Travel schooling: Helping children learn through travel

Byrnes, Deborah A

An increasing number of children are traveling, and many are missing school to do so. In 1998, according to the Travel Industry Association of America (TIAA), a record 91.3 million adults took children on family vacations at least 100 miles from home; approximately 36 million adults took children on a business trip with them (TIAA, 2000). Of 23.1 million U.S. residents traveling overseas by air in 1998, 6 percent (1.4 million) had children accompanying them (U.S. Department of Commerce, 2000). According to the TIAA survey, during the 1998 calendar year, approximately 16 million adults in the U.S. took their children out of school to take advantage of travel opportunities.

When children travel during school sessions, teachers may be asked to prepare assignments so the children do not fall behind in school. While rarely obligated to do so, teachers can provide helpful advice and appropriate assignments that will benefit the child. If the child shares his or her experiences in some way, such planning can ultimately benefit the whole class. This article is designed to help teachers help parents create rewarding and educational travel experiences for children. Many of the suggestions presented here also will be helpful to teachers when they plan field trips for their students or when they travel as parents themselves.

For the purposes of this article, travel schooling is defined as the education provided children who are traveling for days, weeks, or even months during the normal academic year. My own interest in travel schooling came about when I had the opportunity to travel around the world with my 9-year-old daughter, while also providing educational guidance for three other elementary and middle school children. From this experience, I learned that travel schooling takes planning, creativity, hard work, and flexibility, but it can be an invaluable and unforgettable experience for parents and children alike. Teachers are in an excellent position to help parents rise to this challenge.

Travel Schooling Benefits

Traveling is always educational in some way. When children travel to different geographic locations, they often meet and interact with new and diverse people. Travel also may expose children to different forms of transportation, language, food, art, architecture, religion, dress, and/or money. Therefore, travel is bound to broaden a child’s view of the world. Furthermore, travel invariably provides many opportunities to learn such life skills as problem solving, compromise, teamwork, patience, and flexibility. Travel can produce dramatic changes in an individual’s outlook, enhance personal development, and increase cross-cultural understanding and global-mindedness (Kottler, 1998; Stitsworth, 1994). And, of course, travel provides children opportunities to learn and practice, in a real-world setting, concepts and skills in all the core curriculum areas.

The quality of the learning experiences that travel provides can be increased greatly through planning. As a teacher and serious traveler, I knew the children I was traveling with would naturally be exposed to many opportunities for learning. I also knew that those experiences could be enriched by providing ageappropriate background information, focusing their attention on certain elements of physical and cultural diversity, and providing them with opportunities to reflect on and record their experiences. Because the children would be returning to their classrooms midyear, I also knew that these children would need to be reasonably in sync with their classmates, regarding core-curriculum skills and concepts, when they returned home.

Fundamentals of Travel Schooling

Travel schooling, like home schooling, is a serious responsibility and one that parents should not take lightly. It can be a real challenge, and one that is easy to neglect in the excitement and activity of traveling. Meeting with parents to help them plan for travel schooling will increase the likelihood that a child will return to his or her classroom with the skills needed to transition smoothly back into the class, as well as with enriching experiences to share. Here are some basic guidelines (see Figure 1) to share with parents so they can take over the important task of educating their children as they travel.

Make Time for Travel Schooling. It is not unusual for children to assume that if they are traveling, it must be vacation. It is also difficult for many children to adjust to thinking of a parent as a teacher. Before leaving, parents should discuss with their children how school will be organized while they are traveling. (While it won’t always go as planned, an attempt should be made to start out with a schedule.) When I have traveled with children, we had lessons every day that we were on the road, regardless of what day of the week it was. Then, when we reached our destination, we would make up for lost weekend days by taking time off.

When sending paper-and-pencil types of lessons (spelling words, writing assignments, mathematics papers) with the student, teachers should encourage parents to schedule a specific time for these tasks. First thing in the morning works well. After a full day of sight-seeing or other activities, it is far too easy to put off doing schoolwork. Each morning, parents and children may want to make a list of the assignments that need to be completed that day and decide when and where they should be done. It may be possible to work on some activities while in transit to a location, if the child does not get motion sickness. Many math, spelling, and reading (silently or aloud) assignments can be done while on the road. My daughter often chose to take care of postcard writing or journal entries while waiting for food to be served in restaurants. Encourage parents to be firm about getting assignments done.

