Maybe it’s because we’re both teachers or maybe it’s a question that all parents of traveling families get, but we get asked a lot about our son’s education. Aren’t they in school? How do they learn?
In return, I tell people that Davy and Daryl have learned more in these years on the road than in a whole school career back home. They’ve learned about themselves and others, they’ve learned about the world they live in, and they’ve learned a myriad of life lessons that will carry them into adulthood and beyond. But that isn’t really what people were asking about…
What people ask about is the “school stuff”. They want to know about reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic. Science and social studies. The stuff you see on a report card.
And then I tell them that kids learn. They just learn. Their brains are designed to make sense of the world around them and if they are placed in a challenging, stimulating environment, they learn.
One of my favorite stories to illustrate how easy it is to educate kids on the road is the one about Davy learning to read. Daryl has always been a strong reader – he started reading in PreK and loved to read to his brother. Davy loved the books and the two of them shared many, many hours engrossed in books – Daryl reading and Davy listening. I’m sure because of that, Davy never felt a need to learn to read himself.
In grade 1, Davy tested well below grade level in reading. We spent many evenings having him read to us, and by 2nd grade he was at grade level – barely. He struggled to keep up with the rest of the class and was a pretty reluctant reader.
In 3rd grade, we took the boys out of school and started biking. For the first few months, we were pretty overwhelmed by the logistics of biking all day and planning a route and finding food and water and… We didn’t read with the kid at all. Every night we curled up in the tent and read TO them, but Davy didn’t read a word for a few months (or so we thought).
Then one day it was pouring rain and we made the decision to stay put – riding in cold rain ain’t no fun! So there we were, four of us crammed into a tiny tent ALL DAY as rain poured from the heavens. What to do??
We were reading Where the Red Fern Grows at the time (about a 4th grade level) so I read and read and read until I couldn’t read any more. Then I handed the book to John and he read and read and read. Then I read some more. Then John. We handed the book to Daryl and he read. We took turns – I read a chapter, then John, then Daryl. We skipped Davy because he couldn’t read (or so we thought).
I’m still not sure why, but finally John handed the book to Davy and asked him to read a chapter. I was mortified. It was one of those situations where your stomach does a flip flop and you know your kid is about to be humiliated but you’re powerless to do anything about it.
But the kid surprised me – he read it flawlessly!!! I’m serious – completely, totally fluently. At a fourth grade level and he was just a few months into third grade!
That experience taught me that kids learn. In spite of their teachers. In spite of all our fancy-schmancy, new-fangled, electronic gadgets designed to teach. Kids’ brains are designed to learn – that’s what they do.
We learn when our brains create dendrites – physical connections between brain cells. Each person walking this earth was born with all the brain cells they will ever have – somewhere around 100 billion of them. That’s a 1 with eleven zeros behind it. In other words – that’s a lot of brain cells. But those cells are pretty much worthless unless they are connected together, and that’s the job of the dendrites.
Dendrites are physical connections within the brain that join cells together. Each brain cell (neuron) can be connected with up to 15,000 other neurons, creating a complex network for messages to whiz from one part of the brain to another.
The more dendrites we have, the more ‘connected’ the neurons, the easier it is to learn anything – it’s easier to find a “hook” to something else you already know so therefore it’s easier to fit the new knowledge in and have it make sense. But growing dendrites only happens when you are in a challenging, stimulating environment.
Think about learning a new video game. At first it’s a challenge – you have to reason through everything and try to make sense of it and figure out how all the pieces fit together. But once you’ve mastered it, it’s easy – you can do on autopilot. That’s because it was hard growing those dendrites in the first place, but once they are in place, they are there.
As we travel, our kids are always in new and stimulating environments, therefore their brains are always growing dendrites which makes it easier for them to learn anything. It appears as though their brains are so stimulated by everything that is going on around them that they just pick stuff up – it goes in through osmosis.
Does this mean kids must travel in order to learn efficiently? Absolutely not. As long as they are in a stimulating environment that challenges them to think and reason and explore new things, they are growing. It’s just that it’s easier to get kids in those challenging and stimulating environments while traveling.