Road Scholars: Using Student Travel as a Resource

Deborah A. Byrnes

Do you have students who are absent from school because they are traveling with family members? More and more children are missing school to travel ó that is, they take trips with adults while school is in session. A 1998 study by the Travel Industry Association of America noted that approximately 16 million adults in the U.S. took their child or children out of school (for one or more days) that year to travel.1

While planning for a studentís absence can be inconvenient and time consuming for a teacher, a more optimistic perspective is to see student travel as a unique opportunity for the child and his or her classmates to develop and apply social studies skills and concepts. This article shares a variety of activities for doing this. Tips to assist parents who will be teaching the ìRoad Scholarî will also be shared.


Beyond Journals, Books, and Worksheets

Travel is a natural way to learn social studies ó children encounter new people, new places, and new ways of doing things on almost any trip. There is, however, much that can be done to enhance a tripís educational value. When parents tell a teacher about an upcoming trip they typically ask their childís teacher what schoolwork should be completed while they are gone. (This, of course, is much preferred to a parent asking, ìWill my child miss anything when we are gone?î) Based on the input of teachers and parents in ìRoad Scholarî workshops that I have conducted, the typical types of assignments elementary teachers give involve reading a book, keeping a journal, and doing some math worksheets. While these are valid assignments and easy to prepare, they donít take full advantage of the social studies learning opportunities inherent in travel.

One way to get children to focus more on social studies when they travel is to hand them a pre-made checklist (see page 16) that includes a variety of integrated social studies activities. The teacher, parent, and child can use the checklist to quickly and easily decide together which activities will (a) be most appropriate for the trip and (b) provide the best match with the school activities the students will be missing. This checklist includes a variety of travel activities, most of which are designed to foster essential skills and knowledge in social studies. Activities are as diverse as identifying special characteristics of a place for use in a travel brochure, reading age-appropriate books about the destination, and estimating travel distances. Blank lines are included for writing in assignments specific to a childís trip or to a teacherís curriculum. The number of activities assigned can be gauged to the length of the trip, destination, and mode of travel. The suggested activities draw upon the content standards for social studies.2


Vicarious Voyagers

It may be appropriate to engage the whole class in a ìvicarious travel experience,î when it becomes known that one student will be traveling. Before the trip, classmates can help formulate research questions for the traveler to answer in his or her travels (for example, ìHow do the Rocky Mountains compare with the Appalachians?î ìWhy do people in the South eat grits and we donít?î ìWhy was Mt. McKinley renamed Mt. Denali?î). Finding out what is interesting to classmates can help focus the studentís observations on the trip and motivate him or her to learn about the destination. As a class, peers can also locate the destination on a map, discuss distances, political boundaries, places of interest, and hypothesize how the place might resemble, or differ from, their own hometown. Children who have traveled to the same location can share their own perspectives before the trip and compare experiences upon the travelerís return.

If a student traveler will have e-mail access anytime on his or her trip, questions can be asked and answered as the trip unfolds. Using e-mail, classmates can also update the traveler on what is going on at home. Cyber cafes are increasingly easy to find worldwide; and public libraries, hotels, and private residences often have Internet access. Of course, traditional letter writing is a good option, too. The only disadvantage is delivery time. On a short trip, a student might be back before even one letter is received.

One fourth grade student sent e-mails and digital photos from Hong Kong to her class in northern Utah. Her teacher had asked her to help her classmates learn about the places she was visiting on her trip. The fact that her class was counting on her to share her experiences with them helped her to be a good observer and correspondent. In this letter (Figure 1), Elizabeth clearly demonstrates her growing understanding of social studies. She observes the ubiquity of rice in China. She notes that Chinese is usually spoken, but that spoken English is surprisingly common in Hong Kong. A typhoon warning reveals how weather can affect peopleís lives. She states a hypothesis that high population density increases pollution, and provides evidence that people create technology to meet their needs (double-decker buses are needed because the streets are so crowded). She suggests to her peers that high-rise apartments are necessary because land is scarce and expensive. Rooftop gardens exemplify how people and communities adapt to unique characteristics of their environments.

