What’s the first question you’d like to ask a family that’s been traveling full time for five years with school aged kids? “How do you afford it?” Okay, fair enough, but what’s the second question?
“What about school?”
Homeschooling is quite common in the USA and Canada; it’s almost mainstream. As homeschool graduates go on to prove that they are not intellectually or socially deficient competing at the university level and in the marketplace commensurate with their traditionally schooled counterparts, the arguments against homegrown education crumble; the results speak for themselves, quite literally.
Homeschooling is a bit of a misnomer. The underlying subtext that affects many people’s view of the community is that kids are stuck in the house, sheltered from reality and kept away from the scary influences of “school” and “others.” For the vast majority of homeschoolers, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, there is a growing subset of folks who refer to themselves as road schoolers, whose entire purpose is to take their kids as many places as they can, learn in as many different environments as they can, and make their entire educations one big field trip.
The truth is that anyone who travels with a child can road school. All it takes is a slight mental shift, on the part of the parent, towards optimizing the educational benefit of the moment you’re in. That doesn’t mean preaching at your child the whole time, or forcing him to be “learning” every moment, and thus sucking the joy out of the journey; turning “vacation” into a job. Nor does it mean turning your family holiday into a moving classroom with piles of books and worksheets and assignments. It simply means having a little faith in the universal truth that children are, by nature, learners, and tuning into your child and her interests in such a way that you can pick up on what they’re learning and expand on it. This can be done just as easily on a two week vacation, or an open ended world tour. It can also be worked seamlessly into a Saturday afternoon out with your child who is enrolled in a traditional school all week. It’s not a “method” so much as a mindset. You’re probably already road schooling, or at least you could be!
Of course, there are always people who take things to extremes. There are people, like us, who are road schoolers by primary definition. It’s not something we add to our kids’ homeschool program, or work in on weekends and over summer holidays when they are not in a proper school; it forms the backbone of their educations. We are intentionally using the world as their classroom and making it our business to see as much of it as we possibly can.
Does this mean that we never use a packaged “course” for our kids, or that there is no set curriculum for them? Does this mean that we just learn as we go, whatever is put in front of us, with no framework? Does this mean that our kids never learn to sit and focus, or do higher math, or take a test? No, of course not. There are many types of road schoolers out there, and I would never dare to speak for all of them, but I can speak for us, for our little family. Our goal, for our children, in their educations, is to prepare them for anything the world might present to them, in opportunity or challenge. We are not unschoolers. I believe firmly in an interest-led, parent-directed education, in which the natural bent of the child is considered and fostered, and in which the child is given tools to overcome his natural weakness, with a healthy dose of character development on the side. I believe that kids should be encouraged to explore the outer limits of their passions, and that it’s okay to insist that they do certain things “for their own good.” A university degree is non-optional in our family. We hope very much that they’ll get it by non-traditional means, but that piece of paper does matter in the “real world” whether we like it or not, and it’s our goal to prepare our children fully to operate in that world; it opens doors that are firmly shut without it. There are those that disagree with me, I know that, and that’s okay. I’m just laying out our particular philosophy so that what follows makes sense, so that you see where I’m coming from, and what drives our choices, as a family, for our kids’ educations.
We have homeschooled our children since birth. We began traveling full time when they were ages 5-11 years old. Currently, they are 10 through 16. We have two in the middle grades, one in high school and our oldest is pursuing her university coursework as we travel. We know many families who have educated their children while traveling and among them are shining examples of some of the best educated and fantastically motivated young people we know. Road schooling may not be common, even in the homeschool community, but it is, without question, effective and a viable means of education, from birth through university. If your dream is to travel the world with your kids, but you’re afraid of the educational impact on your child, take a deep breath, and keep reading. The options are as diverse as the families living education with their children, and there is a place for you in the growing crowd.
