Roadschooling: The ins and outs

  • Will my kids learn everything they need to know?
  • Will I be able to keep up with my children’s education on the road?
  • Will I harm my children so they’ll never be able to live a normal life?

These are questions most parents ask before setting out for long term travel. Will the travel be good for my kids?

salmon bake on Yurok Reservation

Enjoying a salmon bake on the Yurok Reservation in California

The answers are no, yes, no, and yes. Your children will never learn everything they need to know, you’ll do just fine educating them, you won’t harm them, and yes the travel will be good for them.

I get a fair number of emails from people around the world asking me about how to roadschool. They’re wanting to take off and travel for a year or more and are wondering how to fit schooling in with travel. How, exactly, does that marriage work?

Today I got an email from Merlijn from Stirling, UK asking me the same questions. Excellent questions, I might add, that many parents have. I thought my responses to her would be perfect for other wannabe travelers as well.

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This is truly a complicated question with many different aspects to address. In this post, I’ll do my best to explain our approach and how we dealt with it, but be aware that there are as many different ways of roadschooling as there are families wanting to do it.

What is Education?
What is Roadschooling?
How do I Roadschool?
Roadschooling Social Studies
Roadschooling Science
Roadschooling Reading
Roadschooling Writing and Researching
Roadschooling Mathematics
How much time needs to be spent on schooling?
Formalizing Education
Parental curiosity is key
Tips for enriching the experience
Materials for Roadschooling

What is Education?

seastars on oregon coast

Kids are naturally curious and want to understand their world

Kids are naturally curious and have an innate desire to make sense of the world around them.  In other words – they want to learn.  Have you ever seen your child out digging in the ground, trying to pull earthworms out of the dirt?  And then that same child proudly shows you all the segments and explains how the worm wiggles to move?  She is simply trying to put the pieces together to make sense of what’s around her.

Kids have an inborn inclination to want to make sense of their world. Education is the process of learning that.

What is Roadschooling?

Education doesn’t have to take place within the confines of four walls, and roadschoolers have learned to take full advantage of that fact.  Many families have opted out of a ‘traditional’ education, and have chosen instead to take their children out to see the world – whether in RVs, planes, buses, or bicycles. Roadschooling families make a conscious effort to capitalize on children’s natural penchant toward learning. They go out of their way to visit historical and/or scientific sites in order to arouse that sense of curiosity in children.

fort ross state park

History comes alive when you can climb on cannons

As families travel throughout the world visiting historical sites, children gain an understanding of what life was like on the fields of Gettysburg or in ancient Mayan cities. They visit museums and national parks and natural wonders. Roadschooling parents encourage their children to learn from everything surrounding them and the kids learn in a natural learning environment.

Learning takes place around the clock, wherever you happen to be. Education is a lifestyle, with the whole family taking advantage of a visit to a battlefield to learn about the Civil War or learning how locks work during a visit to the Panama Canal.

How do I Roadschool?

Each family’s approach to roadschooling is as unique as that particular family. Some families take a very organized approach and carefully plan out their destinations to mesh with their curriculum. They may plan trips to historical sites, buy books about that period in history, and make an entire unit out of it. Other families have a more relaxed attitude about their child’s education, believing he/she will learn just from the experience of travel itself.

We used a variety of methods, depending on what we wanted our children to learn. I’ll address the various subjects individually here.

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Roadschooling Social Studies

oregon trail

Being on the Oregon Trail gives kids a much deeper understanding of what the pioneers experienced

One of the things I learned from my many years of teaching and serving on curriculum committees is that schools don’t have all the answers. There is no magic set of knowledge that all kids need to learn. I wrote about that idea a while ago: Education = Learning = School?

Does it really matter if kids learn about the Civil War or Falklands War or Vietnam War? Do the specifics matter or is the important thing the overarching themes behind the reasons behind the wars? If children learn about one or two wars in depth, does that information transfer to other wars?

My experience has shown me that what’s important is that kids understand there are two sides to any war. The winner is not necessarily “right” or “better” than the loser. Once kids understand that idea, they are capable of understanding all wars.

