Long Term Travel As Education

As I sit to write this article we’re on a second class train between Bangkok and Surat Thani, on the southern coast of Thailand. My four children are in the row behind me, reading, sleeping, drawing, and munching peanuts, respectively. We’re not here on summer holiday during their school break.  We’re here well into our fifth solid year of full-time travel. This is their fourth continent and their eighteenth country, so far. We aren’t the only ones who live and raise kids this way.  We know dozens of other families out there in the world doing fabulous things. We aren’t living this way by default, because our first lifestyle choice didn’t work out. We’re walking the world as a family on purpose, specifically for the education of our young people.

It drives me a bit crazy to be asked, repeatedly, “What are you doing about their schooling?” Especially when the question is being asked standing in the middle of the ruins of Copan, or the halls of the L’Ouvre, or by the teacher on her Christmas break who my child has just explained the flooding and drainage situation of the lake to on a boat ride across Lago de Atitlan. It’s not as if we took off on this fool’s errand around the world and then six months in thought, “Oh no!! What about the kids’ schooling?” Forehead slap, “What are we going to do about THAT?!”

We’re walking the world as a family on purpose, specifically for the education of our young people.

Here’s a newsflash for you: There is more than one way to live life, and there is also more than one way to get a child educated.

There are more than a few families out here who are traveling as a means of education. We are among them. That’s not to say that I don’t think institutional schools are important, they are. They are one choice that is suitable for some, but not all children. I’m in no way slamming the school systems or the teachers who sow their whole lives into children within their halls. Instead, I’m asking people to recognize that there are other ways to learn and other places to learn and sometimes, for some children, better ways to learn. Travel as education, when done thoughtfully and intentionally, can dot all of the i’s and cross all of the t’s of a traditional curriculum and offer children so much more than they could ever learn in the village school of mid-Iowa. As a traveling, world-schooling parent, my focus is not on what my kids are missing by growing up in the “real world.” My focus is on all of the things that they are gaining, that they’re being handed on a silver platter by the beautiful Thai people on this hot, humid, tropical afternoon that they couldn’t get any other way.

Curriculum Content

Yes, I home school. No, I do not hate public schools. In fact, I’m a teacher by trade. As a result, I’m well aware of the concerns of the educational establishment, so I’ll spend a few minutes addressing those to begin with.

Any alternative schooler worth her salt is well aware that there are a myriad of educational and curriculum choices within the home school world. From ordering “third grade in a box” sort of packages to completely online, certified teacher supervised virtual classrooms and individual courses designed to meet your child’s particular interests. “How do you deal with upper level math?” Quite simply, by ordering a course that is self teaching, self paced, and has college level math teachers on call if the kid gets stuck. Covering specific subjects adequately is simply not a big enough issue to be worth discussing. Ten minutes of online research will demonstrate that there are plenty of options, kindergarten through online university courses.

Inspired for an around the world trip? Let us help with a FREE BootsnAll Account. Sign Up

It is not my intention to brush off curricular concerns, they are valid. I agree that there are certain things that kids should learn; I am not an “unschooler.” We put a great deal of care into our children’s educations. They learn to write. They learn to read and read widely. They take math to a higher standard than the state requirements for high school graduation. But then, they learn history standing in the middle of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, and climbing every major Mayan ruin set in Central America, and by road tripping their own country from sea to shining sea. They learn Geography cycling across Europe and North Africa and planning our route from Vietnam through Cambodia & Laos to get “home” to Thailand. They write about these things. They use their math in currency conversion and mileage calculation and a million other real world things. Their literature interests are driven by where they’ve been and what they’ve seen. Currently the boys are reading about WWII and the Vietnam War. Instead of rolling their eyes because they “have to” take a foreign language, they catalog as many new words in every language they can because they know, in very real ways, how important being able to communicate across cultures is.

Kids growing up without the four walls of a classroom holding them in often learn faster and more than their traditionally schooled counterparts simply because they ‘get it.’

The point of this section is simply this: World schooled kids are not at a curricular disadvantage. In fact, it is often just the opposite. Kids growing up without the four walls of a classroom holding them in often learn faster and more than their traditionally schooled counterparts simply because they “get it.” Learning and growth are necessary to move forward, it applies to their life and they see how, and why. We know a girl who is fifteen, done with her highschool work, beginning online university, working online as a freelance writer, studying journalism and digital media through internships independently, and who has done all of this while traveling the world with her family. She’s never set foot in a classroom, and she’s far from an exceptional case.