Philosophy: The most important question
Before any discussion of the logistics or how to get an education “done” is possible, the framework must be laid. A quick Google search of “homeschooling” will deliver a dizzying array of approaches and curriculum possibilities. How do you know where to start? What will work for your family? A more productive search might be “homeschooling philosophies” to introduce yourself to the basic categories of alternative education and where your family might best fit.
Before you can take a journey you must know where you are going. Before you can get there, you have to decide which vehicle best suits your family. Are you a Classical, or an Ecclectic? A Charlotte Mason, a Relaxed, a Traditional schooler or do you show up somewhere on the Unschooling spectrum? Answer that question first. Discover your own philosophy, and be prepared not to fit in any one box. Then add to it the details of your particular travel plans and you’ll be better equipped to make choices about the logistics. Having a grip on your philosophy of education will allow you to pass up 90% of the marketed homeschooling mumbo jumbo without a speck of self doubt, and it will make the 5% that fits jump to the top of the stack.
Spend twice as much time defining your philosophy of education as you do worrying about what to teach.
Having laid out our basic philosophy for you, allow me to share what works for us and what road schooling looks like in action for one family.
Over the years our curriculum choices have grown and changed with our lifestyle. I no longer have a whole wall of bookshelves to create a library in our basement. But then, when we began there was no such thing as an iPad; now our children carry a virtual library in their backpacks. Technology is changing the face of education and it continues to empower those who are willing to think and educate outside the box.
Traveling for a lifestyle, technology is our best friend, educationally speaking. A rich curriculum fits in a backpack and added to the connectivity of the web, a classroom environment can as well.
Our brand of road schooling is a blend of book work and adventure studies. Our kids have assigned work four days a week, including math, language arts, science, geography, history and literature. They are required to read and write every day. We decide together what their interests are and then I design the plans to get them through the year. I hand them those plans, and they take off running. They are responsible for their own educations, and they check in with me periodically for progress reports.
How and what we choose to study is driven, in part, by our travels. We delved deep into the pre-colonial history of Central America, climbing many of the pyramids while we wintered two consecutive years in the region. We dedicated a semester to the Vietnam War overlapping our overland road trip through Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos. Visits to Ho Chi Minh’s grave, prisons and the DMZ, will yield an experience in modern day propaganda that would be tough to replicate in a classroom. Not to mention climbing around American fox holes, high above the Perfume river, parts of the Ho Chi Minh trail, and the border regions of the neighbouring countries that were carpet bombed to round out our reading. Studies of the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment period in Europe were enriched by a year long bike ride across Europe, and long afternoons in more than a few castles and museums. The Japanese expansion during WW2 takes on a whole new meaning when a kid spends a year in Southeast Asia, reading books about the internment camps and death marches across the very jungles and beaches where she is enjoying monkeys and having adventures. Not to mention buying her fruit from people missing limbs from the land mines still left in the hills. The westward expansion in the USA and the epic journey of Lewis and Clark comes alive for kids who cross the Mississippi with a van full of their best friends and listen to Grandma tell stories of her grandmother’s journey across the Oregon trail as a child, standing on the very spot where their ancestors passed.
The subjects that teachers struggle hardest to make interesting to students in a classroom–literature, geography and history–come screaming to life when they’re learned on site, in the real world. Ancient Roman history might seem far removed from the real world to a kid in a classroom in Idaho. Give that same child an afternoon to play gladiators in the colosseum at El Jem, in Tunisia, and the tables will have been turned forever.
I found The Diary of Anne Frank a hard slog when I was in fourth grade. My kids were riveted, because they were going to visit her house, we read it in Amsterdam, and they could imagine her, just like them, playing in the streets… and then being imprisoned in that dark, depressing apartment, hiding in tiny spaces, fearing for her life. It’s hard for a kid stuck in a classroom to imagine the rest of the world. All they have to go on is their own experience, and they’re often not able to think abstractly about the world yet. It is for this reason that we chose to road school our children, to take them out of their comfort zone and to introduce them to the world, one culture at a time, one history lesson at a time.
