Reframing Vacations: Can Learning Only Happen At School?

The other day, I was out for brunch with a fellow teacher, and we spoke about holiday times. She discussed her pet peeve with children going on long vacations during the school year and missing time at school. I understood. This used to be a big concern of mine, until my teaching partner, Paula, helped me reframe vacations. 

I don’t even think that Paula realized that she helped me see things differently, but she did. I still remember when this happened last year. A mom mentioned to me that her daughter would be away for 10 school days because of an upcoming family trip. She wondered what her child would be missing. When I started to tell Paula about this, she said to me, “But just think about what [Name] will be getting! She’ll be going to museums, visiting tourist areas, meeting new people, and being exposed to a different culture.” This is why our students have such rich prior knowledge and such a huge vocabulary: look at their incredible life experiences! 

I always used to see the negative points of missing school. 

  • How will children learn if they’re not with us?
  • Imagine how much content they’re going to miss.
  • How will they be prepared for the upcoming test or assignment? (This was definitely a big concern of mine when I taught older students.)

Now though, I’m starting to consider the positive side of these vacations. I just finished reading a book called, Marvelous Minilessons For Teaching Beginning Writing, K-3. At the beginning of the book, the author links oral language and writing skills, and discusses the importance of a strong vocabulary. As much as educators can introduce children to new terms and reinforce new vocabulary, many children learn and retain these terms through their diverse life experiences. These experiences often happen outside of the classroom. 

I wonder if instead of questioning the value in these trips, we have to work with parents to get the most learning out of these trips. Some parents will do this naturally. The mom that took her daughter away last year definitely did. But I’ve taught at schools before where children would go away for weeks at a time, but didn’t always have these language-rich trip experiences. Is there a way to change this? Maybe.

  • What if we gave parents question prompts to elicit discussions?
  • What if we spoke to parents about the importance of developing new vocabulary, and then modelling how to do so? Learning vocabulary in any language is important for kids.
  • What if we provided parents with a list of possible experiences for their trips (e.g., going on a walk in the community, visiting buildings in the community, looking at houses in the neighbourhood, etc.)?

And if children really need to be present for part of a lesson, maybe there’s a way to use technology to make this happen. I remember when I taught Grade 6, and a student was away for the start of a new unit in math. Not only did she use FaceTime to join the lesson, but she stayed on afterwards to work with a group on the assignment. A vacation didn’t stop her! I’m thinking that now with our daily class blog posts and home extension activities, even students that aren’t at school can learn along with us. I think of what this one mom sent us this year when her daughter was at home sick. We provided her with some feedback, and she emailed us with an updated post.

Being away doesn’t have to stop learning from happening!

Yes, ideally students have good attendance at school and only going on vacations during the holiday times. But I also realize that just because schools are closed doesn’t mean that parents are off work, and for any number of reasons, children may need to be away during school time. So I think that we have a choice here: we can focus on what children lose due to their absence, or we can look at what they might gain. My thinking is that the stronger the home/school connection, the better the chance that educators, parents, and children can work together to get the most from this away time. How do you strengthen this connection and facilitate (or support) learning during vacation times? I wish that I spoke up when my acquaintance voiced her concern, but I am speaking up now. The more that I think about this topic, the more that I wonder, can learning only happen at school? Maybe it’s time to think about the valuable learning that occurs beyond the four walls of our school buildings.


6 thoughts on “Reframing Vacations: Can Learning Only Happen At School?

  1. Aviva: Great questions! Dr. Janet Goodall argues that there is LEARNING (e.g. cognitive change, informal), EDUCATION (learning with a purpose – riding a bike) and SCHOOLING (specific learning within a prescribed setting). Therefore, not all ‘learning’ happens at school. It is separate AND inter-connected.
    As well, children spend only about 12% of their life in school. If we believe that is the only place to gain knowledge, skills, etc. we are missing huge opportunities.
    Janet was a guest on my podcast recently. I think her insights are important to consider.

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Nancy! I really like the use of the terms learning, education, and schooling. It makes me wonder if the updated Kindergarten Program Document is helping reconsider what “schooling” might look like (does all learning at school need to be specific?) and making it more about “learning” and “education.” I’m not sure if this was always the case before. I really need to listen to the podcast for more.


  2. Love this post! So many experiences to gain outside of school. What if student FaceTimed or created a video of some of the places they went and things they learned on the trip to share with the class? You’ve given me lots to ponder, as usual!

  3. Hi Aviva,
    At our school, children often go away for holidays and parents ask for work. I always say they can keep of journal of something they did during their holidays and not to worry about what is being missed as they will still be experiencing learning by visiting another culture and country. Our school also has a letter that we can give to parents who go on long holidays to suggest things they can do (e.g. learn about the currency in the country they are visiting). I think this will be more valuable and also they come away with rich memories.

    • Thanks Evette for sharing what your school does! I love that your school also has a letter with ideas for families. What a great way to help parents and children see the value of the learning that they’re also doing on these vacations. This time away is also important.


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