World Citizenship

To me, as a professional educator and a parent, this is a key component of a modern education. The world is shrinking at an alarming rate, and we have to produce kids who can live, work, and thrive in it without fear. Instead of sowing the “us vs. them” mentality another generation deeper, we absolutely must create a generation of people who are able to see commonalities first, who have the skills to reach across cultural as well as continental divides, and who have enough real world experience outside of their own cultures to have a bit of perspective and the ability to make it happen. Diversity campaigns in middle America where one digit percentiles of children are otherwise than caucasian have limited effect.

The world is shrinking at an alarming rate, and we have to produce kids who can live, work, and thrive in it without fear.

What works? Wintering in a Muslim country post 9-11, experiencing illiteracy in Eastern Europe, and living and learning barefoot with Mayan tribes who share Spanish with you as a second language are a good start. How about raising money for literacy projects in third world countries that you’ve visited and seen in action, first hand? Or learning a complex set of manners and customs in a country completely foreign to you and becoming comfortable transitioning between cultures. Maybe spending enough time as the only person of your particular color in a region to get past feeling uncomfortable being stared at and long enough to gain an understanding of what it means to be a minority in color, religion, or language. I guarantee foreign policy in the next generation will look different if the people elected have a few of these experiences under their belts.

Flexibility & Creativity

The world is changing, and along with it the rules of the economic game and the job market. Kids who are pushed through a set system into another set system are graduating from universities often under prepared for the real world. We’re still pushing kids through an educational process that was designed for a bygone era. The industrial revolution is over. Nobody gets a job and holds it until they retire any more. Very few corporations exist in a nationalistic bubble any more. The game has changed. The game is constantly changing. Our schools aren’t doing a very good job of keeping up with this reality.

Flexibility and creativity are developed through doing hard things, through things going badly sometimes, through coping with the unexpected, through taking what you’ve got, which is perhaps not enough, and making the best of it, making it work, making something happen.

Lifestyle travel exposes children to diverse cultures and individuals who light the sparks of their imaginations in ways that are impossible in the mainstream school mentality. They learn to live and work in a range of paradigms, with shifting sets of data and resources. They often learn to support themselves in outside-of-the-box ways, and they develop a confidence in their own creativity that will allow them to rise to the top in any vocation they choose. The business world is driven by the movers and the shakers, not the minions. Flexibility and creativity aren’t two things you can work into a lesson plan three times a week and check them off the list. They are developed through doing hard things, through things going badly sometimes, through coping with the unexpected, through taking what you’ve got, which is perhaps not enough, and making the best of it, making it work, making something happen. Travel isn’t the only way to develop those skills, but it is a sure-fire one.

Developing Consciousness

It’s hard for kids growing up in the first world to get a grasp of what it’s like for their counterparts in the second, third, and fourth worlds. A Discovery Channel documentary just doesn’t quite cover the plight of children in sweatshops in the way that meeting a child who has no shoes even though she makes them for a living does. Hearing about countries where a third grade education is the best most people can manage while surfing the internet on one of the three computers your family owns doesn’t quite resonate the same way as realizing your gardener, pillar of his community, father of six, who has been teaching you to cultivate bananas and coffee, cannot read, at all. It’s not quite the same thing to read about the holocaust as it is to visit Buchenwald, pass through that gate with its horrible inscription, and touch the edge of the table where mothers and fathers, children and grandparents, were skinned to make lampshades. Let’s not pretend that it is.

Long term travel and allowing kids to spend enough time slowly soaking in other cultures to have their eyes opened gently teaches lessons that really can’t be learned any other way. Spending hours picking coffee, popping the beans, soaking, drying, shelling, and eventually roasting over weeks leads to discussions about fair trade economics. Watching veiled woman pick olives by hand with sheep’s horns jammed over their fingers for weeks on end makes it impossible to buy cheap olive oil and not see their eyes.

Long term travel and allowing kids to spend enough time slowly soaking in other cultures to have their eyes opened gently teaches lessons that really can’t be learned any other way.