When you make the small mental shift that allows you to see education not as something that happens between bells, but as something that is happening from the moment a baby gasps her first breath until the oldest grandmother struggles through her death rattle, the whole game changes. All of a sudden we become less concerned with “standards” or “keeping up with public school” or whether a kid learns things perfectly “in order” and instead we begin to realize that education is a living experience that is unique to each human being.
Charlotte Mason pointed out that, “education is the formation of a personal relationship with an idea.” When we fully grasp what that means, it is a beautiful and freeing thing. I cannot form that relationship for my children, they must form it themselves. My role is simply to introduce the ideas, like old friends, and see that my children are mannerly enough to say hello. There is a lot of stress in educational circles surrounding whether or not a child is learning what he is “supposed to” from a lesson. Charlotte Mason would say that a child is learning what he can, by forming his own relationship with a given idea. If he does not get what you want him to, no worries, simply wait six months, and introduce the idea again. The child will have grown and will form a new, deeper relationship with the idea later.
I get a lot of questions, especially from parents of young children, about when, and what, and how they should begin schooling their little people. There is no “right” answer to that question, as education is a unique process, and every attempt to institutionalize it has sold a large number of students short. The most important component for success seems to be a tuned in parent. One who views her children as her primary “job” and who is invested in their process over most others. Just as you knew when it was time to teach your child to walk, you facilitated her efforts to learn your language, you knew when it was time for toilet training and you taught her to share, eat her vegetables and count to ten, you’ll know when it’s time to begin reading lessons, and when he’s ready to move from finger counting to adding apples and pears.
In the early years, it’s very easy to weave the “curriculum” into daily life and very little is necessary in the way of materials. Of course there are a million packaged products that are marketed to lighten your wallet and give you the proverbial feather to hold in your trunk so that you’re sure you can “fly” in your educational endeavors with your child, but these are largely unnecessary.
Before a child turns seven or so, the most important thing you can teach is the formation of good habits. Work on your child’s ability to sit and focus for a few minutes at a time on an organized activity that he finds interesting. Work on his ability to have self control and wait patiently. Work on his ability to listen to a progressively longer story being read aloud, which Charlotte Mason would have called the Habit of Attention, and instill these habits as part of daily life. Armed with a tool chest of good habits, your child will be able to teach himself anything, and muster the self discipline to keep working on hard things.
Some suggestions by age group:
Choose a solid language program that you like, as well as a solid math program, and do a little bit, four days per week. We used the Explode the Code series of phonics workbooks (they have an online program now) and we did two pages per day. We used the old version of what has now been marketed as Right Start Math and did one lesson per day, which took about half an hour. If you’re plugging away in an organized manner at math and language, everything else will take care of itself. It really will. For our family, we read aloud at every meal (a poem for breakfast, history for lunch, literature after dinner) and the children chose books they were interested in at the library. We worked on nature journals one afternoon a week, using Anna Botsford Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study as our bible for all things plant and animal. We kept a map on the wall that we used to point out the locations of the persons, places or events we were reading about, and they learned.
Continue with the pattern laid down for the early grades only start going deeper. Continue reading aloud to the child, and add the expectation that he will read on his own about the things you’re studying. The middle grades (9-12 years old) are a great time to begin to work on writing for communication. This scares a lot of parents, but it needn’t be stressful. If you understand that writing is broken into two components: the ability to “tell” (which all children can do, from the moment they can speak in sentences)
and the mechanics, which are often harder and should not be pushed too early. The easiest way to make great writers of your children is to read lots, so that they hear the flow of language wash over them, and they have great authors to imitate in their styles. Next, start small, and separate the two components. Begin by having your child “tell” while you write down exactly what they say, with proper mechanics (spelling, punctuation, conventional style). They can then copy this into their journals, as it is authentically their work. They will not be frustrated, because their work isn’t being torn apart for mechanical errors, and they will be unconsciously absorbing the proper form. Eventually, you can point out things like capitalization rules, conventional spelling rules, punctuation and formatting, but it won’t be stressful because they are already doing it properly. When they take off and start writing for “fun” then you know they’re ready to start working on writing rough drafts and learning about the writing process; but don’t push it too soon.
We’ve always required our children to keep journals as we’ve traveled. When Ezra was five, he would narrate his day to me, and then copy only the first sentence of what he’d dictated into his journal, I would copy the rest below. Eventually we moved up to two sentences, and then three. His journals are authentically his own words, we just never made a big deal over who was holding the pencil. For all of my boys, I have taken their narrations and then they have copied those into their journals until they were about nine years old, one was almost 11 before he took off writing on his own. Our daughter, by contrast,was journalling independently at 7. All four are now enthusiastic and prolific writers; the two teenagers both write–freelance–for the online travel market and get paid. As with most things, teaching writing requires patience and a little faith in your child. Be brave enough to set expectations and wise enough to know when not to push. When in doubt, read aloud more.
Where math is concerned, we’ve had great luck with the Teaching Textbooks program, it is downloadable, self paced and self correcting, as well as being well adapted to multiple learning styles. I highly recommend it if you’re road schooling and can’t carry heavy books and bags full of manipulatives or an abacus.
We are road schooling our children right through high school, so far, without difficulties. We meet a lot of families who decide to put down roots for the high school years and enroll their kids in traditional schools. Our kids aren’t interested in attending a building 8 hours a day, five days a week and they’ve demonstrated that they can learn more–faster–schooling as we go.
So, we’ve kept going.
With university looming it can seem daunting to worry about finding adequate courses, tracking grades or creating transcripts. I encourage you to take a deep breath and fight those fears with information. There are a wealth of resources on the internet, from fully accredited distance high school programs that a traveling child can be enrolled in, to a myriad of excellent, outside the box options for creating your own course work for your child.
Our rule of thumb, for our high school students is one credit each of English/Language Arts/Literature, Mathematics, History and Science. We also required at least two years worth of Geography, Foreign Language, Philosophy/World View of some sort, Art and Music, and they fill in with interest driven studies as electives. I’ll make some specific recommendations as to course work development in the resources section below.
Additionally, we actively seek out hands on learning opportunities and internships for our teens that will allow them to learn in a real world environment and “try on” various career paths. Our daughter spent two months as the production slave of a videographer who has worked for NBC and NPR when she was considering journalism. Our son lived in the midwest for a month one summer working on a hydroponic lettuce operation and organic sheep farm; he never worked so hard in all of his life!
Our daughter would tell you that high school is the best time to be traveling because she has so much more freedom to jump start her career, take on mentorships and work opportunities because her time is her own and, in addition to just covering the “basics” of high school, she can get a head start on her life. At 16, she’s enrolled in university courses online, is in the third level of a teen travel blogging mentorship program, mentoring other young teens, is establishing her freelance writing career online, and has her first book in the publication process, with a contract on the table for a second book to follow. She’s going to Peru for two months this spring, by invitation, to work on producing a month long learning experience for unschooling teens from all over the world. All of that is possible because she’s spent her childhood in the real world, not waiting for her life to start at a magical age, but realizing that life is now, and it’s hers for the taking. Every bit of that is learning that we wouldn’t trade for all of the traditional high school experiences Indiana could have provided her.
If you haven’t read Maya Frost’s excellent book, The Global Student, you should stop what you’re doing and order it right now [link below]. The younger your kids are, the better. Reading it early will help you set an action plan for your kid’s educations and set them up for any future they might choose.
There are many who argue that a university degree is unnecessary, and instead we should raise our children to be entrepreneurs and follow their passions in outside the box ways. I disagree, and would argue that a child can, and should, be encouraged to do both. While a university degree might just be a piece of paper, it is a piece of paper that is a measuring stick to many in the world. It opens doors that are firmly shut without it. It is not the measure of a person, but it is a tool that a person can use to leverage the life of her dreams. In our family, a university education is not optional. We view it as our role, as parents, to prepare our children for every possible eventuality that life might bring their way. For our family, this includes equipping our children with a degree path of their choosing. It is somewhat of a legacy in our family. My Grandfather continued to pay for my Mother’s university education, even after she married my Father. When my Dad offered to take this over, as her new husband, my Grandfather pointed out that this was his last duty and privilege as her father and that to pay him back my Dad could do the same for his children one day. Which he did, at great personal sacrifice. That baton has been passed to us, and we will do what we have to in order to give that same gift to our children.
