Kids learn life lessons through trips

Education: More parents are taking the road less traveled, taking their children out of school for trips that can teach.

January 30, 2000|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

While their classmates were taking spelling quizzes and solving math problems, Jennifer and Michael Baran were thousands of miles away -- snorkeling, learning to dance the hula and sampling exotic food at a luau. "They had a blast, and I think they learned more that week than they would have in school," said Linda Baran, who lives in suburban Boston.

She didn't think twice about taking her first- and third-graders out of school, bearing their homework, so they could accompany her to Hawaii for her company's sales conference. "Everyone brought their kids," said Baran. "It was great family time."

Across the country in California, Saskia Amaro was just as enthusiastic about her decision to pull her kids out of school two weeks before the end of the term for a trip to Britain.

"It was a lot cheaper to travel then and a lot less crowded," explained Amaro. Her son and daughter, she's convinced, got a lot more out of touring castles and staying on a farm than the end-of-the-year school parties they missed. "We had a much more leisurely trip," she explained.

Whether for a couple of days or weeks, parents are pulling their kids out of school to travel in record numbers, it seems. One out of five parents who took a trip in the last year -- as many as 16 million people -- let their kids ditch school to go, reports a new survey from the Travel Industry Association. "My parents never would have considered this. They looked at travel a lot differently than parents do today," said the TIA's Tom Berrigan.

For one thing, our parents didn't travel nearly as much with us as we do with our kids. And many are piggybacking vacation onto business trips, as did Linda Baran. Others, like the Amaros, find they can save a lot of money if they aren't bound by the school calendar.

"They'll go skiing in January instead of Christmas or somewhere warm after spring break," observed Kyle McCarthy, publisher of the newsletter Family Travel Forum. "Life is so stressful, everyone feels more need for a vacation, and they're willing to bend the rules if that's the only way they can afford to go."

For other families, it's the schedule rather than the budget that's the biggest issue. The Grushkins, for example, tried to plan according to the school calendar but then were stuck when the vacation dates were switched -- long after the grandparents had booked a trip for the entire extended family.

"We couldn't cancel, though it wouldn't have been my choice to take them out of school," said Pam Grushkin, the mother of three. "It's a lot of extra work to make sure they keep up with their schoolwork on vacation," she observed. "It was always on my mind."

The good news is that educators will work with parents to make the time away from the classroom worthwhile one for the children. "Education isn't only what happens in the classroom 180 days a year," said James Borland, chairman of the teaching and curriculum department at Columbia University Teachers College. "Some parents simply can't get away any other time, and if that's the case, the school should be sympathetic," added Carole Kennedy, principal of Lange Middle School in Columbia, Mo., and past president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

That's assuming parents do their part. Be judicious about the time you choose for your trip. "The worst is the beginning of the year when the teachers are trying to get the routines set," Kennedy offered. Try to avoid finals week or the times younger children are being introduced to a new concept, such as long division or reading. "Younger children are learning so much every day," said Marcia Kenyon, a first-grade teacher who was honored as North Dakota teacher of the year. "Parents have to understand that teachers can't put everything on hold just because their child is gone. They are going to miss something."

Talk to the kids as well as their teachers about what they'll be missing. You don't want the youngsters to be anxious about falling behind, educators say, nor do you want their teachers frustrated at being asked to put in extra hours helping the kids catch up when they return.

"And when it's several kids, it can have a significant impact on the rhythm of the class," said Kenyon. It helps to give the teachers substantial advance notice so they can prepare a packet of take-along work. "And once the teacher goes to that trouble, then you've got to make sure the work gets done!" says Linda Baran. They might even be able to finish it before you go.

"It's no fun to be doing homework in a hotel room at 10 at night when everyone's tired," says Saskia Amaro.

Once the routine assignments are out of the way, brainstorm with your child's teacher about how to maximize the learning potential, wherever you're going. Can your children help map the route, learning geography in the process? Can they keep a travel journal to be shared with the class? (Don't forget pictures!) How about a detour to visit a place they've read about? Principal Kennedy recalled a sixth-grader who went to Australia and came home to report to his class about crossing time zones and the different animals and plants he'd seen. "Let the teacher give you some guidance on what to look for," she suggested.

"Any time a young person can make a connection in the real world to what they're learning in school, it helps them learn," explained Rob Mahaffey, a spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

The trick, of course, is to keep the fun quotient high enough so the kids don't suspect they're actually learning anything outside of school. Good luck.

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