Is it imperative that Americans learn about the Civil and Revolutionary Wars and Argentinians learn about the Falkland War? That’s up to individual parents: if you feel it’s important that your child know the history of your own country, then make sure you visit historical sites from those eras.

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Roadschooling Science

This is probably the area that is hardest because it’s so vast. The amount of knowledge and information in our world is doubling and tripling at an astounding rate. In the past, it was conceivably possible to teach kids pretty much all the science they needed to know. Today, it’s impossible.

joshua trees

You’ll see a variety of vegetation while traveling, which is a perfect lead-in to a discussion about habitats

Ultimately, the actual content kids learn doesn’t matter. Given the vast amount of information out there, it doesn’t matter if a child learns the phases of the moon, the parts of a flower, the nitty-gritty of how surface tension works, or the systems of the human body. What’s important is that they learn the process of figuring all that stuff out.

If you compare roadschooling to the typical school curriculum (in the USA anyway), it’s a pretty good comparison. One school might teach astronomy and carbon dating, while another teaches properties of matter and cell formation. One roadschooling family might spend time at the Grand Canyon and study the geological layers of the earth while another visits the Florida Everglades and studies march ecosystems.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what content your child learns. What matters is that he understands

  • That there is an enormous amount of information out there and
  • How to find out about it if he wants to

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Roadschooling Reading

reading a guidebook

Allowing kids to plan your destinations helps them feel more a part of the journey

Way back in 1995 when I was about to teach first grade for the very first time, I was terrified. I knew how to teach kids to read better, but had no clue how to teach them to read in the first place. A friend of mine gave me the best advice ever: “Don’t worry, the kids will learn to read in spite of what you do.”

And that’s true. All kids need in order to learn how to read is the desire, created by seeing parents read, and the opportunity. Read to your children, have books around, encourage them to read whatever they see. That’s all it takes. They’ll read.

As they develop into stronger readers, continue to encourage reading by being environments rich with words. Take time to actually read the explanations on displays at museums, have books in the car, read everything you can. It works, it really does.

I wrote about how my son’s reading improved dramatically once we hit the road here: How travel helps kids learn

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Roadschooling Writing and Researching

This is probably the easiest area to take advantage of your travels. Have your child keep a journal for his free writing skills. Have him write formal edited essays about what you see so you can work with him on spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc… It doesn’t matter what he writes about; it’s the process of writing that counts.

We tied writing with researching during most of our travels. Our kids researched what we were seeing and wrote essays about them. That gave us a chance to work with the boys on figuring out the research skills and also to help them edit their writing to perfection. You can read the essays our sons wrote here: Exploring the Pan American Highway

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Roadschooling Mathematics

Math, in our opinion, was the one area we were not able to adequately use our journey for. For younger kids (approximately under the age of 8 or so) everything they need in terms of mathematics can quite easily be worked in to your travels, but once they get into higher math, not so.

math homework

Our children worked through their math books in hotels or campgrounds

All younger kids need is an understanding of the number system and how to manipulate numbers with addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. All of these are easily incorporated into your travels. Have your child total up the amounts you’ll spend in restaurants or stores, calculate gas mileage for your vehicle, how many miles left to the destination, etc…

Once a child gets up to needing to manipulate fractions, decimals, and algebraic equations, it’ll be much harder to build a complete program into your travels. There will be many times when you can bring in real-life examples based on your experiences, but not the entire program.

For that level, we carried math books with us on the bikes and the boys worked through them in hotels or campgrounds.

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How much time needs to be spent on schooling?

Merlijn continued:

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You’d be surprised. When your life revolves around education, you end up spending very little time on it. And yet you spend all your time on it.

alcatraz

Spending all day learning about Alcatraz means effortless “school”

OK, that sounds weird. What I’m trying to say is that as you travel, you’ll be doing this stuff anyway. You’ll go to national parks and explore the visitor centers and listen to ranger talks. That’s all “school.” You’ll take hikes around battlefields and talk about the wars that happened there as you walk. That’s “school” too.

