Travel can be an education
When it comes to educational travel, it's all about the context. As parents, we dream of showing our kids the world; the university of life.
Inevitably, when we get there, they declare that museums are boring and their favourite part is watching movies in the hotel room.
This time we're determined it will be different. Arriving in Italy for our own Griswold-style European Vacation, we fantasise about schooling the kids in art, history and politics - until we enter the Uffizi, the famed renaissance museum in Florence.
"Here you will see one of the most beautiful works of all time, Botticelli's Venus," I intone, a poor proxy for an art teacher. "We're seeing Botticelli's penis?" Grace asks, puzzled.
Apparently she'd already overdosed on the statue of David, copies of which adorn almost every piazza. We decide to call in the cavalry: people who are educated about such things, not a journalist who, really, knows nothing.
Linda Nolan, from contexttravel.com, is a university lecturer in anthropology, archaeology and history. And she's really cool. "Why does the Colosseum have holes in it, like Swiss cheese?" Taj asks.
Her answer is straight out of a children's book. "Well, it's like Lego," she says. "Each block has bits that poke out and bits they fit into. They're held together by metal spikes. Some people, who were really poor, stole the metal by digging it out."
The next three hours are filled with simple explanations of complex issues, colouring exercises and creative visualisation. It's the best tour we've ever had. "Think about your local area," she asks the kids. "What kind of shops are there?""Er, a bottle shop," Grace responds, nervously.
Laughing, Linda points out the 2000-year-old ruins of the ancient equivalent. Within the Colosseum, there are miniatures of how the stadium operated, with elaborate pulley systems that lifted up platforms containing wild animals to confront the gladiators.
This kind of stuff brings history to life. But so do the new range of apps and audio tours offered at most museums. Monument Builders: Eiffel Tower, for example, is a free app, aimed at kids aged between five and 12, in which you play a game to construct it from scratch.
At the Vatican, the kids' audio tour is voiced by an actor, playing Michelangelo being interviewed about painting the roof of the Sistine Chapel. (Although Taj was more excited about seeing the Egyptian mummy in the Vatican Museums: "She's a couple of years older than you, Mum.")
Many of the British attractions, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, give the kids free backpacks with a quiz about their visit. In fact, most British museums are free. And, at the Buffalo Bill Centre of the West in the US state of Wyoming, you're welcomed by a hologram of the man himself, speaking about his remarkable life.
Of the Australian attractions, Questacon in Canberra, GOMA in Brisbane and the Australian Museum in Sydney are outstanding. Before you go, check out the websites and the app store for accompanying material.
Or Google "Crash Course World History" for a fun and educational Youtube series, accessible to all. This was recommended by Nolan after we complained about museums with impenetrable audio information.
"What's 'hegemony'?" our nine-year-old asks at one point. (I have to consult the dictionary).
Education should be for everyone.
It's all about the context.