Elizabethís teacher read her letters aloud and discussed them with the class. Places mentioned in the letters were located on a map. Students placed her letters and pictures in a binder for all to read. Students were encouraged to e-mail messages back to Elizabeth from computers in the classroom. This way the whole class benefited from one childís travel.

Children who donít want to write about their own experiences may feel more comfortable writing about the ìinsights and experiencesî of a ìtraveling mascot,î such as a small stuffed animal companion. If the stuffed animal belongs to the classroom, then it may travel with one child and then another and another. The travel mate can even be sent on special trips with studentsí friends or relatives of the class.3 The animal can have its own travel journal and photo album, which grows every year. A map could be highlighted to show all the places it has been.


Helping Parents Help Their Children

Helping a child be a ìRoad Scholarî is both rewarding and challenging for parents. However, it may be more challenging than rewarding if a parent is not prepared for the inevitable struggles that may occur with on-the-road schooling. Figure 2 provides helpful hints for parents. Most parents need support and assistance from classroom teachers in order to successfully take over educating their children on the road.4 Donít take for granted that parents know how to involve children in appropriate learning experiences that arise as a result of travel. Provide lots of ideas, examples, and encouragement.

The Returning Traveler

When children have missed school for more than a week, they may feel awkward when they return to the classroom. The class has had experiences that the traveler has not; social groups have changed in the travelerís absence; and returning students may worry about what they have missed. Traveling may have changed the child, too, making him or her feel different from fellow classmates. Make sure the whole class welcomes the child back, and ask a helpful peer to help this student catch up with class activities and assignments. This buddy can alert the teacher if the traveler is missing any resources (that all the other children have), or if the traveler has difficulty following the lesson at any point.

Most important, set up a time for the ìroad scholarî to share what he or she has learned on the trip. If a presentation of some kind is to be given, set up reasonable time limits in advance so that the child plans an interesting and cogent presentation. If possible, provide time for questions at the end of the presentation. Ideally, photo albums, exhibits, books, scrapbooks, and other work should be left on display for several days to allow more children to view and comment on them. The interest others show in the trip will be a well-deserved reward for the ìroad scholar.î


The key to enhancing social studies learning through travel is focusing the learner on important social studies elements of the travel experience. This can be done through creative assignments and whole class involvement. A pre-made “Road Scholar” activity checklist can help turn even the most simple trip away from home into a social studies field trip. Involving classmates in pre-trip discussions, correspondence, and post-trip presentations enriches their world, too. Helping parents take responsibility for educating their child on the road increases the likelihood that a child will return from the trip with more than just souvenirs.


1. Travel Industry Association of America, “1998 Travel Survey Results.” (Washington, DC: TIAA, 2000). Available on line at

2. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Content Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: NCSS, 1994).

3. J. A. Braun, ìUsing Technology to Learn from Travelmatesí Adventures,î Social Studies and the Young Learner 7, no. 3 (1995): 8-11.

4. D. A. Byrnes, ìTravel Schooling: Helping Children Learn through Travel,î Childhood Education 77, no. 6 (2001): 345-350.


Deborah A. Byrnes is a professor in the Department of Elementary Education at Utah State University in Logan, Utah.

Figure 1. Student letter from Hong Kong.

Dear Class,
I just left Hong Kong. Hong Kong is part of China. One of the things I almost always ate was rice. They speak Chinese and a lot of English, too. There was going to be a typhoon so when we went to the beach the waves were really big and it was great for body surfing. We had to hurry back to the ship in case of the typhoon. If there was a typhoon they were going to move the ship to a protected area. A typhoon is a tropical hurricane. We found out that the typhoon was not coming to Hong Kong. It went to Taiwan.

