12 Days of Giving: The Gift of Exploration

This is the ninth in our special “12 Days of Giving” series running for the holiday season. It’s a little different from what you might think of as traditional presents or giving. We aren’t really talking about stuff you buy or a gift list. Rather, on these 12 days, we will be talking about different gifts that you can give to yourself, or others — those that have a deeper meaning, that can help you live with intention, be happier, be healthier. Soul gifts, you might even call them. Join us on the journey.

Kennedy Space Center
On a trip this summer with my partner and grandson to Kennedy Space Center, where the motto is “Explore.”

Exploration. Curiosity. They may be inherent to the hardwiring of our species, that desire to see what’s beyond the fence, outside our borders, past the horizon. It’s fueled explorers who settled new lands, the most amazing of inventions and technology, and sent people to the moon and beyond.

The gift of exploration is one that, if cultured and allowed to grow inside yourself, can have a vast positive impact on your life. It leads us to discover new places, different cultures and traditions, other beliefs. In my personal opinion, and that of many others including illustrious names like Mark Twain (I’m in good company), if more people utilized and nurtured their curiosity about the world around them, actively sought out how other people live, think, feel — the world would have far less hatred and intolerance.

It’s amazing what simply being around someone who is different from you does. Whether that’s someone of a different race, religion, cultural background, gender, sexual orientation or simply someone who thinks and lives a whole lot differently — most people develop an empathy and appreciation for that other person; prejudices and vehement, polarizing, “my way is the only way” beliefs start to melt away.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” ~Mark Twain

Mark Twain—the father of American literature and arguably the greatest humorist of his age– wrote the words above in his book, Innocents Abroad, published in 1869 and his best-selling work. Twain believed that travel opens people up to world views that are nearly impossible to comprehend without first-hand experience. Scientists have even tried, through recent research, to prove this statement true. There is also a nice little article over at Discover Corps that is focused on volunteer travel, but all the sentiments apply to any kind of exploration. It says that such experiences:

  • Get you off the beaten path
  • Allow you to learn
  • Provide shared experiences
Image courtesy of Discover Corps

Of course, I’m not naive; I know that this doesn’t always happen. Some people are simply too afraid, or too dogmatic, to be the least bit malleable in how they see or experience life. But I firmly believe that it makes enough of a difference that I wish every single young person could go and live for a year, a semester, even a month, in a completely different type of place.

The thing I have found on my travels all around the world is an appreciation for the ways in which we’re so different — it’s fascinating and thrilling to experience something so completely outside your own world, whether that’s a tradition or lifestyle or thought process — but also, seeing all the ways in which we really are very much alike, no matter what we look like, where we live, or how we operate. Everyone pretty much wants the same things: love, health, happiness, safety. They want their children to do well, perhaps have a better life than they did. They want their loved ones to be safe and happy. They want to provide for their families and experience a little joy and fulfillment.

We’re all different, but the same.

Exploration isn’t just limited to travel, however. We can venture forth on an incredible voyage of discovery right inside our own minds. The gift of exploration and curiosity are what has sparked some of the most magnificent works of art, pieces of music, and tomes of literature in humankind. It has driven the Albert Einsteins, the Marie Curies, the Leonardo da Vincis.

I decided to group some ideas and resources about exploration into age categories, just for the fun of it.


Actually, kids are the best at exploration and discovery — if you’re lucky enough to have a young child in your life, enlist them to teach you! Use time with them to reconnect with that sense of childlike wonder and excitement that we too often lose as we get older. My grandson, Jude, has taught me a lot about how important it is to hold onto these traits. Being with him, I’m often reminded to simply slow down and live in the moment, to notice what’s around me. His enthusiasm for the smallest things wakens in me an appreciation for the little stuff.

Sometimes, if I’m having a super stressful day with a million things going on that I can’t seem to get a handle on, spending a little time with Jude gets my priorities back in order. We’ll be walking along and his face will light up, he’ll get so excited and run over to something on the ground.

“Look, Gigi, a leaf!” he’ll exclaim, picking it up with awe and turning to show me with unbridled enthusiasm.

And I’ll tell myself, “Let all the things you’re worrying and thinking about, instead of being right here right now, go. Stop, Shelley, and look at the goddamn leaf!”

While kids have the inherent human trait of curiosity still unbroken and unburied, there are lots of ways in which we can help foster this. Encourage their sense of discovery and exploration, don’t discourage it. Allow them to figure stuff out on their own, and spend time with them doing it. I love what Neil deGrasse Tyson has to say on this subject:

There are also several pretty awesome products out there that I think are fabulous for cultivating this in children.

  • Little Passports. This is a great monthly subscription box (it was one of the first pioneers in this model) that sends a kit every month that introduces kids to the world around them. The packages are broken down by age group; for the youngest, the kits are about different topics such as dinosaurs or oceans. For older kids, they are introduced to a new country each month; and older kits can get science experiments.
  • KiwiCoThis is a similar subscription service, that introduce kids to art and science, inspiring a new generation of makers and inventors.
  • Green Kids Crafts. Each month children receive a box that includes a fun STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) activity or experiment. The kit also includes a related magazine. All materials in the kit are eco-friendly and arrive in recycled packaging.
  • Space.com has a great list of gift ideas that are space-related for kids who are really into that.
  • Sierra Club put together this round-up of “9 Holiday Gifts That’ll Inspire Kids to Create, Explore, and Enjoy.”
  • The Global Guardian Project is offering this fantastic gift set at $50 off right now. It’s a 12 month e-course and giant world map coloring poster, that gives hours and hours of engaging, educational, and interesting learning opportunities for little ones.
  • Honestly Modern has a comprehensive list of other ideas (besides a few already listed here), broken down into category. Is the child in your life interested in music? They have a gift idea for that. Artists, athletes and builders? Yep. Each category is full of great ideas for quality products that will foster those interests.
Getty Images

Teens and Young Adults

  • National Geographic student traveler Cole Heine won second prize in the NatGeo photo contest for snapping this photo at the Great Barrier Reef, Australia.
    National Geographic student traveler Cole Heine won second prize in the NatGeo photo contest for snapping this photo at the Great Barrier Reef, Australia.
    Study Abroad Programs. Most colleges and many high schools offer semesters abroad, and I think that every young person should have the opportunity to take advantage of one. There are also a lot of resources out there for this: check StudyAbroad, GoAbroad, IES Abroad and GoOverseas for a good start. SPI has great programs for high school students. You can check out this story I wrote a few years ago for Verge Magazine about studying abroad.
  • Service Programs. Doing volunteer service, whether it’s in their own community or halfway around the world, is an amazing way for young people to foster both their exploratory side as well as their service character. Many of the organizations in the previous section also have service components or listings and resources for volunteering around the world. I wrote an article for GoOverseas about the benefits and pitfalls of volunteering abroad. Other good sites to check for volunteer/service programs are United Planet, Global Volunteers and Cross Cultural Solutions. International Volunteer HQ has this informational guide to volunteering abroad for college students.
  • Travel Camps. Bold Earth offers travel camps for teenagers around the world, focusing on a bunch of different themes and activities. National Geographic also offers summer trips specifically for middle and high school students. Travel for Teens is another good resource.
  • Encourage Playfulness. Remember all that talk a few minutes ago about how we all have such a sense of exploration and discovery as kids, and we tend to lost that as we get older? It doesn’t take long for that to happen, as we might recall from our teenage years when practicing a bored, jaded attitude is an art. MindShift has this great article on how to encourage creativity and inquisitive playfulness in high school students.
  • Time Magazine also wrote about how playtime isn’t just for preschoolers; teenagers also need creativity, joy, play and exploration.
  • Help teens create a strong sense of self. In this article at PsychAlive, they offer 7 tips for helping kids develop a strong sense of self. The number one tip? Encouraging exploration and curiosity.


  • Join the Peace Corps. One of the longest-running and most well-known place for adults (age 18 years old and over) is the Peace Corps. Once the realm of college students and people under 30, in recent years the Peace Corps has expanded its age range, and is now a really popular option for later career-changers, people wanting to take a meaningful sabbatical, and retirees.
  • InVision has launched a FREE study abroad program for early-career designers. The “Design Exchange” program is open to any senior designer with over 6 years of professional experience and offers one-week-long, organized exchanges during every quarter of 2019. Destinations already announced include Sydney (Spring 2019), Copenhagen (Summer 2019), and Singapore (Winter 2020).

  • Just Travel! Has it been too long since you’ve been anywhere — I mean, really been somewhere else, somewhere different? I’m not talking about how far you have to go to get there; I’m talking more about how open-minded and immersive you allowed yourself to be in a new place, whether that is a different neighborhood of your own town, or deciding to stay in an apartment outside the tourist zone on your next trip and jumping feet-first into the lives of locals.
  • Explore your own community. I think it’s a lot of fun to sort of be a “tourist” in your own town. How long has it been since you tried something new or different where you live? Maybe it’s finally checking out that Ethiopian restaurant, or taking a music class, or asking the elderly neighbor down the street to teach you something. Try harder to connect with people around you who are different — you might be surprised what you can learn and discover!

Do you have any great tips or resources for encouraging exploration in yourself or others? Share them in the comments below!

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