We Asked Experts: When Is It Okay for Children to Miss School for Vacation?

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It’s a not-so-hidden secret that traveling during shoulder season—when prices are cheaper, crowds are thinner, and weather is cooler—can lead to a much more enjoyable trip. But for many families with school-aged children, travel is often limited to major holidays, spring break, and summer vacation; times when prices and crowds can reach a fever pitch.

Faced with this reality, parents might find themselves asking the same question: when is missing school for a vacation okay? And as with many parenting quandaries, there's not one right answer. “Factors such as the child’s age, point in the school year, learning needs, social functioning, and constitution are important to consider,” Laura Philips, senior neuropsychologist and senior director of the learning and development center at the Child Mind Institute, tells Condé Nast Traveler.

Some parents may be under the impression that missing school won't impact younger children, she adds. However, at those ages, children are learning foundational skills like reading and writing. “A missed learning opportunity, as well as missed reinforcement of newly learned skills, can set them back relative to their classmates and class expectations at a time when academic learning compounds," says Philips.

So, when is it okay to take your kids out of school to travel? How do you explain absences to teachers? And what’s the best way to make sure children don’t fall behind in class? With so many questions to sort through, we talked to experts spanning education, travel, and child development about how parents can best decide if traveling during the school year is right for their family.

Traveling as a family allows parents and children to share memorable experiences, no matter the time of year.

young boy and girl running through a field to the water

Traveling as a family allows parents and children to share memorable experiences, no matter the time of year.

Why travel during the school year?

No matter what time of year family travel takes places, experts agree that vacationing as a family is important. “The quality time and shared experiences that family vacations provide are really important in terms of strengthening familial relationships, attachment, and security,” Phillips says.

Families who step outside of their rushed daily routine find it can bring meaningful experiences that otherwise wouldn’t happen. “There’s enormous value in removing daily activities, chores, and other obligations that allow us to enjoy conversations and experiences that we don’t always slow down to do at home,” says Tonya Denmark, who runs the family travel blog Detailed Oriented Traveler. “Especially as children become older, they often have more obligations that take them out of the house. Extracurriculars, friends, and jobs, plus homework and college prep, leave little time to just enjoy family company. Travel removes much of that.”

The lower prices available during the off-season can also put the benefits of a vacation in reach for families who might not normally be able to afford a trip. Plus, with fewer crowds, the opportunity for a truly immersive trip is much higher: “When you take kids out of school to travel, whether it’s a stand-alone trip or you’re simply extending an existing school holiday, you’re likely traveling when others aren’t,” says Eric Stoen, who runs family travel blog Travel Babbo. “That means you’re seeing Egypt with very few other tourists, so you can get the best guide, and it’s that much easier to dive into the history.”

With remote work on the rise it's easier than ever to relocate abroad with school-age kids—a feat these families have accomplished.

What’s more: Phillips says that through travel, kids have the chance to learn other valuable life skills like adaptability, problem-solving, planning and organization, and independence. Some parents who are avid travelers try to make the most of these opportunities on family vacations, like Colleen Lanin, founder and editor of Travel Mamas, who tries to give her children different responsibilities when traveling. “Children can learn geography and help with navigation during a road trip; kids can help with math by calculating the time it will take to reach a destination or how much a meal or activity will cost,” Lanin says.

Other parents have found their family trips have led their children to develop creative skills, interests, and hobbies. “Some of our kids’ talents have come from travel,” Stoen says. “We’ve done cooking classes and art and music workshops around the world, and each of our kids is talented in all three areas. I have no idea if my son would still be an amazing artist if he hadn’t been inspired by our guide in London ten years ago.”

What are some of the potential downsides?

Missing school for vacation can potentially send young students mixed messages about attendance, Phillips says, noting that these types of trips might unintentionally signal that school isn’t as important as other commitments. “Parents also want to be mindful of setting a precedent that school attendance is ‘optional’ or negotiable, which could lead to issues with commitment or responsibility, or lead students to believe they have an ‘out’ anytime they are feeling uncomfortable or bored,” she says.

There’s also the not-so-fun issue of falling behind on schoolwork to consider. “We know a lot of students fell behind during the pandemic because of remote learning,” says David Albert, chief communications and marketing officer for the New York School State Boards Association. “If you have a student who is not at grade level, I would definitely think carefully before pulling that student out of class.”

Making up lost time in the classroom while also keeping up with new material isn’t easy for many children. “Anytime a student is absent it means lost instructional time, and it also can mean extra work for the teacher,” says Albert. “As you get into the high school grades, things become more challenging in terms of missing instructional time and the pace is going to be quicker in terms of the things that you’re learning."

That can mean a lot of post-vacation stress for kids, especially in the current academic environment in which “students are experiencing unprecedented levels of school performance-related anxiety and pressure to do well,” Phillips says. But, that doesn't mean there aren't measures parents can take to minimize downsides and accentuate the benefits of an off-season family vacation.

How to strike the right balance for your family

One step that parents can take is to have an honest conversation with their child’s teacher before leaving on a trip that could disrupt the student’s learning. “Certainly parents can reach out to the teacher and see if there are going to be assignments, and if the student could get those assignments in advance,” Albert suggests.

Stoen, of Travel Babbo, says his family has had luck with this work-ahead method. “When I pulled my son out of Kindergarten for a week to visit Panama, Easter Island, and Iguazu Falls, his teacher gave him a math workbook for the plane all about the Panama Canal and Easter Island. It was amazing,” he says. “When I took my daughter to Antarctica, she sent back reports to her first-grade class. Their teachers are real people who also love to travel.”

But once again, a child’s age and grade level will influence how realistic it is for them to keep up while missing class. “We primarily pulled our kids out of school when they were younger,” Stoen says. “By the time they were in middle school, they didn’t want to miss school at all. That’s the downside: when the kids feel like travel interferes with their school projects or social lives. So we listened to them and really tried to respect that. We still took them out, but only for a day here and there, so that we could get a head start on travels” before school breaks, he says.

Indeed, talking with your kids and trusting your parental instincts are sure ways to make the best travel decisions for your family. “Parents know their children,” says Albert. “And if they know they have a very motivated child who’s going to do the work regardless of whether they’re on vacation or not, that can be a factor as well.”

For some parents and children, the benefits of shoulder-season travel outweigh the potential downsides. “I have taken my kids out of school for many family trips over the years,” Lanin, of Travel Mamas, says. “I am sure they will long remember touring masterpieces in the Louvre in Paris, hiking and kayaking with a member of the Navajo Nation in Arizona’s Antelope Canyon, and riding camels through the Sahara Desert in Morocco. Travel is meaningful and fun, and that’s what life should be.”

Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler