A long-time education insider goes behind the scenes to find out how teachers really feel when you pull kids out of school to travel.
Walking down the street one day, I passed a man smoking a pipe. As the sweet aroma of the tobacco reached me, I was overwhelmed by a memory — the smell took me straight back to the suq in Jerusalem, the crowded, noisy marketplace I hadn't thought of once since I had been there. The intensity of the childhood memory strikes me even now, almost 20 years later and a mother of two, reminding me of how children learn: with all of their senses.
There is no question that travel is deepening, broadening, educational and fun for kids. As soon as they get past the age when traveling is easiest — tuck them into the Snuggli or backpack and you can take them anywhere — it becomes illuminating. Even something as prosaic as an airplane ride becomes a revelation; watching my 4-year-old son look out the window down onto Long Island as we approach JFK International Airport and getting it. This is geography; the map, for once, is the territory!
The Choice equals School vs. Travel
Most teachers and school administrators agree that travel is wonderful for kids. They also agree that, ideally, trips should be planned for school vacations. But as usual, between the ideal and the real falls the shadow; family, professional and school life is a complex mix, and coordinating them all usually means that something will have to give. Quite often, it is the school schedule that is sacrificed, and it is important to consider the implications when making that choice.
In 7th grade, I was taken out of my Los Altos, California school to join a 10-day tour of Israel with my sister and father. What did I learn?
Naturally, the camel ride, the Dead Sea, the felafels, the languages, sights and smells opened up the whole world of other and difference to my 11-year-old self. But at the same time, the experience triggered a deep sense of sameness and identity as I discovered myself, my history and my culture through songs, synagogues and sites.
What did I miss at school?
Well, since I remember nothing of what I learned in my 7th grade classes, probably not much. My older sister may well have gotten a lot less out of our Israel jaunt than I did as, on top of everything else, she spent the trip pining for her new boyfriend.
Short Absences from Schoolwork are Easier
But 10 days is such a short time that few would argue against missing that time from school — unless the school play that I had been rehearsing for was performing then, or my volleyball team's big game against our arch-rival was scheduled that week.
Even so, hard choices have to be made and sometimes kids will end up having to make the sacrifices. Wise parents know they will suffer the consequences, but it may be worth it anyway.
The duration of the trip makes a tremendous difference. At times, a parent's work will require her to be elsewhere for months at a time, and the family may opt to stay together rather than to commute. Skyping, exchanging letters, pictures, e-mails and social network time with a child's classmates and teachers can help bridge the distance.
This strategy can be useful on shorter trips, too. Even if a family is traveling for a month or two, communication back and forth to school can help kids stay connected.
Size Matters – Teen Transitions Are Tougher
According to Ann Marie Mott, the former Lower School Coordinator of The Bank Street School for Children in New York City, the older children are, the more difficult it becomes to pull them out of school because their studies and activities are more serious, as are their peer relationships. But she adds, "The other side of the coin is that due to their greater intellectual sophistication, older kids will probably gain more from travel, so we really try to work with families to make those exciting opportunities work for everybody."
Teenagers are often ready and anxious to explore the world and meet kids from other cultures and places. Again though, timing is key.
If your children are focused on college, obviously you should avoid taking trips that would interfere with the preparation for and taking of admissions, aptitude and placement tests, and avoid absences during the year when college and university applications are being submitted and interviews being conducted.
Before you take off, consider the Curriculum
Former NYC public school superintendent, principal and teacher Reginald Landeau warns parents to be cautious about removing kids from school in specific grades and at specific times of year. Landeau cites 1st and 3rd grades (children 6 and 8-years of age) as particularly sensitive times academically, when critical foundations for learning are being laid. "Missing those grades for any significant length of time, more than a couple of weeks," Landeau advises, "could seriously undermine children's intellectual development."
In addition, the first year of any new program, typically a middle school (when children are 11 or 12) or upper school, can be a difficult time to uproot children because the transition to a new school is always challenging. At the beginning of any school year, children are adjusting, or readjusting, to new settings, teachers, classes and peer groupings. Both Mott and Landeau concur that waiting until your kids' daily school routines are well-established is recommended.
Unfortunately, real life doesn't always cooperate.
In any case, when planning travel that will take your children out of school, it is advisable to work as closely with the school as possible.
Make Schools Your Ally
A partnership with teachers and school administrators can help make the experience less disruptive and more enriching for your children. Here are some suggestions for making school year travel the most rewarding and least stressful for your family:
- Keep the school well informed of your plans.
- Discuss with the teachers what work your children will be missing. If necessary, appropriate and possible, create a routine time and space for children to keep up with schoolwork they are missing.
- Create some activities that will help children prepare for the trip. Reading books and watching films about a destination can spark their imaginations.
- Arrange with teachers for your kids to be able to share their travel experiences with classmates when they return. Help children keep a journal or scrapbook.
- If the trip is a long one, establish a way to stay in touch with your home school: by completing and submitting assignments, sending and receiving emails and pictures, or following an online class. Communicating electronically with kids their own ages, or even with teachers and students at a local school whom they can visit on arrival, is another way to broaden the experience.
- If the travel involves crossing time zones, allow children some recovery time before returning to school.
- Be sensitive to your children's fears and anxieties — if any — about missing their school, teachers, routines and friends.
- Make sure that your kids have the comfort and security of family life and a known routine in the midst of great adventure.
Go For It!
Family travel is an exciting way to explore ourselves and the world, and to open children to new ways of thinking, seeing and experiencing. Real-life exposure to the new is an acutely vivid way to learn, and in general, schools and teachers are supportive and enthusiastic about kids traveling.
If you can bear in mind that growing up is a lengthy process of separation, and that travel, too, involves another layer of separation from the familiar comforts of home, routine and friend, then the transitions between school and travel and back to school again will be a lot easier.
Reporting by Anne Lieberman of the Center for Educational Innovation in New York City.
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