FTA Spotlight: Re/Defining Family Travel > How to Use Travel as a Learning Tool

FTA Spotlight: Re/Defining Family Travel > How to Use Travel as a Learning Tool

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FTA Spotlight: Re/Defining Family Travel

At the end of September this year, the Family Travel Association is hosting its first annual Summit at the Mountain Sky Guest Ranch in Montana. Over the course of two full days, an assembly of industry executives and family travel experts will expand upon topics essential to a rounded understanding of the challenges we face today with family travel and the efforts we can make as an industry moving forward. In anticipation of that, we will count down the 12 weeks leading up to the Summit by spotlighting 12 core family travel topics to the public. Each week, we will publish an introductory essay written by an authority on the topic, which will open it up for public discussion. Following the Summit, we will initiate a 12-month process of digging much deeper into each of these topics, one per month. By the time we gather for the next Family Travel Association Summit in September 2016, we expect to have a much more powerful grasp of what’s at play in family travel.


TOPIC 2: Make Family Travel an Accepted Form of Education

“The world is inexhaustible, so it leaves that gate to wonder open.”
– Tim Cahill

Little girl sees a seal in the Galapagos

A few years back, I had a once-in-lifetime opportunity to take our kids, then 6 and 5, and their mom to the Galapagos for 10 days. We insisted they learn PowerPoint and take lots of pictures so they could present their adventures to schoolmates. Their teachers were thrilled. Off we went – on a trip that gave them a real-world understanding of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Shortly after we returned, after the kids’ class presentations, we got written notice from Washington, DC, public school administrators that essentially accused us of improper parenting and ignoring our children’s educational best interests. We were summoned to a hearing to determine our punishment. We fought the action and won the battle.

But the war still rages. When it comes to educating our children, the world giveth and the schools often taketh away. Whether you choose to vacation abroad or closer to home, the inescapable reality is that we live in an increasingly global world. And yet too many schools – especially in the public school system – are failing to prepare our kids for tomorrow. My three kids have all endured the inadequacies of a system that is unimaginative, unenlightened, inflexible, self-serving and straitjacketed by the holy grails of tenure and curriculum. For that reason, we yanked two of them from public school before they reached fourth grade.

If the hare represents the blazingly fast pace of change and innovation that touches us all, then the public school system is the tortoise. It unfailingly fails our kids by believing that more learning occurs in a classroom than in the world beyond it.

Our Children and Their Uncertain Tomorrows
In 2006, the National Geographic Society conducted a Roper poll of young Americans. Only 17% could find Iran on the globe, 20% thought Sudan is in Asia (it’s Africa’s largest country) and half couldn’t find New York City on a map. These findings are almost a decade old, but I bet they haven’t materially improved. The pollsters’ conclusion? “Young Americans…are unprepared for an increasingly global future…. [T]oo many lack even the most basic skills for navigating the international economy or understanding the relationships among people and places that provide critical context for world events.”

So if properly investing in our children’s global tomorrows is a moral imperative and we are to have world-ready workers, we must raise world-ready students. After all, preparing for a global future will be critical to our children’s welfare.

“The great wealth creation of the 21st century will come from people who are innately globalized and who understand how to receive the wisdom of the planet,” futurist Andrew Zolli says. “And the only way you do both is to travel.”

As my 28-year-old recently told me: “I didn’t realize that all that travel I did with you got me hooked.” The value of lifelong learning, the ability to teach yourself, is incalculable. You get your most important diploma in life from travel.

Just as we’re realizing the true educational power of travel, though, it seems that the travel industry has gone schizophrenic on us. On one hand, it trundles out ever more family-oriented travel options (though most are of the amuse-and-distract-the-kids variety). On the other, actually reaching a place – domestic or foreign – is like spending the night in a holding cell. Relentless construction, crumbling infrastructure, visa hassles, overburdened security and passport checkpoints, and airlines seemingly vying for “most family unfriendly” status have collectively given rise to what borders on a slogan we don’t want: “Travel is such a hassle, we’d rather stay home.”

Yet any adult who gives a child the gift of travel bestows the gift that keeps on giving.