Develop an Itinerary for Children. If parents know where they are going and what they will be doing on a trip, it gives them the opportunity to collect materials and plan experiences in advance that will increase the educational value of the trip for their child. If the itinerary is shared with the teacher, it gives him or her the opportunity to suggest appropriate assignments. A learning contract (see Appendix) is one way to ensure that such planning occurs.

If parents have little or no idea what there is for children to do at their destination, encourage them to visit their local library or bookstore for travel books. Also, children and parents can write to the local chamber of commerce or to a country’s embassy to get good information on important sites to see. An Internet search is another excellent way to learn what is available at their destination. Information about sites that are appropriate for children, such as museums, monuments, zoos, and parks, can be found on the Internet. Encourage parents to look for activities that are educational, interesting, and, when possible, interactive (e.g., science museums, ethnic fairs, aquariums, historical sites, national parks, unusual markets, performances, nature trails, special exhibits, zoos, tours).

Curriculum Planning. Be sure to share with parents and the child the specific topics and skills you will be teaching while the student is away. There may be some obvious ways for the family to cover some of the same material while traveling. For example, if your 3rd– grade class will be studying maps in social studies, and the concept of erosion in science, imagine the possibilities for learning if a child will be on a driving trip to the Grand Canyon. A trip to Paris may not seem to have a connection to a 6th-grade unit on Africa. The family traveling to Paris, however, may find the time to take a side trip to the Thoiry African Reserve (located right outside of Paris). Parents need to be aware of the focus of your study back home in order to capitalize on these connections.

Parents may need help finding ways to transform day-to-day traveling activities into rich educational experiences for their children. Once you know their itinerary, you can work with parents to optimize the travel experience. For example, if you are studying agriculture, encourage parents to point out local irrigation methods as they drive through rural areas. If you are discussing cultural diversity, a visit to an ethnic fair might be an opportunity for parents to talk about how the folk art reflects the region’s natural resources and culture. A wise teacher will encourage parents to use thoughtful questions to focus children’s thinking on the connections between what they are seeing as they travel and what is being studied back home. Remember to urge both parents and the child to ask questions of the local residents and specialists they meet when they travel. When the child returns home, the class will benefit from additional information gained “on-site.”

While connecting to the class curriculum is great when it can occur naturally, don’t ask parents to ignore enriching experiences merely because they cannot find a connection to the class work Encourage parents to pursue topics relevant to their trip with their child, and arrange to have a peer tutor the child on missed content when he or she returns. In addition, teachers can assign projects that relate to the child’s unique travel opportunities (see the Travel Contract in Appendix for suggestions).

Enriching Travel With Literature. Books are critical to effective travel schooling. Ask parents to locate as many high-quality children’s books that relate to their trip as possible. Give recommendations if you know of some good ones. If they are going to southern Arizona, for example, suggest they take along books about the desert. If they are going to visit the Sistine Chapel, have them look for an age-appropriate book on Michaelangelo. Finding such books is less of a challenge now that many booksellers are on-line. A good children’s librarian will be very helpful, as well. While some books can be read before the trip (if they are hardback, I definitely recommend this because of the weight factor), children will really enjoy having the paperback books with them. Reading a book “on location,” so to speak, makes both the place and the book more exciting. My daughter read Water Buffalo Days (Nhuong, 1997), an autobiography of a young boy growing up in Vietnam, as we traveled to Vietnam. She was ecstatic when she saw her first real water buffalo.

Good fiction-specifically, historical fiction-is a wonderful way to pique children’s interest and enhance their background knowledge of a place. The children I traveled with read The Apprentice (Alonso, 1989) as we traveled to Italy, and were much more interested in Renaissance art as a result. A Place in the Sun (Rubalcaba, 1997) and The Egypt Game (Snyder, 1967) helped them understand ancient Egyptian beliefs, making visits to the pyramids at Giza and the artifacts at the National Egyptian Museum more meaningful. Reading Premlata and the Festival of Lights (Godden, 1996) gave them background on Diwali, a Hindu holiday that was being celebrated when we arrived in India. Books that are both educational and entertaining should be among the first items packed in a child’s suitcase. Jeffrey (1996) recommends that older children take along at least five books for a three-week trip.

Reflecting on and Recording the Experience. Keeping a record of one’s travels can be both rewarding and educational. In preparation for a trip, suggest that the student create a special journal and/or scrapbook for the trip. The student may enjoy decorating it with travel-related drawings or stickers to make it a special keepsake. If the trip is short, a journal can serve as both a place to record one’s experiences, and a mini-scrapbook in which to paste special tickets, brochures, postcards, maps, and such. For a longer trip, a more traditional scrapbook may be appropriate. While these scrapbooks are bulkier, they provide a child with an educational and rewarding activity. Children will have to call on their evaluation skills, as they select what to include; their writing skills, as they add captions; and their design skills, as they create eye-catching formats. To make the development of this scrapbook fun, encourage the traveling child to pack writing utensils, scissors, glue, felt pens, stickers, baggies (for gathering small items until they are glued into the book), a ruler, hole punch, and different kinds of paper. Keeping these materials in one special bag will make it easy to work on the scrapbook.

Journals are an excellent opportunity for children to develop their writing skills and to have a record of their experiences. Although letters can serve the same writing and reflecting purpose, they do not provide a record to look back on (unless copies are made before they are sent). If parents are taking a laptop computer and they have the technological skills, consider asking the student to correspond regularly with the class through E-mail. About once a week, our daughter would type a lengthy letter to her class and teacher, sharing what she was doing and learning. The letter was composed on a laptop, downloaded to a disk, taken to an Internet cafe, and E-mailed to her class. (This technique has the added advantage that you have your own easily stored copy.) A growing number of public facilities (such as public libraries) and private facilities (e.g., cybercafes) provide Internet access. (Be aware, however, that not all such facilities have disk drives.)

Keeping a visual record of the trip is another way to keep memories alive. Teachers of young children could encourage the parents to take pictures that show the child involved in various activities. After returning home, the photos will help young children recall where they have been and what they have learned (Seefeldt, 1997). When possible, older children should bring their own camera so that they can be responsible for taking photos that will tell a story of the trip. (A disposable camera works well.) To prevent wasting film, encourage parents to provide some guidelines for producing unique, high-quality pictures. Learning about photography can be part of a child’s travel education plan. The best photos from each roll of film can be added to a scrapbook or made into a slideshow to share with the class upon return. Some children may prefer to record their experiences with a sketchbook. A video camera can be another wonderful way to document and share events from the trip (if properly edited, of course).

You may want to assign other interesting ways to help children create memories of their travels that they can share upon their return. When we traveled to Egypt, I asked the children to find something from the culture for every letter of the alphabet. Then, they made miniature alphabet books using these words. Each page had a letter and a word describing something in the culture. For example, in Cairo, Egypt, “A” was for ankh (the symbol of eternal life), “B” was for Bastet (Ancient Egyptian cat goddess), and “C” was for cartouche (an oval figure with a name in hieroglyphics). The older children added explanations and pictures for each word.

Another way I encouraged the children to think about a different culture they were visiting was to challenge them to prove they had been there. One way they did this was by collecting at least three culturespecific artifacts-without spending more than a dollar. These items could be menus, trinkets, unusual food packaging, newspapers, ticket stubs, subway passes, etc. Children also can create travel brochures for the places they have visited. This assignment can lead to great discussions on tourism, stereotypes, and overall impressions of a place or a country. If children have money of their own to spend, collections can be a great way to record a journey. Some children on our world voyage created collections of inexpensive items from each country (e.g., stamps, coins, key chains, lucky charms, patches, and spoons). These items later served as catalysts for remembering and sharing the voyage with others.

Real and Relevant Learning. Travel is a natural way for children to learn the value of map and math skills. A day rarely goes by when such skills are not desperately needed. Travel requires the handling of money; figuring time, schedules, calendars, mileage, and budgets; and making monetary and metric conversions. In addition, a map is needed for navigating through most cities, large buildings, or tourist attractions. Parents can engage their children in relevant educational experiences simply by letting children do some of the tasks required by any traveling group. “Look at the schedule and see what time the next train is.” “If it takes 30 minutes to get to the airport, when should we leave?” “How many miles is it to the museum?” “Find the best walking route to the market.” “Here’s the museum map. Can you tell us how to get to the restroom?” “Which is the best deal for a rental car-the limited or unlimited mileage contract?” “How much would this cost in American dollars?” “When we get off this bus, use this compass to show us which way we walk to go north.” Such tasks, if appropriately selected for each child’s abilities, will help the child gain in the ability to apply math and map skills in the real world.

