Update: I now have a book out containing all this information and more. You can find it here: Roadschooling – The Ultimate Guide to Education Through Travel
- 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?
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.
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 Writing and Researching
How much time needs to be spent on schooling?
Parental curiosity is key
Tips for enriching the experience
Materials for Roadschooling
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When you visit a new site, you basically have three options for how to deal with it:
- Research about it before you get there
- Research about it after the visit
- Don’t research at all, but learn what you can while there.
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.
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.
You won’t need much to successfully roadschool your children. I’ve written about that here: What materials do I need to roadschool?
My book contains all this information and more. You can find it here: Roadschooling – The Ultimate Guide to Education Through Travel
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.