Author: Jennifer Sutherland-Miller

Educational Travel: How to Get Permission and Justify the Experience to Your Local School

The summer “high season” for travel is winding up. Teachers are tidying up classrooms. Children are enjoying their first moments of freedom for the summer. Parents are scurrying to make the most of the time they have for summer journeys before the kids have to go back.

I remember well the first week’s writing assignments of “What I did over summer break” in grade school. It was always fun to share the adventures with my friends. But I also remember my dad rolling into the principal’s office on a September afternoon and mentioning that he’d be packing up his kids and heading for Central America for a few months and inviting the school to send our books, or not, as they chose. They sent the books.

I’m as happy as the next lifestyle traveler to see the end of the summer high season, when the museums become less crowded and the hotel prices drop by at least a third. The shoulder seasons are some of the very best for travel, everywhere in the world, and we plan carefully to maximize that time. What makes me sad; however, is how much most families miss out on by being locked into their school schedules.

Have you ever considered taking your kids out of school for a week, or three, or even a month or more?

It seems like an impossibility, like some big prison break, playing “hooky” or something that might damage your child’s chances at entrance to Harvard. May I suggest that it is none of those things? In fact, it can be a boon to your child’s education and to that of every child in his class.

How to get permission

Let’s start with how not to get permission.

Please don’t waltz into your administrator’s office and say, “Yeah, we were thinking of spending a few weeks on the Mayan Riviera (getting drunk), and we thought Joey might have some fun snorkeling and climbing on rocks while we were there.” This will just reinforce the perception that you can’t be trusted with your child’s educational future.

Instead, craft an educational plan for the trip.

Highlight the educational benefits and focus on curricular subjects:

  • History: Museums, historical sites, battlefields etc. that you plan to visit.
  • Geography: Come armed with maps and discuss the mountains you’ll climb, the oceans you’ll sail or swim, and the cultural implications of time in the world for your child.
  • Language Arts: Create a book list for your teacher from which your child will choose to read two or three (this can easily be done with an Amazon topical search).
  • Science: Historical sites are full of science, so are ecological tours and adventures. Marine biology and SCUBA lessons go hand in hand. Visit a baboon sanctuary in Belize or tour a mine in Arizona.

You get the idea; demonstrate that there is an educational benefit to the trip for your child and demonstrate that you intend to maximize it. Work with the teacher and develop a plan for your child to maintain his current work.

If you approach your school with a two-fold educational plan, what your child will learn, and how your child will “keep up,” you will be very likely to be met with enthusiasm and encouragement from the educational establishment.

When I was a child and we traveled, we took our school books with us, and we worked each day on our math and other lessons. It took an hour or two, at the eighth-grade level, and then we had the other 10 waking hours to learn and adventure our way around the world.

Take it to the next level

It’s great that you are traveling with your child. It’s life-changing for them. It’s the best thing you could do. Everyone is cheering for you.

But what about the other 20 kids in the classroom? Of course you can’t take them all, but there are a few things that you can do that will benefit the entire class your child belongs to, perhaps the entire school.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Turn your journey into a virtual field trip
  • Allow your child to communicate with the class from abroad
  • Create videos for his classmates
  • Send postcards
  • Take a Flat Stanley
  • Create daily news reports for the class
  • Start a blog
  • Take in a big map and let the kids in the class follow your route
  • Skype from somewhere far flung during school hours
  • Have the class create a scavenger hunt for your child to complete on the journey & bring the items home

If you want to really be fabulous, use this Country Resource book list, find activities online that relate, and compile a whole file that the teacher can easily turn into a “Unit Study” or a party when you return from the place you’re going for the whole class. Don’t ask her to do it, she doesn’t have time, she’s teaching a full curriculum already!

Quantifying the learning

School administrators are notoriously results-oriented, and they have to be. The state holds standards over their heads. Children in their care have to pass tests and prove competency. They’re the first to admit that learning is taking place outside of their classrooms, but if you can’t quantify it then it doesn’t help them meet their numbers. Perhaps that sounds harsh and unfair to kids and teachers alike, but it’s the way of things.

If you want to take your child out of school for some alternative learning, then you’re going to need to be ready to demonstrate what the child has learned in a way that is meaningful to the school.

How do you do that? Here are some ideas by age group:

Primary (Grades K-3)

  • Collect postcards: Buy one each day of the trip and have your child dictate what she has learned or experienced that day.  Write it on the back and create a scrapbook.
  • Alphabet soup: Create a scrapbook for your child in which you catalog interesting items and experiences from your journey by their letter.
  • Map it: Take along blank maps, label, color them, and mark the places you visit on the map.
  • Create a treasure chest: Take a small bag in which your child collects little treasures to “show and tell” his classmates about when he returns.

Middle (Grades 4-8)

  • Journaling: This is obvious and drop-dead boring to many kids, so take a new spin on it.  Make it a video journal, an audio journal, or a photo journal
  • Create a website: Our boys have discovered that finding ways to get more and more people to visit their website and racking up “views” and “shares” has the same addictive quality of a video game, but they are learning so much more and sharing what they learn in the process. If your classroom has a smartboard, then your child’s website might be part of every morning’s “news.”
  • Pick a project: One child collected “dead people” the year we cycled Europe (as in, historical figures we encountered) and wrote about them. Another child photographed architecture and learned about the differences. Another collected candy wrappers from each new country we passed through. Some children might be interested in cataloging animals, musical instruments, different sorts of art, or sports games. Find out what inspires your child, and let him demonstrate what he’s learned through that lens.
  • Create a notebook: Country notebooks are wonderful ways to summarize a trip and demonstrate what has been learned across the curriculum. A scrapbook of maps, postcards, journal entries, ticket stubs, art experiences, photographs, as well as documenting what’s been learned about the physical geography, culture, religion, economics, environment, history, and daily life of the region your visiting.

High School

High school students can do any of the things suggested for the middle-grade kids, but take them to the next level.

  • Let them plan the trip: Teens are notoriously difficult when pushed into something they’re not excited about, but they are wildly enthusiastic if they think they’re “getting away” with something special. Tell them you’ll let them out of school for a month to “go anywhere and do anything” that they want, but they have to demonstrate that it has benefit to their educations. Why yes, you’re right, you did just get them to do your work for you! Kind of like Tom Sawyer trading fence painting for swinging a dead rat… aren’t you a smart parent!
  • Follow their passions: Good grades in a traditional school are not enough for admittance to the high level universities any more. They are looking for kids who’ve gone above and beyond, done fabulous things or “given back” in some way. What are your kids into? Would they love to climb some big mountains in Peru? Raise money for literacy in Guatemala and then visit those schools? Volunteer in refugee camps in Asia? Help build a windmill for a village in Africa? Your child will be learning a ton and they’ll be filling in that “other experience” line on the college applications with something other than, “community service sweeping up in the local park on Saturday mornings.”

Here’s the Key:

  • Craft a pitch
  • Demonstrate that your child will be learning
  • Quantify the results
  • Bonus points if you can benefit the whole class

I’ll be watching for your family on a Wednesday afternoon in the L’Ouvre. We’ll be the ones sitting on the floor in front of the famous piece with our colored pencils out, drawing. We always have extra paper, so you can sit and draw with us if you like; it will make a great piece to take back to your kid’s teacher!

To read more about education and slow travel, check out the following articles:

Photo credits:  lumen-digitalLuciano Mortula