Pulling kids out of school for a Walt Disney World vacation is a controversial topic. As a former teacher and current mom to three kids (ages 13, 11, and 10), I recognize both sides of the issue.
When my children were in elementary school, I worked with their teachers to ensure they did not miss testing days or other important events, but otherwise did not hesitate to pull them out of school for up to seven days for a family trip. I diligently helped my kids finish any missed work, and regardless what was assigned from school, I incorporated real world learning activities into each trip. Epcot and Animal Kingdom offer the most obvious educational opportunities, but as most parents know, learning can occur anywhere, if simply by observing behavior and discussing safety topics.
My favorite area to take the kids and focus on learning is not surprising: Epcot's World Showcase. The films, attractions, restaurants, and stores offer glimpses into the cultures of other countries. The real treasures, however, are the young adult cast members at each pavilion who are in the United States for a one-year work program at Walt Disney World. I have found these representatives to be consistently enthusiastic and eager to talk to kids about their home countries and experiences in America.
One terrific learning project for a trip to Walt Disney World is for your elementary-age child to create a small, 4" by 6" or 5" by 7" journal to bring on the trip. The book can be homemade, or purchased at a local craft or office supply store. Divide the journal into as many sections as you like in keeping with the age of the child and how much time you want to spend before, during, and after your vacation. My kids have usually created books with three sections: country information, budgeting, and autographs and pictures.
For the country information section, prepare a two-page spread for each country in the World Showcase before your trip. On the left side, have your child draw, trace, or print a small map of the country, perhaps noting the capital and major landmarks. Leave the right side blank, or write questions or instructions for your child to address with a willing cast member.
Here are some examples:
- What is your name?
- Please mark and write the name of your hometown on the map and tell me a few things about growing up there.
- Please write a short phrase or two in your native language, along with the translation. How do you say that?
- What do you miss the most about your home country?
- What have been the best parts of your experience in America?
- What are your plans after you finish your time in America?
- What is school like in your country?
Be considerate when asking cast members for their time. Those working at a cash register may be distracted, or may not have much time to talk. The Kidcot Fun Zone area of each country may have a cast member or two with time to chat, but as often as not there are other children who need assistance or attention. We have had the best luck finding someone to interview at the exits to attractions, such as the movies at the France and China pavilions.
My favorite experience was with my daughter, Amy (then 8 years old), and Anna, a cast member at the China pavilion ("Anna" was her American name). We found her one evening at the exit to Reflections of China, the movie in the China pavilion. She spent a magical 20 minutes with Amy talking about China, her experiences in the U.S., and Hong Kong Disneyland, where she would return when her year at Walt Disney World concluded.
As the conversation came to an end, Anna asked us to wait a moment, and she disappeared back into the pavilion. She returned with two or three small gifts, including a postcard from Hong Kong Disneyland and a map of China. Anna's kindness was a highlight of the trip, and I hope she also took fond memories of America, and Americans, back to China.
The next section of the journal can be devoted to math, specifically tracking vacation expenses. I help my child keep track of five categories of expenses: transportation, lodging, park tickets, food, and miscellaneous. This section can be as simple or detailed as dictated by the age of your child and the time you wish to devote to tracking expenses. For example, if you are flying to Orlando, taking a taxi to your offsite hotel, then renting a car for three days of your trip, you could keep track of all of those things under the transportation heading, or, for younger kids, just have them write down the cost of the airline tickets. Rounding, estimating, and handling money are also easy math skills to practice on vacation.
After returning home, add expenses under each category and help your child create a circle graph or some other way to display the data. Discuss the results to help kids develop an understanding of how much things cost and perhaps ways to save money on future trips. If another trip to Walt Disney World is in your future, start a savings jar at home and establish short- and long-term savings goals based on expenses from this trip.
The last section of the homemade book is flexible for pictures, autographs, and journaling. My kids have never been avid autograph seekers, but we enjoy spontaneous opportunities to meet characters and usually reserve one character meal each trip. Ask the character to sign one page of a two-page spread. After the trip, print or order pictures to fill the book with character pictures opposite signatures, along with other favorite memories from the trip. This last section can be used in many other ways, including a photo scavenger hunt, journal entries, or creating pockets for souvenir maps, times guides, and cards.
For an entertainment mecca, Walt Disney World does a great job providing learning opportunities without school room drudgery, so when I've pulled my kids from school for a trip, I've never felt compelled to spend hours of vacation time preparing lessons or drilling facts. I've found that teachers appreciate when parents recognize the challenges of compiling and grading missed assignments, and at the elementary level, welcome a homemade journal to count for some or all of work missed. And the best part? You have helped your child create an inexpensive keepsake full of memories from your family's special trip, hopefully learning a few things along the way.