Using “On the Road” Time. A lot of travel involves getting from one place to another. Long stints can be tedious, even for well-seasoned travelers. In my experience, the time on the road, in the air, or at sea is an ideal time for children to complete traditional educational tasks. Encourage your students to carry schoolwork they need to complete in an easily accessible daypack. After the initial excitement of starting the trip wears off, children will soon realize that since they have to be sitting still anyway, it is a good time to complete their schoolwork (e.g., reading textbooks, doing math assignments). Parents can use this time to help children practice math facts, learn spelling words, match states and capitals, or learn new vocabulary. Children really are a captive audience at such times.

Reading is a wonderful and educational pastime while traveling. If motion sickness is a problem, listening to a book on tape is a great alternative. Many public libraries carry audio books, and an amazing variety can be purchased in major bookstores or over the Internet. Children can listen to classic children’s literature, learn the states and capitals, practice their multiplication tables (to song), or increase their science knowledge with these tapes. If you have such tapes, consider letting parents borrow them for use on the road. (You may want to make a back-up copy.) Krull (2000) recommends a series called “Lives of the Presidents” (available from Audio Bookshelf) for long car trips. This three-hour series (for children in 4th grade and up) teaches and entertains children and adults alike. Other advantages of books on tapes are that children can still watch the scenery as it goes by, and they can listen at night without the car’s interior lights annoying the driver. Headphones will be necessary when traveling on public transportation, however.

Encourage parents to help develop their children’s skills of observation as they travel. Observing may seem a simple task, but many children need to discipline themselves to look at and listen to their surroundings. Children will miss much of what is to be gained from travel if they do not look around and pay attention. A simple game of “I spy” can turn transportation time into educational time. “Find something that you wouldn’t be able to see back home.” “Who can find a saguaro cactus?” “Who can spot the first deer?” Adults can select items that draw children’s attention to interesting sites and scenes around them. In the process of looking for the game item, children will start seeing more of everything.

There is a myriad of educational games and activities available for children on the road. These work well for class field trips as well. Travel Wise With Children: 101 Educational Travel Tips for Families (Bundren, 1999) and Don’t Try This at Home!: Science Fun for Kids on the Go (Cobb & Darling, 1998) are both helpful sources. My favorite educational game to play while on the road is a variant of the TV game show jeopardy! I usually make up answers (the children provide the questions) based on where we have been or what we have been reading. The game serves as a great review: “This Indian piece of clothing typically consists of at least six yards of silk fabric.” (Answer: “What is a sari?”) “The name for seasonal rains in Southeast Asia.” (Answer: “What is monsoon?”)

Getting the Most Out of Tourist Attractions. A civilization’s museums, national parks, and monuments communicate the values of the culture. Children will learn a lot about what is important to their own culture or the culture they are visiting by viewing such places. Tourist attractions focus our attention on a particular event, place, person, activity, or period in time. The very fact that so many people visit these places tells children that something important is to be seen or experienced. Encourage parents to reflect with their children on the meaning various places have for them, as individuals, and for the culture, in general. And, if parents haven’t learned this already, remind them of the old maxim that “less is more.” A sure way to turn kids off to travel is to overdo the visits to tourist sites.

One more caution about tourist attractions: some tourist attractions feed stereotypes by focusing on exotic and historical practices, rather than on the everyday lived experience of a people (Casella, 1999). Tours and “canned” experiences may end up giving children distorted views of a culture. The less familiar the culture to the child, the more likely this is to occur. Children can be helped to understand this concept if asked to imagine what people who came to their own community would think if they only saw the local tourist attractions. Encourage parents to balance tourist experiences, whenever possible, with visits with real people, away from popular sites, leading their ordinary lives. Playing soccer with kids in Malaysia, learning to weave with children in Vietnam, or playing computer games in the home of a gracious Moroccan family will do far more to promote global understanding than seeing another museum, temple, or cultural show (Jeffrey, 1996).

More About Fostering Cross-Cultural

Sensitivity Through Travel

Through travel, children have the opportunity to learn more about the world. They will also develop positive or negative attitudes about the people and places they experience. The attitudes of the adults they respect will give them cues about how to respond to the people and cultures they encounter. If parents and teachers value diversity and tolerance, then traveling will help instill these values in children. Likewise, a negative attitude on the part of parents or teachers can result in children becoming judgmental and xenophobic. Asa teacher, be sure you model positive attitudes about the people and places children will see. Always consider what messages children will get from the words you use when talking about their travels.

Most children have the tendency to prefer the familiar. Regardless of what parents and teachers say or do, children may speak disparagingly about the cultural differences they observe. The best defense against this tendency is to prepare children in advance for some of the differences they will encounter (Weiss, 1998)– then, children will not be as uncomfortable with language differences, different food, etc. Encourage parents to present the trip as an adventure, where the family will learn new ways of doing things.

