How can travel help kids learn?

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.


Statue of Liberty

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.


Reading with Mennonites



books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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14 Responses to How can travel help kids learn?

  1. Jenn December 21, 2010 at 2:51 pm #

    I love this. We homeschool/unschool and I sometimes struggle with the letting go and just letting them learn part of it but I keep stories like this packed away in my head to remind me that they will learn and in fact are hungry to do so.

  2. Jacqueline December 21, 2010 at 3:32 pm #

    Another great tale of the importance of stimulating experiences in the learning process. I’m happy you “flipped the map” and I’m really enjoying your final months into Patagonia – an area I would love to visit on day.

  3. Beth Partin December 21, 2010 at 8:51 pm #

    That was a really great article about learning and how it affects the brain. It’s something I really concerned about now because my father has Alzheimer’s, as did 3 of his 4 siblings. So I’m trying to find ways to keep making those connections in the hope that it will help stave off Alz for me.

  4. vicky December 22, 2010 at 3:01 am #

    Kids are capable of driving you nuts if you haven’t planned ahead to keep them occupied while traveling. Here is how to save both money and sanity while traveling with kids.

  5. Mark_Fr December 22, 2010 at 1:40 pm #

    There is something about living in a changing environment that allows for rapid learning. It is very exciting. Merry Christmas!

  6. pragmatic mom December 22, 2010 at 4:59 pm #

    What a great story. Thanks for sharing. I think that everyone develops at a different rate and that motivation is a powerful tool. Kudos to you for your persistence and encouragement … and for getting the right book in front of your son!

  7. Jeff Bartlett December 22, 2010 at 8:29 pm #

    Awesome. Oddly, this is the same book that changed my reading/school life forever. I had always battled my mom when it came to reading assignments but I’d just broken my leg when we received Where The Red Fern Grows. Much to her surprise, I sat quietly and read every page without complaint. Since then, I’ve never been without a book to read and I some how turned into a writer.

    The more I see how I learned, the more I believe it’s usually circumstance and approach that will succeed.

  8. UltraRob December 22, 2010 at 10:35 pm #

    We’re always amazed at how much more our kids learn when we just go on a trip for a week. We don’t even make a conscious effort. They see new things and ask questions and we give them answers but for them it’s something new.

  9. Teresa December 24, 2010 at 4:55 pm #

    Merry Christmas to you!

  10. John at EWR Parking December 25, 2010 at 9:21 am #

    Base on my experience, I can say that I learned a lot. But since we are talking about kids, it is important to be careful on where we bring them because whatever they see can be a guide to them whether good or bad.

    It’s also good that children learns to travel at a young age because they get to discover a lot of things and see it on their own eyes, as they always say, we don’t only learn from books and school.

    Merry Christmas and Happy 2011!

  11. Andrew.outdoor December 30, 2016 at 3:18 am #

    What a great post! It always amazes me how much my kids learn while we are traveling and the things they learn tend to stick with them much more than the lessons that they learn at school. Seeing things for yourself makes a much deeper impression.

    • Nancy Sathre-Vogel December 31, 2016 at 12:54 am #

      It is remarkable, no? I’m not sure things “stick” more than things they learn at school – but it’s certain that different things stick!


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