University does not have to be a massively expensive, debt inducing exercise in creating the biggest albatross you’ll ever hang around your neck. There are lots of ways to get it done cheaper, or even almost for free. There are ways to get double credit while your child is in high school. There are ways to finish high school early and go straight for the university learning, saving time and money for your child. There are ways to get credit for what you’ve already learned and lower costs. I will list a few of these in the resources section, but again, I encourage you to read Maya Frost’s book.
Ideas for Road Schooling Projects
So, by now you’ve gathered that my approach is to be methodical about language development and mathematics and to approach everything else in a “free form” manner. “What does that look like, exactly?” You may be asking. Below are a few ideas for ways to broaden, deepen and quantify what your children are learning on the road:
Project Based Learning
The year we cycled Europe and North Africa each of our children committed to a project, based on age, interest and ability. They were as follows:
Hannah (11) collected dead people. She kept her eye out for historical figures that we encountered, Shakespeare in Stratford-Upon-Avon, Marx in Berlin, Good King Wenceslas in Prague, Mozart in Vienna, Marie Antoinette in Paris, Hannibal in Tunis, you get the idea. She read about them, wrote about them, and told their stories in her journal.
Gabriel (9) photographed churches. Westminster Abbey started the trip with a bang, and Hannah found lots of interesting dead people inside, including the General after whom our home island is named. Martin Luther’s church where the 95 Theses were nailed, beginning the Protestant Reformation. The Sistine Chapel and St. Paul’s in Rome. Tiny mission churches in Tunisia. Notre Dame in Paris. We learned a lot about tri-partite symmetry, the differences between gothic and renaissance architecture, and the famous painters who decorated the insides.
Elisha (7) collected postcards, wrote about what he was seeing on the back, and mailed them home to Grammy, who kept them for him until his return. He was very diligent about looking for just the right one, that would really show Grammy what he was learning.
Ezra (5) chose a cultural project that was lots of fun for everyone: he collected candy wrappers unique to each country we passed through! We discovered Penguins in England, and had to get one of each style of Penguin, of course. Salami flavoured puffed chips of an odd sort in the Czech. Every possible form of Haribo gummy in Germany, and he even got to be one of the first testers of Kinder brand’s crispy hippos before they were on the market. He has a proprietary pride about them now when we find them on the shelf somewhere else in the world.
You get the idea. Choose a project that can run the course of your trip and get the whole family invested in each child’s project. Just TRY to get a 9 year old boy deeply invested in cathedral architecture through a book and you’ll see the magic of project based learning.
Start a Blog
If your kids are old enough to write, or take pictures, or if they have a crowd of friends at home who will be missing them and wondering how they are, help your kids start a blog. You’ve heard it said that we learn most when we teach, so leverage that by helping your child see himself as a teacher, or an ambassador for his friend set with his blog as a delivery medium.
If he’s too young to write, then let him dictate to you. Get a cheap digital camera and let him go to town. Encourage him to take on the role of “tester” for his friends at home. Ez views it as a solemn responsibility to try all sorts of things for “the kids at home.” He’s chomped into raw olives (and spit them back out) he’s tried grasshoppers covered with chili and lime, raw fish, dried fish, eel, and every kind of fruit or candy or even palawan wine with durian in it (which redefines nasty). Perhaps his most famous “try” was betel nut, in Vietnam. He’d read about it in his book about a Vietnamese boy and was dying to try it for his friends. We didn’t know that it is a drug, of sorts. He tried it, it made him glassy eyed, and he tried it again. He really likes it!! The old Vietnamese grandmother who shared her chaw with him was crying she was laughing so hard. We cut him off when we found out about it’s “other” benefits.