When the children I have traveled with, and taught, talk about another culture’s practices as “dumb,” I always ask them to use the word “different” instead. We talk about how many different ways there are of living in the world. With the assistance of sensitive adults, children can realize that one particular way of doing things is not “right” or “wrong.” As children share their travel experiences with you and their peers, encourage discussions that promote cultural understanding rather than cultural criticism.

The Returning Traveler

Returning to the classroom after an absence is often stressful for children. They worry about not fitting in with their friends and about what they have missed (both socially and academically) while they have been away. A sensitive teacher can help reduce this stress by making a conscious effort to address these concerns. A “welcome back” banner or a small celebration, of any kind, can help a child feel accepted back into the classroom community. Structuring some opportunity for sharing the child’s travel experiences also will be helpful. Children might be asked to display a photo album, show a slide presentation, or give a report.

It is also important to recognize that a child may have missed important key lessons that could impair his or her academic performance for a while. Therefore, encourage the child’s peers to be supportive and helpful tutors during this time. Children who have traveled, particularly those who traveled internationally, may feel isolated upon their return. They may have fundamentally different understandings about the world than their peers, and no one to share them with. The children I traveled with saw plenty of human suffering (e.g., starving street children), but also amazing monuments to human ingenuity (e.g., the pyramids at Giza). Most adults are not patient listeners when it comes to someone else’s travel stories, and children are even less so. Providing warmth and support during this transition time will help the returning traveler weather this reality.

The benefits of travel are numerous. If time is taken to plan and engage in appropriate learning experiences, children will receive a wonderful education. And, most important, parents and children will have created memories and family bonds that will last a lifetime.


Alonso, J. R. (1989). The apprentice. New York- Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Bundren, M. R. (1999). Travel wise with children: 101 educational travel tips for families. Edmund, OK: Inprint Publishing.

Casella, R. (1999). Pedagogy as view sequence: Popular culture, education, and travel. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 30, 187-209.

Cobb, V., & Darling, K. (1998). Don’t try this at home!: Science fun for kids on the go. New York: Avon.

Godden, R. (1996). Premlata and the festival of lights. New York: HarperTrophy,

Jeffrey, N. (1996). Adventuring with children: An inspirational guide to world travel and the outdoors. Ashland, MA: Avalon.

Kottler, J. (1998). Transformative travel. The Futurist, 32, 24-28.

Krull, K. (2000). Homefires: The Journal of Homeschooling. Available on-line.

Nhuong, H. Q. (1997). Water buffalo days: Growing up in Vietnam. New York: HarperTrophy.

Rubalcaba, J. (1997). A place in the sun. New York: Puffin.

Seefeldt, C. (1997). Social studies for the preschool-primary child (5th ed.). Columbus, OH: Merrill.

Snyder, J. K. (1967). The Egypt game. New York: Dell.

Stitsworth, M. (1994). Impact of American homestays on the personal development of Japanese youths. International Education, 24, 5-22.

Travel Industry Association of America. (2000). 1998 travel survey results. Available on-line.

U.S. Department of Commerce. (2000). 1998 annual data on LLS. resident travel to overseas destinations. Available on-line. http://

Weiss, C. B. (1998). Adjustment of American student interns overseas: A case in Australia. Dissertation Abstracts International, 59(02A), 434.

Deborah A. Byrnes

Deborah A. Byrnes is Professor,

Elementary Education, Utah

State University, Logan.

Copyright Association for Childhood Education 2001

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

You May Also Like

Journal of Research in Childhood Education Vol. 9, No. 2, Spring/Summer 1995

A review: Journal of Research in Childhood Education Vol. 9, No. 2, Spring/Summer 1995 Bergen, Doris A learning climate is affected …

Strategies for teaching early childhood students to connect reflective thinking to practice

Strategies for teaching early childhood students to connect reflective thinking to practice Grossman, Sue This is a follow-up articl…

Bears Make Rock Soup

Bears Make Rock Soup Hoagland, Gina Erdrich, Lise BEARS MAKE ROCK SOUP. Ill. by Lisa Fifield. ISBN 0-89239-172-3. San Francis…

Handbook of Early Literacy Research

Handbook of Early Literacy Research Page, Anita HANDBOOK OF EARLY LITERACY RESEARCH. S. B. Neuman & D. K. Dickinson, Eds. New York: …