beachfamily.jpgSummer’s nearly over, which raises the question for traveling moms of school-age kids: Can we still take a vacation once the kids are back in school?

Teachers and administrators say that taking kids out of school is disruptive and students can easily get behind in their work, especially at the high school level.

Learning on location  

Before we took our kids out of school for a family vacation, we asked our kids’ teachers if there were any assignments we should take with us, but they told us not to worry about makeup work.

In retrospect, we have no regrets. Every day was a new adventure: in the morning we packed up our picnic lunch and snorkeling equipment and drove to a different beach, one more stunning than the next. At Cinnamon Bay, we bodysurfed in the huge waves. At Trunk Bay, we followed the underwater snorkeling trail, peering at the colorful sea life. And at Leinster Bay, my husband and the kids actually swam with a sea turtle.

One morning we went on a guided hike on the Reef Bay Trail in the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park, where we learned that the park isn’t actually a rainforest because it doesn’t meet the definition of 160 inches of rain per year, saw petroglyphs (rock carvings left by native tribes who lived on the island before European settlers), and explored an old sugar mill now inhabited by bats. Every afternoon, we returned to the hotel in time for the daily iguana feeding—where the kids threw handfuls of lettuce to two dozen or so three-foot-long iguanas.

When we settled into our hotel room at night, we used our laptop to research various facts and trivia, marveling over all we had learned. “It’s one big outdoor classroom here!” my son announced, alleviating any guilt we felt over taking the kids out of school.

The Official Word

Stanley L. Bippus, of Huntington, Ind., spent 20 years as a school superintendent before he retired in 2006. He agrees that it’s easy for students who miss class to fall behind. But he also views family travel as an opportunity for an educational adventure, arguing that when kids reflect back, they usually say that a well structured family vacation rather than something learned in the classroom is their best learning experience.

“Vacations reinforce the fact that the entire world is a learning opportunity, not just classrooms at school,” says Bippus. “If parents make a little extra effort, for example to stop on the highway and read the historical markers, it can be better than anything they’ll ever get in school.”

Bippus suggests that schools ask students who miss school for travel respond to some standard questions about the trip and then give an oral report to fellow students.  For example, they could answer questions such as, “What was the most exciting part of your trip?” “What are three things you learned on this trip that you didn’t know?” “How was the scenery different from scenery here?”

When we returned home, my son’s teacher asked him to do an assignment on his trip and his enthusiasm was palpable. He assembled photographs and did research on the Internet for a report titled, Wild Life on St. John. It was the highlight of his school year.

Would you take your kids out of school for a family vacation? Go to our comment section below and tell us why or why not. Do you have advice about how best to approach the school to get permission for your kids to travel with you? Share that as well.

Michele Turk is the owner of A Bloc of Writers, Inc. in Cos Cob, Conn. She has worked as a professional writer and editor for the past two decades. Her work has appeared in many national consumer magazines, among them BusinessWeek, Parents, U.S. News & World Report, Shape, Glamour, Elle, The Washington Post, and USA Weekend, and she has written articles and blogged for numerous web sites. She is the co-editor of “Ink Stained,” a collection of essays by the members of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Class of 1992, and the author of “Blood, Sweat and Tears: An Oral History of the American Red Cross.” She has also worked as an adjunct professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University.