Every time you visit a cheese factory or a zoo, when you play in tidal pools along the coast or race up sand dunes, it’s “school.” Take advantage of every opportunity to get out and play, and your kids will be in school all the time.

In the evenings, after a long day of playing tourist, you’ll need some down time – that’s when your kids will reach for books to relax with. There’s your reading for the day. Before they go to bed, have them spend a few minutes writing a journal entry.

You don’t have to stress about it – you really don’t.

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Formalizing Education

All the varied experiences are great and all, but if the kids don’t have the language to communicate what they know from racing up sand dunes, that’s a problem. I have absolutely no idea if there is an official term for this, but I call the next step the formalization process.

For example, my sons rode their bikes the length of the Baja peninsula. They had looked at the map and saw the long arm of land jutting out into the ocean. When they got to the southern end, they got on a ferry to the mainland because there was no land route across. They “knew” what that peninsula was all about. They cycled all thousand miles of it.

Yet they never knew it was called a peninsula. If someone had asked them about peninsulas, they would have responded that they had no idea, even though they knew more about them than most people. We needed to take their education to that formalization stage and give them the word for what they already knew. It just takes a few seconds once they understand the idea behind the vocabulary, but it’s a necessary step.

redwoods

As you explore, be sure to use proper vocabulary so your children can communicate with others

A good guide you could use would be to have some science and social studies texts from school and jump around to coincide with when you see something. That way you have an idea of what kinds of words the kids will be expected to know.

That said, I wouldn’t worry much about it. We pulled our kids out of school for third grade to cycle around the USA and Mexico. They went back to fourth grade and came home complaining that they were lost – the other kids had learned a whole lot of stuff that my boys hadn’t. Within a month, however, that was over. As it happened, they had learned the same stuff, but didn’t have the same vocabulary as the other kids. It didn’t take long for them to associate the words with what they knew and speak a common language.

The conceptual understanding is the hard part – the vocabulary to name it is easy.

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Parental curiosity is key

All the research in the world won’t help much if parents don’t set the tone about learning. When we’re excited and enthusiastic about learning something, our kids are too. When we’re yawning and bored and want to head out, our kids pick up on that as well.

gaucho gil shrine argentina

Bright red shrines like this dot the roadsides in Argentina. They are dedicated to Gaucho Gil, a popular saint

One of our most incredible learning experiences was sparked by my curiosity. We had seen small shrines on the side of the road since Mexico, but in Argentina we starting seeing some that were painted bright red. The red shrines all had red flags hanging from the tree above them. I was puzzled. Why red? What was the story?

As we sat on the side of the road taking breaks, I puzzled over the red shrines. Why? It didn’t take long before my sons were curious too. As soon as we reached town, we researched and discovered a delightfully fascinating story. You can read it here: Gaucho Gil

My boys most likely never would have realized there were bright red shrines if it hadn’t been for me bringing it up. It was my excitement and curiosity that drove them to wanting to learn about it. Keep your love of learning active and delve into what’s around you. Your kids will do the same.

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Tips for enriching the experience

When you visit a new site, you basically have three options for how to deal with it:

  1. Research about it before you get there
  2. Research about it after the visit
  3. Don’t research at all, but learn what you can while there.
panama canal

A prior understanding of how ships were raised and lowered in the Panama Canal helped us to understand what was happening at the canal. It also allowed us to take our learning beyond the basics.

Depending on the situation, all three of those approaches can be perfect. Overall, I would say our sons learned more when we researched beforehand. When we knew we would arrive at the Panama Canal soon, we took some time to research the history of the canal, the engineering challenges they faced building it, and the ecological effects of connecting the two oceans.

By the time we showed up in person, our boys knew a lot about how it all worked and why it was special. That then freed them up to move beyond the basics while there. They could talk with the rangers and ask detailed questions to take their learning above and beyond. If they had arrived there with no knowledge at all, they would have spent their time at the canal learning the basics. The prior knowledge allowed them to take it further.