Hong Kong is a noisy, smelly, crowded place and there are lots of stores where you can bargain. The reason it is smelly is because there is lots of pollution because there are so many people and cars and places that pollute the air. Double-decker buses are really fun. The reason they have double-decker buses is because there’s not much room for cars because it is so crowded. Lots of people can ride on a double-decker bus.... Hong Kong is the most crowded place in the world. It is very expensive to buy land. Almost all people in Hong Kong live in apartments and don’t have yards. If they do have something like a garden it is usually on the roof. Please write back soon by e-mail or you can send me a letter.
— Elizabeth (Grade 4)

Figure 2. Teaching a Road Scholar

1. Children tend to think any kind of travel is like summer vacation, during which there is no assigned school work. Thus, parents and teachers must both be consistent in differentiating summer vacation from travel where a child is expected to pursue educational goals. Plan times for educational activities (mornings are best for most kids) and try to stick with them.

2. Children who travel with you are the same children you live with at home. When traveling they rarely change by becoming more interested in long car rides, unusual foods, or homework. Thus, be realistic in your planning, and make time for relaxing at playgrounds. Provide some familiar foods as you travel.

3. Recognize that there is a big difference between traveling with children and traveling for children. Travel plans that are designed for children’s interests are much different than those where a child is simply brought along on a trip made for other purposes. To maximize the educational opportunities of travel, identify at least some ways that children’s interests and educational needs can be fostered on the trip.

4. Children may not be intrigued by scenery unless it involves moving through it in some unconventional way (gondolas, bicycle rickshaws, horse-drawn carriages, trains); their attention has been focused on locating some moving creature or interesting object within the scenery; or they have some responsibility for navigating through it. Don’t be disappointed by a child’s lack of enthusiasm for a scenic route or site.

5. Children can easily be overloaded with scenic stops, museums, and monuments. A few bad experiences involving extreme boredom or physical exhaustion can make it very difficult to engage children (willingly) in such excursions in the future. When traveling with children, consider visiting the most important exhibits, sites, and scenes at a tourist attraction and then being ready to leave. Utilize unplanned opportunities for learning. Whether it’s deciding on what rides to go on (when there are competing preferences) or how long to stay at the beach, engage your child in helping to solve the logistical and interpersonal problems that are bound to present themselves on a trip. Children can use important social studies skills when they are asked to help solve problems like locating restrooms or food courts on a mall map, or comparison shopping to find local souvenirs for friends back home.

6. Teaching your own child with the use of assignments provided at school can be challenging. Children often struggle with a change in roles on the part of a parent and rebel by being temporarily “unteachable.” Don’t take this personally – it happens to experienced classroom teachers, too, when teaching their own children. However, when children are aware that their parents and classroom teacher are working together to make the trip a successful learning experience, there is less likelihood of outright mutiny (or manipulation) when work needs to be done. When possible, meet with the student and his or her parents to agree on mutual goals and a workable study routine for the trip.

Road Scholar Checklist


Travel Dates:


Types of experiences planned on the trip (for example, car trip, family visit, outdoor activities, museums, tourist sites,
hiking, shopping):

Organizing and Sharing Information
__Create a scrapbook of your adventure. Collect things like pictures (from brochures), maps, postcards, ticket stubs, poems, flat souvenirs (like patches), photographs, journal entries, and stories. Organize and label your items for sharing with others.

__Carry a tape recorder and record interesting sounds you hear on your trip (for example, planes taking off, birds chirping, a hay bailer, a waterfall, an unusual musical instrument, city traffic, a foreign language being spoken). Challenge your classmates to identify the sounds when you return.

__Record your trip with photos and make a time line with the photos when you return.

__Take a sketchbook with you and make sketches of interesting sites that contrast sharply with your community back home. Title your sketches and share them.