We don't need no thought control

Championing the Right Causes
We have our work cut out for us. We can’t quickly change travel circumstances, but we can influence travel value and intent. We can focus on the people and stories that will inspire families to travel more meaningfully.

Most family travel ratings evaluate options based on packages, price, child-oriented amenities and services. Picks skew heavily toward resorts and places expressly engineered to amuse and distract the kids – which typically cater to children aged four to 12. These are valuable options. However, the industry must also help families discover great places and cultural experiences that help children explore unfamiliar cultures, and glimpse life as it is lived beyond their own backyards, and experience authentic sense of place. We need more destination discoveries based not on ratings but on real content and a high EQ (educational quotient). We should be seeking out opportunities that are high in learn-by-doing and live-like-the-locals perspectives.

It’s a huge challenge and an even bigger opportunity. But it is critical that the travel industry rethink how it approaches family travel just as it must recognize the complex changes that have changed the traditional definitions of family.


Now is the time. To change the landscape. To make a difference in the lives of families. To be a leader not a follower. Help the next generation experience the world it will inherit.

Let us know your thoughts and ideas. The Family Travel Association is here to build consensus and help turn it into reality.

Please share your feelings in the comments below or, for more interaction, on the Outbounding discussion board prepared specifically for us. And stay tuned in the weeks ahead for more articles about core family travel topics.


Keith BellowsKeith Bellows is Emeritus Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Travel, and Director of Consumer Engagement and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Family Travel Association.


For more essays in our FTA Spotlight: Re/Defining Family Travel series, click on the topics below.

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8 responses to “FTA Spotlight: Re/Defining Family Travel > How to Use Travel as a Learning Tool”

  1. Laura says:

    We removed our four children from school two years ago, and a big influence on this decision was the ability to take up the travel opportunities that come from my job, which we simply couldn’t take up with the strict UK school attendance laws.
    Last autumn we took a motorhome on a month long 4,000 mile road trip around Italy – immersed in the culture and history, this one trip meant that the pieces of Roman history the children (aged 7 to 15) had ‘learned’ before suddenly became a real, fleshed out vivid understanding of an ancient civilisation filled with real people, living in real places.
    But quite apart from the traditional ‘education’ value of the history less, so much more is learned from travelling. Travel for children instils an innate confidence which has a million other knock-on benefits – they are more open, they want more challenges, they yearn for more experiences… And of course a family travelling together cannot help but grow ever closer.

  2. Amy Carney says:

    Yes! We pulled our kids out of 6th and 7th grade to travel the USA by motorhome for half a year. Fortunately, we didn’t run into any issues here in Arizona doing this. We have strong relationships with our school and teachers, so I believe that helped but I also wasn’t willing to let anyone or anything get in our way. Our kids came back with so much knowledge of geography and US History that they would’ve never been able to learn in a classroom.

  3. Hooray for family travel! We homeschooled our children through high school, for many reasons, but the highest being the ability to travel. My college age children now consider themselves global citizens and are both looking at international jobs in their futures. My oldest was initially afraid to travel outside the US, so we brought in foreign exchange students. Now, we have many homes around the world to visit. In my travel agency, I seek to bring the cultural and learning experiences that you speak of to other families and even couples. Travel needs to be about new places and new faces, not entertainment. The world is our classroom.

  4. I’m so glad Keith Bellows’ family fought and won the DC school district’s action against them. A one-size-fits-all policy about kids out of school (or often about any issue) doesn’t make sense. Travel with family is a huge opportunity that provides so much in terms of education about the world. I look forward to hearing about more school absence policies being challenged, and reading more stories about kids traveling!

  5. […] friend reminded me of this piece Bellows wrote for the FTA’s own […]

  6. I think that it is important not just for schools to recognize the value of travel, but also for families to proactively think about and plan vacations that incorporate elements of education. This is a passion of mine and I’d love to jump on board the discussion.

  7. shirley says:

    I live in CA and multiple times my kids have been out on independent study for credit while travelling. School and kids were all good. The schools don’t always want to do it, but I’ve never had a problem when I persisted. Great, great experiences for kids and happy California (at least my area) is accommodating.

  8. I enjoy reading your travel blog. Regards

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