I know what you’re thinking: “What the heck is road schooling?” It seems like every time we turn around, someone is creating a new educational buzz word that is ill defined but trendy. Relax. This isn’t that. It’s just the easiest way to describe an education taken on the road. 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.
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 she’s learning and expand on it.
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.
What the heck is road schooling? 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 she’s learning and expand on it.
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.
Our goal, for our children, in their educations, is to prepare them for anything the world might present to them, in opportunity or challenge.
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.
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?
Spend twice as much time defining your philosophy of education as you do worrying about what to teach.
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.
They are responsible for their own educations, and they check in with me periodically for progress reports.
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 discuss 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, and 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 neighboring 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 interment 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.
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.
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.
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 tripartite symmetry, the differences between gothic and renaissance architecture, and the famous painters who decorated the insides.
Choose a project that can run the course of your trip, and get the whole family invested in each child’s project.
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 its “other” benefits.
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.
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. Your child can use his journal to catalog anything he finds interesting about the trip.
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 journaling independently at 7. All four are now enthusiastic and prolific writers; the two teenagers both write and 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.
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.
Are you beginning to catch the vision for the possibilities? Are your creative juices flowing yet? Have those fears about what your kids will be “missing” and how they’ll “catch up” fading into the background yet? I hope so!
Education is immeasurably important. It’s a good thing to spend time worrying about it, planning it, and carefully structuring for your child’s wild success as you take off traveling and everything changes for your family. I’d never trivialize your concerns, in fact, I applaud you for being the sort of parent who is thinking deeply enough to realize that there are things your child can’t learn if you don’t take this trip. That you are fully invested in the process is the single biggest indicator of your impending triumph.
You can do this! How do I know? I did it, and I’m nothing special. Our eldest is in university now and at the top of her class in most subjects. Her online classmates haven’t even noticed her age deficit. She’s not a special case. She’s one of thousands of outside-the-box educated young people who are charging adulthood like castle walls, armed with big dreams and real world experience. Your kids can do that.
In a nutshell: Carefully consider your philosophy of education. This is the single most important step. Then choose a solid math program that’s portable, and maybe a language one to go with it, if you’re not confident teaching kids to write well. Around that, spin a web of wonder with the real world as you travel, and tie in everything that presents itself. It’s not a matter of “knowing how to teach,” it’s a matter of the tiniest mindset shift towards learning together. The world will teach you both, if you’re brave enough to trust your gut as a parent and let her.
I’ve written much more about education and road schooling, and I would love to help you forward in any way I can. If my approach resonates with you, have a dig through the education section of my blog. You can also read a much longer treatise on road schooling, with recommendations by age group and a long section full of road-tested resources for primary school through university level studies in Wandr’ly Magazine’s Road Schooling 101. They’ve graciously allowed me to reprint segments of that article as part of this one. Don’t hesitate to shoot me an email (through my website), and I’ll be happy to help you figure out what will work best for your family. It’s one of my favorite things to do!
So, do you have questions? Comments? Ask them below, or email me! Let’s talk about how you can take your kids’ education on the road!
For more on family travel and education on the road, check out the following artilces:
- Five Reasons Parents Should Travel with Their Kids (From a Teen’s Perspective)
- Long Term Travel as Education
- Educational Travel: How to Get Permission and Justify the Experience to Your Local School