Balancing Classroom and Travel to Engage Young Students

When engaged in a new experience, children are famous for their ability to soak up every nuance and remember every detail. So it’s little wonder that travel can have such a huge impact on kids’ academic experiences. At Chicago City Day School, an independent JK-8 school on Chicago’s North Side, students embark upon their first overnight, out-of-school learning before they even reach middle school. It’s part of the school’s mission to provide opportunities for enriching learning experiences outside of the classroom, says Chris Dow, head of school at City Day.

“The experiences students have are really part of what makes an independent school of our size truly different,” Dow says. “These enrichments — on top of the daily educational experiences our students have — make a City Day education truly extraordinary.”

While City Day students don’t travel to outer space (yet), they do have unique travel opportunities not found at the typical elementary school. And because City Day is a small school, students travel in manageable groups — which means they have intimate access that busloads of students simply wouldn’t have.

“Students are much more focused on taking it all in and being part of the process, in addition to being engaged in the event, research, or performance they are traveling to experience,” Dow says.

Whether it’s Madrid or Washington D.C., students develop the confidence to figure out how to get around and the self-confidence and public speaking skills to ask for help, all while gaining important lifelong skills in travel etiquette.

“When we visit a city — even when we go on field trips in Chicago — we take public transportation because part of the experience is learning how to navigate a busy city,” Dow explains. “Students learn how to pay for transport, read maps, and travel alongside a larger metropolitan community.”

Start small and grow quickly

Fifth graders start their Chicago City Day School travel experiences with an overnight outdoor education trip where they challenge themselves with ropes courses, hiking and team-building exercises. “This is the first time a class spends a night away from school together. They learn to socialize and connect with their classmates away from the classroom and away from home and they see what that’s like,” Dow says. “Usually some aspect of it is character-building, like getting caught in a rainstorm or falling in mud — and the hilarity that ensues. But it emboldens them and builds self-esteem because students accomplish or persevere through something they didn’t know they were capable of doing.”

Language immersion trips take sixth-grade French and Spanish language learners to Nantes, France, or Madrid, Spain, where they visit local schools and interact with their French and Spanish peers.

“Like all our travel experiences, these trips are multipurpose,” Dow says. “There’s obviously a language component, where our students, for example, learn how to order at a restaurant or speak to local people in their native language. There’s also a cultural aspect, where students are immersing themselves in the history and customs of another country and developing a broader understanding of the world.”

Sure, some students may experience a little homesickness during their week away, but that’s part of the experience, too, says Dow. “They have their classmates and teachers to support them, and they come out of it stronger.”

Conserving the environment and engaging in STEM

The first of two trips for seventh-grade students is a fall foray to Baraboo, Wisconsin, to study nature and environmentalism through the lens of American essayist and conservationist Aldo Leopold, take a geological hike through Devil’s Lake State Park and discover bird migration habits with the International Crane Foundation. The trip is capped off by a visit to a nearby water park for some fun, too.

In the spring, seventh graders head to Huntsville, Alabama, for STEM immersion at Space Camp and the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. “The students stay in their own quarters in the Space Camp module and have that independence, chaperoned by counselors. They make their own meal choices and learn the etiquette of shared living spaces,” Dow explains. Students sit in former space shuttles, learn physics through antigravity simulations and discover the history of the U.S. space program.

“It’s yet another opportunity for students to apply what they learn in the classroom to specific professional fields,” Dow says.

Truly life-changing experiences

Washington D.C. is a popular destination for eighth-grade students, but the nation’s capital is just one component of the experience. The trip begins in Baltimore, where students visit Fort McHenry. They travel next to Washington D.C., and then close out the trip with visits to historic sites throughout Virginia.

Some highlights of recent trips include visits to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Smithsonian museums, Jefferson’s home in Monticello, and the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, where students have watched theatrical and musical performances.

“With the help of our parent community, students have been given unique access to people, institutions, and civic landmarks throughout D.C.,” Dow says.

Here, too, City Day’s small size allows student travelers to move around the city easily and engage in intimate experiences in museums, civic buildings, restaurants, and theaters.

One trip that just wouldn’t be possible with a larger school group is City Day’s annual marine research trip to Bimini in the Bahamas.

City Day students spend a week on a research vessel, studying and documenting the condition of coral reef habitats in the area. Two groups, each capped at nine students, venture out each year. They consult with working scientists while collecting their data. At the end of the expedition, students share their findings with Reef Check, a global conservation organization.

“We’re one of the first schools to do this kind of coral reef research,” Dow says. “This experience really brings home the idea of conservation, and it fits in with our educational philosophy of getting the opportunity to go out and put into practice what we are learning in the classroom.”

Students who participate are inspired by the natural beauty of the region, the chance to collaborate with scientists, and the knowledge that their work can help improve the world, Dow says.

Past Bimini expeditions have inspired students to pursue studies in environmental science. One City Day graduate loved the experience so much that she continued to go on the trip during her college years as an adult adviser.

“It’s an incredible opportunity to put scientific knowledge to work in a meaningful way,” Dow says.

Scholarship opportunities

City Day leaders are proud to offer scholarships that make the school’s travel experiences and other unique programming accessible to more students. The Trustees Merit Scholarship program is selective and designed to welcome accomplished, enthusiastic young people to the school community.

“Regardless of how you got to City Day, learning here is a shared experience,” Dow says. “We want students to bring different backgrounds to our community and learn together. That happens in the classroom, of course, but it also happens while building rockets in Alabama, or while exploring underwater habitats in Bimini. Wherever it happens, City Day students learn together.”

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Chicago Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.


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