Children can be learning while out of school, on trip

TAKING THE KIDS

October 30, 1994|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Fred Brown didn't think twice about taking his 16-year-old out of school for a week. Mr. Brown was going to Malaysia to a conference: The opportunity to introduce his son to another part of the world was too good to pass up.

"Travel is an education," says Mr. Brown firmly, acknowledging nonetheless that catching up afterward was difficult for the teen.

"The older the child, the harder it is," Mr. Brown says.

He understands better than most the difficulties when youngsters miss school for family trips. Mr. Brown is principal of Boyertown Elementary School in Boyertown, Penn., and is president of the 26,000-member National Association of Elementary School Principals.

After his students take time off, Mr. Brown expects an oral or written report on where they've been -- even from kindergartners. "Have the children read up on where they're going ahead of time and keep a journal," he suggests. Give the teachers plenty of notice to get their assignments together, and be prepared for the catching up afterward.

"Remember that this isn't summer vacation," he says.

Despite the extra work all around, the practice seems to be growing. For one thing, many more time-crunched parents are opting to combine business with family time. The U.S. Travel Data Center reports that last year, 15 percent of all business trips included children -- about 42 million trips. Presumably many were taken while school was in session.

Author Laura Sutherland, for one, plans to take her kindergartner and second-grader along next month when she researches a book in the Caribbean islands for several weeks. Ms. Sutherland, who lives in Santa Cruz, Calif. will pack sufficient schoolwork so her daughter won't be behind when she returns.

Ms. Sutherland knows firsthand the enriching and lifelong benefits travel can provide a child. She spent eighth grade touring Europe with her family when her father, a college professor, took a sabbatical.

"It was the best year," she said. "And it made me confident that I could handle new situations and new places."

ZTC Some families, particularly those with younger children, prefer to travel off-season, when it's less expensive and less crowded.

Some parents simply can't take off when the kids have school vacations. Take Jim and Carol Thorpe, who run Bishop's Lodge in Santa Fe, N.M. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and summer breaks are their busiest times, Carol Thorpe explains.

"So we take an extra week at spring vacation. It's the only time we can go away and be together as a family." She tells the teachers months ahead and is scrupulous about getting her two childrens' assignments done while they're away. "But there are teachers who think the only way to learn is in the classroom," she says.

"Schools have got to be more flexible," says Carole Kennedy, principal of the New Haven Accelerated School in Columbia, Mo., and a board member of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "With society changing so rapidly, schools have got to adjust to the needs of families."

Families need to take every chance they've got to teach their children. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley is calling on schools to spur parents' involvement: In a speech in September, he said that decades of research show that "greater family involvement in children's learning is a critical link to achieving a high-quality education."

Use a trip to teach math [figuring out what souvenirs cost or converting foreign currency], geography, social studies and history, suggests Ms. Kennedy, who is taking her granddaughter with her to a meeting in Bali.

Even better, let the child's trip be a jumping-off point for a lesson for the entire class. Bring back things the students will enjoy -- and learn from.

Despite the pluses, authorities warn, there are definite drawbacks.

"By middle school, I advise parents to think twice, and by high school, I wouldn't encourage it," Lucinda Lee Katz, director of the University of Chicago K-12 Laboratory School, says.

"For any child who is struggling in school or who gets very anxious about completing things, it would be difficult," UCLA child psychologist Jill Waterman adds. "Look at it from the child's point of view. Would it be stressful or fun?"

Involve the children in the planning, Dr. Waterman suggests, and then help evaluate whether it's worth what they'll miss, socially as well as academically.

Chicagoan Paula Wolff, who has taken her four youngsters out of school every winter for a Caribbean vacation, remembers the traumas of missed dances and play auditions and evenings spent trying to complete assignments. Yet the trips were the only time she and her husband could break away from busy careers, and the family decided that the time together was well worth it.

The trips give everyone, grandparents included, a chance to connect with one another away from the stresses and strains of home, school and of course, the office. But inevitably, as the children got older, she adds, trips have become shorter.

"Our teachers were not happy about it," says Ms. Wolff's daughter, Clementine Whelan, 19. "We'd be anxious about what we were missing. But there was no way we'd miss out on it. It's a special family event, something we looked forward to all year."

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