Three dollar t-shirts at Walmart translate directly to slavery on the other end of the production chain. There’s no getting around that. All the preaching in the world or “slavery calculators” on line can’t put faces to products the way slow travel can. Kids who’ve picked the coffee and the olives, seen the barefoot kids hawking their wares, and who’ve eaten rice and beans on the street with dirty faced kids just like them grow up into teens with a heart for social justice and adults who change the world through their buying habits. Those lessons, in general, aren’t being learned within the educational establishment. They simply can’t be, no matter how well intentioned our teachers are.

I’m not saying that you’re selling your kids short if they attend a public school in middle America; there are a lot of good things happening in schools. But I am asking you to consider the possibility that I’m not selling my kids short by keeping them out of schools and educating them differently. There are a few things we’re learning today, on this train ride that’s turning rainy and beginning to smell just a bit like sweat and stale noodles that they wouldn’t be learning in our local school district. Some people travel for the express purpose of education, and it’s a valid, and very viable choice.

If I could change one thing about our educational system, it would be to mandate a six month home stay in the third world for every American child.

If I could change one thing about our educational system, it would be to mandate a six month home stay in the third world for every American child. That would be money well spent for the future of our children, our nation, and our world. In the grand scheme of things, it wouldn’t cost that much to make happen, compared to the millions we’re pouring into things with dubious results. Unfortunately, I can’t change the system, and neither can you. What we can do is to take responsibility for our own kids and their educations, and make sure they get what they need. Perhaps long term travel isn’t something you can, or even want to do. Fair enough. Make the most of the time and resources you have, and get your kids into the world and give them the space and time they need to learn and grow beyond spelling lists and math facts. Those are a good beginning, but they aren’t the sum total.

Check out the following articles and resources:

Every week, on “Round the World Wednesday” we share tips for planning, budgeting and selecting a route, plus advice on where to go and what to see and do all around the world.

Photo credits: EmileVictor, all other photos courtesy of Tony Miller and may not be used without permission.





