Author: Jennifer Sutherland-Miller

Long Term Travel As Education

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Our family of six ended up spending seven years traveling full-time travel, and despite what many may think, 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 didn’t live this way by default, because our first lifestyle choice didn’t work out. We walked the world as a family on purpose, specifically for the education of our young people.

When we were on the road, it drove 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?!”

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 were 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, plus 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 a 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.

We’ve heard many questions like, “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.

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.

“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.'”

When we were in SE Asia a few years back, the boys read 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.

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, to see how it applies to their life so they see how, and why. We know a girl who is fifteen, done with her high school 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.

What works? Here are a handful of educational experiences our children have had since we’ve been on the road:

  • Wintering in a Muslim country post 9-11
  • Experiencing illiteracy in Eastern Europe
  • Living and learning barefoot with Mayan tribes who share Spanish with you as a second language.
  • 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.
“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.”

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.
“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.”
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.

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.  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. 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.

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