Integrating Social Studies, Reading, and Writing on the Road:
__Read a book that takes place (in the past or present) in the state or nation that you are visiting. Find where it takes place on a map. What passages helped you learn the most about the place you visited. (Librarians can help you locate such books.)

__Find a book about the place you are going. Read it as you travel, and share interesting information you learn with your fellow travelers.

__Keep a journal of what happens everyday of your trip. Use lots of descriptive words to share your personal experiences with the places you visit.

__Write letters or e-mail messages to your class back home. Share at least three observations about each place you visit.

__Make an alphabet book about the place you are visiting. For each letter of the alphabet write a word or draw a picture that describes something about the area. (For Arizona, “a” might be arid, “b” could be beautiful, “c” could be cactus, and so forth.)

__With help from your parents, a map, and a dictionary, make a list of challenging spelling words that have to do with your trip (for example, place names, famous people’s names, geographical terms, regional terms). After studying them, use them correctly in your journal entries, letters home, and scrapbook.

__Make a postcard (a plain 4x6 index card works well). Draw a travel-related picture on the card. Write a message on the back describing why you chose this picture and mail it to your classmates.

__Write a five senses poem about a place you visit by filling in the blanks (the finished poem does not have to rhyme):
“I see____, ____, and___; I hear____, ____, and____; I smell____, ____, and____; I taste____, ____, and____; I feel____, ____, and____.”

Learning About Your World:
__Make a time line of your adventure. Mark highlights (with words and/or drawings) of your trip.

__On a map of the United States, color in a state each time you see a car with a license plate from that state.

__Highlight the route you take on a map.

__Ask for a map of a place you are visiting (such as a town, shopping mall, museum, or hotel). Help your family find their way around. Find the places you have visited and mark them on the map.

__Interview someone you meet along the way about the work they do. Interviewing relatives about the work they do can be a great way to get to know them better.

__If your trip involves a family reunion, make a family tree.

__If you spend time in very tall buildings on your trip or travel by air, make a bird’s-eye-view map by sketching what you see from high up.

__Describe how your trip might have been different if you had taken it 50 (or 100) years ago.

__ Make a book of all the different kinds of transportation you saw on your trip.

__Make a mini-poster showing different land forms and geographic features you saw along the way (mountains, rivers, lakes, marshes, deserts, islands, ocean, etc.).

__Make a Venn diagram or some other type of chart comparing where you live with a place you visited. How are they alike? How are they different?

__As you travel, make up answers for a Jeopardy game and play it with your family (for example, “This state has the largest Amish population in the U.S.”). Players must answer with a question (What is Pennsylvania?)

__Create a special way to describe a place you visited. (You could make a collage, a travel brochure, a mobile, board game, bulletin board, or TV commercial.)

__Create a brief (two or three questions) survey about an issue that is in the news. As you travel, tell people that you are taking a survey, and politely ask if they would be willing to state their opinions on the issue. Take careful notes or tape-record their answers. Be prepared to report your findings when you return.

__Keep a list of all the types of work that you encounter on your trip. How many different occupations did you observe?

__Write a report on a topic that is especially appropriate for your trip.(For example, learn about architecture if you are traveling to Chicago).

Integrating Social Studies and Math
__Record the cost of a food item that you like at various stops along the way. (For example, How much does a hamburger, a bag of chips, or an ice cream cone cost at different places along your trip?) Make a chart or graph showing your findings. How might you account for these differences?

__If you are taking a car trip, look at a map and estimate how many miles it will be to your next stop. Use the odometer to see if you are correct.

__Keep track of your mileage and your gas consumption. Calculate how many miles per gallon of gas your car gets. Using a road map, help the driver decide where your next gas stop should be.

__Graph the number of license plates you see from each state except the one you are in. Which states were the hardest to find? Which were easiest?

__Ask how much the sales tax is in various cities and towns in which you stop. Calculate how much tax would be added to a $10 purchase in each place. Report your findings. Why do you think sales taxes vary?

Other Activities