How to write a book and travel with a 3 year old child

In July 2016 my life changed unexpectedly when I lost my job.  I felt called to write a book, canceled my expensive apartment lease in Singapore and started to tour Asia.  It is now almost 6 months later and this is how to write a book while traveling with a 3 year old child.

Changes to travel style with a 3 year old

Writing a book and looking after a child are both full time jobs.  As a result my main focus is not on experiencing a new city or town.  I absorb the new environment in a more passive way through the multiple experiences outside of writing and child minding.  After a week or two in a new environment I get into the rhythm of the change in climate, geography, people and food without realizing it.

Perhaps the biggest challenge I had to adapt to was finding rhythm.   The pace of a 3 year old is erratic.  Some days my son has a lot more energy than me and I just can’t seem to keep up with him.  The next day he could be sick, cry most of the day and I struggle to get him out the door.

I also had this nagging feeling that I wasn’t doing a good job when I was with him.  A lot of situations caught me unexpectedly.  Why are the people in this culture behaving towards my child in this way?  Can my son eat this type of food?  How do I buy simple things that I need each day?  How do I communicate with these people who don’t speak English?  The reality is that traveling with a young child continuously creates situations for which I have no reference point.

The problem was not that I wasn’t doing a good job, but that I was spending too much time in my own head.  When locations are continually changing, the importance of setting boundaries is not as important as keeping vigilant and adapting.  I needed to experience each situation instead of trying to figure everything out.  I needed to switch from using my head and use my eyes more.

My son’s schedule

On Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings I would let my son watch educational YouTube channels on my laptop.  At the same time I would plan what I needed to write during the rest of the day.

On Monday I chose YouTube channels about spelling, phonics, sight words, 3 and 4 letter words, alphabet etc.  Within a few months my son was able to identify letters in words.  My impression is that he learnt spelling quicker this way than the one letter a week approach in Singapore playschool (of course without the interaction with other kids).  When we went out for lunch I would reinforce what my son learned and asked him to read from the menu or from sign posts on the side of the road.  This made his learning both academic and experiential.

On Wednesday I chose YouTube channels about counting, shapes, left and right, telling the time, prepositions, nouns, nursery rhymes etc.  His counting is slowing improving but still get lost after 19.  I would reinforce the learning by counting the numbers on the side of the road as we walked to a lunch address.

On Friday I chose YouTube channels that emphasized comprehension.  My favorite was Dr Seuss episodes that are clearly spoken, pretty difficult for a 3 year old to grasp and are quite visually appealing.  I can’t say yet what he absorbed from this, but it seemed like a fun way for him to understand the spoken word.  Later on in the day I would point out that cats don’t have hats and that eggs aren’t green.

I had to adapt to the location I was in to find good activities for the rest of the week.   The local kids in the countries I visited were in playschools during the week  (Korea, Vietnam).  If an expat recommended their playschool I would put him in for a morning once or twice a week.  He  would be taught in a foreign language.

I like activities that build his coordination.  The one place had an outdoor mini golf course.  My son is only 3, but he gradually learned not to pick up the ball and to hit with the putter.  The mini golf course doubled up as a type of obstruction course, as he needed to work his way up and down the slopes of the putting holes.  By the end, he was exhausted by the physical and mental energy required.

Another great place for him to build coordination was the sea.  The sea waves are not predictable and he was able to work on his  balance while growing comfortable with paddling in the water.  Any new landscape (sand dunes, forests, mountains etc) makes a good opportunity for play, extending vocabulary and interaction with new people.  Lizards, ants, cows, sheep, pigs, dogs, cats or anything else that moves is also a fun way to learn.

I would drag my son around with me in cities where there was a lot to see.  For example, in the Old City of Hanoi each street has a surprisingly different set of tradesman, sights and smells.  Although he complained a bit, I think he saw a lot more than if he was stuck in the same old playschool everyday.

On weekends many local kids would be in indoor playgrounds in shopping centers.  While he was playing, I would work by listening to audio books and taking notes with Evernote on my hand phone.

I am a Christian, so I take a break from writing one day a week.  I craved real interaction with adults and tried to join churches, full day sightseeing or tour groups.

Writing time

My son is a good afternoon sleeper, but does not sleep well in the evenings.  As a result I went to sleep at the same time as he did at 830pm.

I would write uninterrupted from 4am to 6am while my son slept.  I would go back to sleep and be woken up by a poo poo change, or a little boy pushing the buttons on my hand phone to see if it is 7 o’clock yet (breakfast time).

My mornings were generally planning time and revolve around my son’s activities (discussed above).

After lunch, my son would have his afternoon nap from 2pm-4pm.  This gave another 2 hours of uninterrupted writing time.  When he woke up I fed him oats and milk in the hotel room.

This schedule gave me about 4 hours per day of focused writing with about 2 to 4 hours a day of planning.  Of course I became pretty antisocial, but I needed to focus in order to look after my young son and move forward with my writing project.

After dinner I would put on a kids channel on the TV and I would focus on my blog, respond to emails and build my social medial presence.  My son would sometimes sit on my lap and I would explain what it means to follow someone on Twitter, or become friends on Facebook.  I try to involve him in my work.

Illness 

Before leaving Singapore, I tried to predict the illnesses that could occur by packing in some medication for common kids ailments.  I have not opened up that medication since I left Singapore because the kid sicknesses in the countries I’ve visited have been different.  If I did it again, I would still get my son fully vaccinated but I would try to be more adaptive by relying on local pharmacies or doctors when problems arise.  Expat parents in the local cities I’ve been in have been very helpful in advising good doctors when things get more serious.

Of course, the other side is if I am not feeling well.  As the parent for the child, I need to stay healthy.  I strained my back by lying more on the hotel bed (Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings).  It took about a week to recover.  Finding exercises to do inside the hotel room really helped me (a 3 year old is not going to give you the time to go for a run or to gym).

Relaxation

I relax when I’m at the sea and listening to music.  As a result I chose coastal towns to visit.  I also regularly play music from the Spotify app on my mobile phone.

Some suggestions

–  I choose countries to visit that have good transport, decent wifi, tolerate kids and are safe.
– I found the ideal length of time for me to stay in a new town ranged from 2 weeks to 6 weeks.
– I try to book hotels that have many eateries in close walking distance.  Wherever there are restaurants, the also tends to be grocery stores and the other services (like laundry services, Internet cafes and taxis).
–  I try pack my luggage into a single suitcase.  This gives me one hand for the suitcase and one hand for my son.  I pack very few toys and it forces me to explore a new city or town in order to find things to do.
–  I have delayed nappy training my son.  Even though nappies means less space in my suitcase, I prefer changing nappies than continually being on the look out for clean toilets.

Conclusion

Writing and traveling with a 3 year old is not for the faint of heart.  It can feel a bit lonely, especially if you are in a country where you can’t speak the language.  You need to become more self reliant without the support structures back at home.  Inspiration can strike unexpectedly when situations occur that you would never have experienced otherwise and can help weave interesting story lines.  You can find unusual characters based on the really strange people that you meet along the way. Differences in cultures can help you explain why you think your view of the world works better, or perhaps why there is no one right way of looking at things.   The frustration of trying to deal with simple things like washing clothes, getting around and negotiating prices may help with other virtues in a writers life, like being patient, learning to negotiate and being able to sell your ideas.

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