Although this is a great strategy, the truth is that it can’t be done all the time. Sometimes you’ll stumble upon a site that you didn’t know existed and other times you are swamped and simply can’t manage to do a bunch of research before visiting. That’s when you have two choices.

cannons in Panama

To this day we have no idea what these cannons in Panama are all about. We stopped, climbed on the cannons for a while, then continued on

You can choose to research after the fact. At the site, they’ve learned the basics and now they can take it a step farther through research. Although we did this a number of times, we found it was harder than researching before because most websites only have the basic info. The rangers could get us further than internet research could. That said, if it’s a fascinating site and you want to learn more, that’s a way to take it the next step.

Or you can choose to let it go. Accept that what you learned by visiting the site is enough and don’t research it at all. There were times when we did that simply because a) we were too tired to bother studying at all or b) there was something else nearby that we found more interesting. It’s all good.

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Materials for Roadschooling

You won’t need much to successfully roadschool your children. I’ve written about that here: What materials do I need to roadschool?

Nancy Sathre-Vogel and her husband are both long-time schoolteachers who made the decision to quit their jobs in order to travel fulltime with their children. Nancy taught for 21 years in grades 1 – 9, in both general ed and Special Ed. She has a master’s degree in Integrated Math & Science with an emphasis on brain research as it applies to learning. Now she’s homeschooling her teenage twin sons, playing with beads, and writing blog entries.

 

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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23 Responses to Roadschooling: The ins and outs

  1. Micki@theBarefootNomad May 16, 2012 at 2:35 pm #

    Awesome post! Thanks so much, Nancy. In a few months, we’ll start our first long trip since our oldest (now 6) entered school. It’s nice to have some advice from someone who’s been there.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Reply:

    @Micki@theBarefootNomad, Awesome! You’ll have a blast. Don’t worry about it for the little kids – they’ll learn tons anyway.

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  2. Jackie May 16, 2012 at 10:08 pm #

    I LOVED reading your post! It was exciting to see how you create a love for learning within your children. We are semi-eclectic unschoolers. I say semi because we use an online resource, Time4Learning, and whatever else my daughter is interested in learning more about. I have made a few friends online that are roadschoolers and they also use T4L as they roadschool.

    I couldn’t agree more when you said it’s really about kids figuring out how to find answers:

    >>>>Ultimately, the actual content kids learn doesn’t matter. Given the vast amount of information out there, it doesn’t matter if a child learns the phases of the moon, the parts of a flower, the nitty-gritty of how surface tension works, or the systems of the human body. What’s important is that they learn the process of figuring all that stuff out.<<<<<<

    Stay safe, and thanks so much for sharing!

    Joyfully,
    Jackie
    My Attempt at Blogging
    Quaint Scribbles and 3 D Learners

    [Reply]

    Nancy Reply:

    @Jackie, There is so much information out there now that there’s no way anyone can know it all. If you know how to learn, then whatever you need to learn you’ll be able to do it. Thanks for posting about Time4learning – I hadn’t heard of that.

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    Jackie Reply:

    @Nancy, You are very welcome.

    When I start feeling like I am not teaching my child enough, I try to remind myself that nobody will ever learn it all. Sometimes I listen! :)

    [Reply]

    Nancy Reply:

    @Jackie, I know the feeling. All too well, in fact.

  3. John May 17, 2012 at 6:53 am #

    Being gone for 5 months now I Would only add that for math and science, if you have internet access, the Kahn Academy http://www.khanacademy.org/ Rocks. It Is keeping us up with California 8th Grade Algebra, and as a bonus the lessons about the French Revolution were priceless before visiting Napoleon’s “Apartments” in the Louvre

    [Reply]

    Nancy Reply:

    @John, I’ve heard great things about the Kahn Academy. We’ve never used it, but I’ve heard from many who have.

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  4. gabi May 17, 2012 at 11:01 am #

    Nancy,
    We’re on the road now 15 months and just today Kobi and I were talking about this…. “Are we doing our children right here? Are we educating them enough? Will our world-school/un-school/workbook-school flow serve them for these years? And, how in the world will they integrate back into the classroom?” We’re still not sure, but I can promise you we’ll sit down to read this article, slowly, together, and see if it helps us decide the next steps to take on the road. Thank you,
    Gabi

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    Nancy Reply:

    @gabi, It will always be a question in the back of your head. Even if you were back in Israel doing the typical expected thing, you would wonder the exact same thing. Maybe they’ll be able to integrate back in, maybe they won’t – but you’ll face that when the time comes. For now, teach them everything you can about the world and trust they’ll be OK.

