she was among several children interviewed there who identified the model, a dollhouse-like replica, as their favorite part of the trip.

What did her 6-year-old brother, David, like the most? “All of it,” he said. “Nothing in particular. Wait, the model. I liked the model, too. And the sea gulls.”

Their younger sister, Iria, didn’t have an opinion — not because she was only 3, but because she spent most of the trip in her stroller, asleep.

Even according to historians, appreciating the formal lessons of the past isn’t the most important thing to be gained from traveling.

“It is not all about rather dreary lessons in history,” Mary Beard, a British scholar and author of “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome,” wrote in an email, tightening her lens specifically on museums. “The great thing about museums for kids (and grown-ups) is that they are places of wonder, shock, puzzlement. One of my own earliest memories is wonderment at a 3,500-year-old piece of Egyptian cake in the British Museum.”

“I sometimes get a terrible sinking feeling when I see parents feeling that they have to make a visit to a museum a long history lesson,” she added. “Well occasionally that can be useful, I guess. But really, going to a museum is about learning to think differently.”

That was partly the approach taken by two families from Denmark who were also visiting the Colosseum. Hien Nguyen, one of the mothers, recently watched the movie “Gladiator” with her children and was excited to show them the Colosseum in real life. “We wanted the kids to see things very ancient, to see how old humanity is,” she said, adding that she was happy that her children could experience the place for themselves.

“We believe that building experience is more important for kids than giving them, you know, stuff,” Nguyen said.

There is a beauty in the simplicity of what fascinates a child. So while adults might marvel at the magnificence of a mosaic that has kept its color for centuries, a child’s interest could be drawn elsewhere, to things seemingly more trivial.

Claudia Vermeer was traveling with her two daughters, Emma, 12, and Sophie, 10. Their home was in Germany, but they were on their seventh month of a trip that had taken them around the world.

Family members had finally reached Thailand, the 11th country they had visited on their tour, and were exploring Wat Pho, one of several sprawling royal temples on the Chao Phraya River in the heart of Bangkok. The site is famous for its many stupas, statues and a gleaming, golden 151-foot-long reclining Buddha statue.

Vermeer was continually surprised at how different her perspective was from her daughters’, she said.

“They see what I wouldn’t see, and they experience things differently,” Vermeer said. “In general, I want to open their horizons and make them tolerant people.”

Back in New York City, after returning from Liberty Island, Villum, the 6-year-old boy from Denmark, had transformed from an energetic and curious child, propped on his father’s shoulders, to a weary and quiet boy, standing between family members and waiting for someone to declare that the day was over.

By the looks of the pictures he took that day, it’s clear what had happened: He most likely spent a good portion of his energy at Liberty Island trying to peek over the walls and rails that were too tall for him to easily see over.

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Oct 09, 2023

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