The adventure begins every year on the first day of school. It doesn’t matter which grade you’re going into, it’s always the start of a new journey filled with fresh faces and new experiences.

Nancy Young Elementary in Aurora, Ill., took the words “adventure” and “journey” literally. They invited students at the K-5 school to embark on a 172-day Young Elementary World Tour, a yearlong trip that tied school events and activities to a central travel theme.

Students were greeted on the first day of school by teachers dressed in matching “tour guide” shirts. Custom luggage tags were handed out for students to attach to their backpacks. The year’s schedule became a tour itinerary, and teachers incorporated travel-related items into their classroom and hall decorations.

That was just the start. The PTA worked to tie educational enrichment, social, and service activities to the travel theme throughout the year. The World Tour logo appeared on flyers and the monthly PTA newsletter. Teachers and staff jumped on board and found ways to tie the theme into lesson plans and daily learning.

“It’s a wonderful way to organize the year,” says 3rd grade teacher Meredith Smith. “Not only does it provide meaningful assemblies and school events, but it gives classroom teachers an avenue to pursue learning around a central idea. When the theme is exciting, the year is exciting.”

In September, a geography assembly that featured the Earth Balloon gave kids the chance to “see the world.” The 17-foot-high inflated balloon is printed with satellite images of Earth and helped students gain a new perspective on their planet. By walking around for a view of the outside and then stepping inside, students could see the world’s continents, rivers, and oceans from a different viewpoint than the traditional book or desktop globe.

Smith saw the assembly as a springboard for teaching in multiple subjects. “It set the stage for children’s understanding of our world and our place in it. As we delved into social studies, the children had a wonderful awareness of where historical events took place. In reading, they were better able to visualize the setting of a story. Anything tangible, such as the Earth Balloon was, makes learning that much more memorable for students.”

Memorable events seemed to highlight the entire year. The school yearbook looked much like a vacation photo album, filled with unforgettable moments and cherished memories. The World Tour theme was connected with almost everything and was a hit with students and parents alike. “They were always anticipating what would come next and where in the world they would be taken,” says PTA board member Robin Adamchik. “They were learning and having fun all at the same time.”

The annual fall festival featured a day filled with worldwide flair. Carnival-style game booths included fun takeoffs on events from countries around the globe. The “Tour de France” featured tricycle races, a mini-golf game resembled a hole from St. Andrews Links golf course in Scotland, and the Safari Ring Toss had students throwing wooden rings around stuffed animals that represented those found in parts of Africa. An activities stage gave kids the chance to showcase their own heritage. Irish, Indian, and hula dancing performances were presented. Participants tried their hand at the Japanese art of origami during a special lesson, and a martial arts demonstration from a local school attracted a crowd.

As the year went on, multiple service projects, both around the globe and right down the street, were tied to the world theme. Young Elementary students participated in a pen pal program and sent needed items to a school in South Africa. They helped a neighboring school with a book drive and winter clothing drive. Families also took a night and helped pack meals that would be sent overseas through an international relief organization. Each event offered the opportunity to explore different parts of the world and reinforce to students the importance of giving back to others.

Staff appreciation also matched the theme and included several luncheons throughout the year. Meals served by the PTA featured food and décor from countries like China, Germany, and Mexico. It was a fun twist for the staff and made it easy for PTA planners to show teachers they “mean the world” to students and their families.

During the second half of the year, each classroom was assigned a country and was given a travel bag that included a flag, books from that country and a special classroom passport. A small doll was then introduced to the entire school. This doll, appropriately named young Nancy Young, traveled from country to country (that is, classroom to classroom) throughout the rest of the year. Students were given clues during morning announcements and had to figure out which country the doll was visiting. If they came up with the right answer, they could come to the library and have their class passport stamped.

“My kids loved it,” says teacher Julie South. Her class was assigned Italy, and it created quite a buzz. “Throughout the year, kids came with facts, maps, and things they found online about Italy from home. We made a wall of their learnings with pictures, sentence strips, printouts, and drawings.”

Later in the year, when young Nancy Young visited South’s class, students worked together to add a special addition to her travel journal. Everyone “got such a kick out of the photos we took of her,” South recalls. “They loved making ski goggles and poles, bringing pizza and spaghetti into play, and even holding her up to a desktop photo of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.”

An added bonus to the World Tour theme was the chance to reach out to the school community. Because Young Elementary has such a diverse student body, principal Adrienne Morgan was pleased that so many different countries and their cultures and traditions became part of the learning experience. “The World Tour helped to create a natural connection between home and school,” she says. “It allowed our parents to feel comfortable to come and share unique and interesting information about themselves. Students truly benefited from this cultural learning experience.”

Following a yearlong concept was not a new idea at Young; the tradition of intertwining a theme to PTA and school activities started several years ago. The PTA was planning a Wild West Fall Fest, and staff thought it could be a good tie-in for other events within the classrooms. Teachers wore cowboy hats and bandanas as they welcomed students back to school and geared kids up for a rootin’ tootin’ good time all year long. The following year, the school adopted a construction theme. A custom road sign with the words “Young Minds Under Construction” was placed in front of the school, and the “crew” of teachers donned hard hats and used the theme to build toward a successful year.

Next up, Team Young looked to “go for the gold” as they worked together to set goals and have some fun with an Olympic theme.