Older children will develop their own followings, and begin to see blogging as a way to express themselves, and perhaps even launch a freelance writing career online. Technology is rushing forward, don’t miss the train!
This is obvious, right? They don’t have to be boring journals! They can be in blog form, they can be in video form and stored on Youtube, they can be nature journals, or culture journals, or food journals or language journals. You child can use his journal to catalog anything he finds interesting about the trip.
Learn Something New
If you’re going to be in one place long enough, take the time to seek out a teacher and learn something new. “Like what?” you ask. Here are a few ideas taken from our travels:
- Spend a winter taking Spanish lessons in Guatemala
- Hire a Mayan woman to teach you to weave on a back strap loom
- Learn how to harvest olives in Italy
- Learn to make pasta from an Italian woman
- Take music lessons from a Blues great that happens to run a restaurant in your town
- Take cooking lessons from a British expat chef
- Learn to make tortillas from a Guatemalan friend
- Learn how to make chocolate straight from cocoa beans
- Learn to make coffee from scratch, if you find it growing in your garden
- Take sailing lessons in Canada
- Take kite surfing lessons in Thailand
- Take a massage class from a Costa Rican guy
- Take photography lessons from a professional
- Take SCUBA classes in Belize
If you look around, you’ll find teachers everywhere around you.
Keep Good Records
As I’m writing this article I’m realizing how many really fantastic learning opportunities are happening every day as we travel. Most of them aren’t “organized” or neatly packaged in a way that the educational establishment would recognize, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t of immense benefit. How can I quantify them, so they “count?”
Keep good records. Write down the experiences your kids are having, the impromptu lessons that they learn from a stranger on a beach on a Sunday afternoon. Write down which museums you’ve visited and what you saw there. Write down the names of important people who contribute to their educational process. Log any hours they spend volunteering, or involved in a useful project. All of these things contribute to the greater
whole and may be of use to you later when you’re trying to demonstrate what your children have learned to someone who matters, in the educational establishment, or perhaps within your extended family.
There are so many fantastic resources out there for families educating in outside the box ways. If you find something you and your child love, dive in and go for it. These are just my suggestions, of things we have liked. They may or may not suit you, or your children, and that’s okay. This list is only to get your juices flowing and give you an idea of what has worked for one family over the long haul. Feel free to explore, add to it and find your own path!
As I write this article we’re bouncing down some of the worst roads in the world along the east coast of the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia. Elisha (12) just reported that he finished two lessons of math in the back seat. Gabriel (14) is pounding away at his own keyboard, writing a novel. He announced last night over dinner that he was reworking the whole beginning because his writing has grown so much since he started it a year ago that he’s no longer happy with his first draft. Ezra (10) asked how to spell Makassar and Tana Toraja as he’s scratching away in his journal about the buffalo sacrifices we witnessed earlier this week in the highlands. Hannah (16) is nose down in her Sociology book; every so often she reads a passage aloud and expresses interest, we discuss it as a family, and she dives back in. This is road schooling in action. Our kids are getting everything, educationally speaking, that their public schooled cousins in Indiana are getting, but they’re also SCUBA diving with sea turtles, studying traditional boat building, learning languages first hand, playing music with a long parade of travelers who tell fantastic stories over cokes and UNO games. They’re learning to be comfortable with the wail of the mosque’s morning prayers, to take their shoes off in the Chinese temples, to eat their rice balls with only their right hands, and to navigate the real world, not just within their culture, comfortably. Those are lessons they couldn’t get any other way.
Jennifer Miller is in her fifth year of an open ended world tour with her knight in shining armor and four wild, adventurer children. They've cycled Europe & North Africa, thoroughly road tripped North and Central America and are currently traveling slowly through Southeast Asia with just their backpacks. When she's not hand washing for six in a hostel shower, Jenn is writing, or swing dancing under the stars. You can follow their journey at Edventure Project.