A Matter of Perspective: Skipping School or Travel as Education?

A Matter of Perspective: Skipping School or Travel as Education?

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Heather Greenwood DavisThe Family Travel Association has assembled a remarkable family-travel brain trust to guide our development – advisors on our board and other councillors, members and partners with many years of travel thought-leadership. Over the coming weeks and months, we will share a bounty of wisdom from their decades of advocacy for and hands-on practice in family travel.

Following our inaugural pieces by Keith Bellows, Emeritus Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Travel, by Kyle McCarthy, Editor of Family Travel Forum, and by Matt Villano, a senior editor of the Expedia Viewfinder travel blog, this week the spotlight turns to Heather Greenwood Davis, a board member of the FTA and multiple award-winning journalist and feature writer, including for her own blog, Globetrotting Mama. She reacts to the recently rekindled debate about whether skipping school should be allowed in order to take advantage of travel as a form of education.


Recently, a written exchange between a school principal and a Philadelphia dad went viral. After learning that he had qualified to run in the Boston Marathon, the father of twins decided to take his entire family with him on the trip to the Massachusetts capital. He alerted the school and set out with his wife and kids on a visit that specifically included experiences and opportunities intended to enhance the children’s learning and education.

When the family return to Philadelphia, however, the school principal sent them a form letter chastising the father for his decision. Caught off guard, the father pushed back, choosing to share the principal’s letter on social media as well.

The unexpected international reaction to the letter exchange was overwhelming. It hasn’t always been rational, though; the principal’s son noted that his mother has come under death threats and harassment as a result of her letter. That’s unacceptable and I in no way support that behavior.

At the same time, in a more general way, the issue has reignited a common family travel debate about when, if ever, it is OK to take your kids out of school to travel. Does a trip to Walt Disney World hold less value than a trip to Berlin? Should a family be penalized (in some cases financially) for a child missing school to travel? Where do you draw the line?

I’m particularly sensitive to the debate. In June 2011 I too pulled my kids out of school, except we left for a year. Instead of spending Grade 2 and Grade 4 in the classroom, my kids spent 12 months exploring 29 countries on six continents. In Egypt they learned about Cleopatra while seeing her hieroglyphic signature on age-old walls. They discovered King Tut while wandering his tomb. Their teachers weren’t there, but the professor of Egyptology who led our tour helped to hammer home the educational points.

Heather Greenwood Davis and family in Machu PicchuThey learned about the Vietnam War while crawling through the Cu Chi tunnels outside of Ho Chi Minh. They absorbed the history of Chinese dynasties while standing in the spots where it happened. They came face to face with world history not through textbooks, but through seeing the wall paintings and carvings, and by talking to the people it had directly affected. And when they returned to their classes a year later, they added value to the learning that was happening there to the benefit of fellow students who might never get the chance to see the world for themselves.

My children’s exposure to other cultures throughout the trip also led to important family discussions about tough topics: animals in the wild versus captivity, the decision by some cultures to cover their faces, what poverty really looks like and so much more.

Fortunately for us, their school was nothing but supportive of our trip. I live in Canada and my provincial government only required that we “accept responsibility for their education” that year. We did, but the school, my husband and I also had important discussions about how the responsibility for the kids’ educational re-entry would lie squarely with us as well.

We were responsible for making sure any gaps in learning were handled through extra study or tutors. We worked with teachers who weren’t interested in penalizing us or the kids for being away, but intent on and interested in sharing the unique learning they had gleaned, while also keeping us informed about areas we might want to work on at home.

As a parent, I found that level of mutual respect was important. As a professional writer dedicated to showcasing the value of family travel – both to kids’ educations and to family relationships – I think it matters too.

Education is important in all its forms. Teachers work hard and so do parents. Our goals are similar. Let’s continue to make sure that our eyes are firmly focused on the education prize we want to give our kids and not just on where they get it.

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