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  5. Heather Caliri May 18, 2012 at 10:20 am #

    We are planning a big stay in Argentina next year, and are already trying to educate our kids without school, and without much formal planning. I’m astonished at how much richer and more real the learning is when it’s in the context of real life. You might lose some breadth or outside confirmation that what you’re doing works, but you’ll gain a richer understanding of how much there is to learn for you and your kids.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Reply:

    @Heather Caliri, Exactly. Kids learn so much faster (we ALL do, really) when they can see and touch and smell it. Get them there and they learn in a few minutes, try to build that background from a book and it’s a whole lot harder.

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  6. Ryan at Travel and Graphs May 18, 2012 at 3:08 pm #

    I am nowhere near the age at which I want to have children, but this post really made me re-think what I previously thought was possible when that time comes.

    [Reply]

    Nancy Reply:

    @Ryan at Travel and Graphs, Everything is possible! Kids are so much more capable than we typically give them credit for. When you do have kids, take them with you!

    [Reply]

  7. Katie May 22, 2012 at 7:03 pm #

    “When your life revolves around education, you end up spending very little time on it. And yet you spend all your time on it.”

    I strongly believe in this! We also apply it to parenting in general at our house. We end up spending very little time on it because we have spent every minute actively parenting since day 1. Our kids benefit from the consistency and routine in parenting and education!

    I loved the post!

    [Reply]

    Nancy Reply:

    @Katie, Agreed. When your life revolves around anything, you don’t feel like you spend time on it, yet you spend all your time on it.

    [Reply]

  8. Nate at Passport Parents August 29, 2012 at 5:04 pm #

    Nancy,

    This was truly an inspirational post. We put together a roundup today of some of our favorite posts on alternative educational approaches while traveling and included this one if you’d like to take a look.

    We appreciate you sharing your journey and inspiring so many other parents who want to set out in search of global family experiences.

    Nate & Lindsay

    [Reply]

  9. Living Outside of the Box September 28, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

    What a great post, Nancy! I love how you said:
    “In the end, it doesn’t matter what content your child learns. What matters is that he understands
    That there is an enormous amount of information out there and How to find out about it if he wants to”

    This is key! This is the most important skill that “education” can give us…the desire and ability to find and understand information!

    I also loved your examples of how parents can be engaged in the learning, as well. Although we’ve just started on our “roadschooling” adventure, I love how the education part is falling into place so naturally…as we all seek to better understand what we are seeing each day!

    [Reply]

    Nancy Reply:

    @Living Outside of the Box, It’s all about helping our kids become lifelong learners. They need to know how to find info if they need/want it.

    [Reply]

  10. tereza crump aka mytreasuredcreations April 13, 2013 at 10:32 pm #

    This is one of the best posts I have ever read on education. Thank you for simplifying education and learning. :)

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @tereza crump aka mytreasuredcreations, Thank you! Learning really is a pretty simple thing.

    [Reply]

  11. Minna January 30, 2014 at 3:54 am #

    School may be one of the biggest things that hold my family back from long term travel in the future. The arguments are will the child learn as much and as well as in a school and will she miss out on forming friendships. I also understand that homeschooling or roadschooling takes a commitment. The whole family will need to be committed to spend time on the child’s education and helping her with that.

    Our daughter is one year old now so this is not an issue right now :)

    This struck a chord with me too: “In the end, it doesn’t matter what content your child learns. What matters is that he understands that there is an enormous amount of information out there and how to find out about it if he wants to. ”

    [Reply]

    Nancy Sathre-Vogel Reply:

    @Minna, I think many people have the idea that schools have some sort of scientifically developed program that ensures that kids will graduate knowing everything they need. That’s simply not true. Wish I could get more people to understand that.

    [Reply]

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