Leave a Comment

  • Alagu Sundar said at 2014-02-07T07:14:55+0000: Great article. nice explanations. http://www.dreamdestinations.in/
  • Kate Shengelia said at 2013-10-17T06:59:34+0000: I am currently writing an article about Educational Travel. This article is greatly helping me out. To be honest as I was reading this, I started realizing how great it is to come from a traveling family myself, it often makes me slightly uncomfortable, since its hard to meet someone and in certain amount of time leave them, but traveling around the world made me much more open minded, and from what my mother says 'knowledgeable'. Thanks for the great article :D
  • Hawkins Films said at 2013-01-26T22:00:09+0000: wonderful article I will share the link on my blog and website www.ttsmjournal.com.
  • Helen Mason said at 2012-12-19T07:56:47+0000: I am home-educating four children in the UK but we manage to use our motorhome to travel in Europe for up to five weeks at times. I thoroughly admire those families who go further afield and for longer. I would love to do this but it is not financially viable as we are self-employed as run the business from home. I would be really interested to hear how other long term travelling families fund themselves as they travel - I may then lose my fear of making the leap!
  • Marcey Levine said at 2012-10-13T19:46:12+0000: A MUST READ! For anyone of us, Hamilton, MT and beyond with children that are the future of OUR Country! Read to the end.... gets better and better. Thank YOU, BootsnTravel.
  • Sean E Keener said at 2012-06-14T00:47:31+0000: Nice one Jennifer.Here's another idea: I started talking about the idea of mandating 1 year of independent travel for every person after high school back in the early 00's. Why stop at USA, why not the world?Another idea, after the year of travel, instead of going to USA college and spending a pretty penny, start a business or an entity with 1/2 the capital that you would have spent on college. The learning from slow/independent travel and or trying to start your own thing is phenomenal in my experience, and from others that I know that have also done it.So many ideas...TrueHoop Blog on ESPN did/does this thing called #HoopIdea - folks offer up ideas on how to make the game of basketball better - things like - when player flop, fine or suspend them. How about we do a similar thing here at BnA called IndieIdea - or TravelLearnIdea or something named better - lets brainstorm a bunch of ideas and share them together. My guess is we can come up with really cool and doable programs or ideas to get kids traveling and learning on a larger scale than just parents making a decision todo so.At the very least, it will be fun.
  • Andrea Cummins said at 2012-06-13T16:16:23+0000: Well said! I agree with the mandated 6 month home stays for children. And think everyone, around the age of 20 or so, should be required to spend at least a year in independent immersion travel. Much like being drafted into the military - drafted to travel. The world, certainly the USA, would be a much better place.
  • Christina Pilkington said at 2012-06-13T18:24:14+0000: Wonderful article, Jennifer Miller. You're always inspiring my traveling dreams and goals for my family.
  • Mary Turner said at 2012-06-14T00:40:19+0000: Common sense - thanks for writing.
  • Claudia Looi said at 2012-06-13T15:09:09+0000: Jennifer, totally agreeing with you. The world is definitely changing. Sadly, many of our children are still stuck in the 'old'...the bygone years. The majority are still playing the same game and finding themselves unemployable. We saw the writings on the wall 5 years ago and are in the final stages of planning our RTW trip with the children. I like your mandate of 6 months homestay. From one who was raised in a third world country and now live in the 'first world', I can see the value.
  • Leandra Balisky Loewen said at 2012-06-13T15:57:47+0000: Great article, hard to believe you have to "argue" your children are being educated while standing in the hallowed halls of the open world. Hey, if you are by Saiburi, say hi for me, my birthplace...my parents did a four year stint there at a little hospital!
  • Rachel Denning said at 2012-06-13T13:47:04+0000: Awesome Jennifer, very well written! Love it.
  • Tanya Murphy said at 2012-06-13T14:30:37+0000: fantastically well put, argued and illustrated.
  • Karen Schindel Johnson said at 2012-06-13T18:00:46+0000: Kudos to you! Incredibly articulate article.
  • Rebeca Groover said at 2012-06-13T15:31:34+0000: Well said. You continue to inspire us. :>
  • Alisa Saville Lybb said at 2012-06-13T15:52:03+0000: Perfectly put! Thanks for sharing!
  • Penny Tsai said at 2012-06-14T05:25:48+0000: Great article
  • Leona Sky said at 2012-06-29T08:42:03+0000: Very inspirational post Jennifer! I fully agree with you. All the best for your travels, lots of love from Germany, may god bless you, Leona.
  • Paula Vlamings said at 2012-06-25T23:37:28+0000: "Flexibility and creativity aren’t two things you can work into a lesson plan three times a week and check them off the list. They are developed through doing hard things, through things going badly sometimes, through coping with the unexpected, through taking what you’ve got, which is perhaps not enough, and making the best of it, making it work, making something happen". Travel does that. you are teaching your children the real values our world needs. and I admire your courage.
  • Jessie Voigts said at 2012-06-22T02:44:22+0000: Love this, Jennifer - and I totally agree with world-schooling - and you're LIVING it! What a great resource you are - as well as inspiration for other families to get out and explore the world!
  • Lisa Chiodo said at 2012-06-17T10:09:04+0000: We experienced this first hand traveling with our children, we plan to do this again very soon and as our son has mild Autism the outcry is even louder if that is possible. What better way to teach him about the world and its inhabitants than to show him. Fabulous article and off to share! ciao lisa (Renovating Italy).
  • Family Travel Bucket List said at 2012-06-13T18:38:53+0000: We were JUST talking about the education our kids are getting this morning...while riding a public bus...full of beautiful Mexican people...on the way to an outdoor market. If our children learn NOTHING else, may they learn to see themselves as equal, not better or worse, than those around them. I'm afraid I didn't learn that in my 37 yrs of life in the US, but it's hard NOT to learn that in just a few short months outside the US.
  • Anissa Keating said at 2012-06-13T17:07:50+0000: Thanks for the thought-provoking article. I'm more interested in the logistics of how you do this - do you and your spouse work remotely? How does that schedule interfere or work with the travel/daily schedule? How do you determine where and when to travel? And how extensively do you plan each trip? Thanks again!
  • Renee D'Antoni said at 2012-06-13T17:53:26+0000: Wonderful and well-written article, one of the best I've read concerning the educational philosophy of traveling families. Thanks for sharing.
  • Dot Schwarz said at 2012-06-13T16:38:00+0000: How do you finance this? And how do you compensate for the kids lack of a peer group?