My husband, Rob, and I put our lives on hold for a year—renting out our house in Winnipeg, taking leaves of absence from our jobs, and pulling our children out of school to travel to 15 countries on four continents.
So we were no longer in our twenties, when most people do a trip like that, but as soon-to-be-forty-somethings we were bored with how structured our life had become. We felt like we didn’t want to wait till we were empty-nesters either—we wanted to experience the world with our children—before they reached that age when they would pretend not to know us if we bumped into each other at the mall.
Roadschooling: Why some families homeschool while travelling the world There were many, many bumps along the road that year, for sure, but we survived; we grew; and most importantly we loved it. These are the lessons we brought home—and you don’t need to circle the globe to steal them.
1. Doing is better than owning
My husband, Rob, and I allowed ourselves one backpack each. Two in total, for four people’s belongings. For an entire year. I had to rethink my definition of necessity and jettison items that now fell under the luxury category, such as hair conditioner, tweezers, and more than a week’s worth of underwear. It was painful. Our daughter Isla Blue (age 5) also had an agonizing decision to make—which one Beanie Boo out of her collection of hundreds would be her chosen travelling companion?
But over the course of the year— for the sake of Rob and my aging backs—we got really good at simple living and learned to shift even further from our old consumerist mentality. As we celebrated birthdays on the road, we developed a rule that gifts had to be consumable. For my birthday, in New Zealand, I was granted a child-free day touring the tasting rooms of wineries. In Gili Air, Indonesia, we took our then eight-year-old son Oskar to buy roman candles, bottle rockets and firecrackers, so he could design his own fireworks show on the beach. In Thailand, Isla Blue lit and released paper lanterns into the night sky, watching them sail off over the ocean.
Not only did we create cherished memories on those occasions, we found that the more we participated in the traditions of the countries we visited—whether cooking lessons, dance classes, or trying out musical instruments—the kids stopped asking, “Can we buy this?” and instead started saying, “Can we do this?”
2. When you let go of academic goals, learning experiences come organically.
Isla bucked the reader that I’d picked up back in Canada every time I pulled it out for a reading lesson. As we lived out of our campervan in Australia, I worried she was going to return home, half way through first grade, not knowing how to string a sentence together. But when I sauntered up to her in a national park one drizzly afternoon, I found her at a placard, in her little yellow rain jacket, sounding out words about butterflies and plants native to the area. She was learning how to read—just not in the way we’d expected.
Oskar naturally learned the capital cities of countries we flew into, like Fiji and Samoa, (even though upon returning home, he would fail a test on naming Canada’s ten provinces). The lesson I learned was that the most authentic educational moments of our trip happened organically. Classrooms were most often the parks, museums and attractions we visited, and the lessons learned from lived experiences stuck way better than anything my kids have been taught from a textbook.
3. Kids learn more life skills on the road than in the classroom.
Our trip abroad allowed us to discover our son’s passion for navigation. Rarely do we take buses in our home city, but on our trip, public transportation opened up the world of mapping and routing for Oskar. He could often be found scanning the subway map in a large city like Kuala Lumpur, formulating the fastest route to a museum or market.
He also exhibited a keen interest in the expense tracker app that my husband used to keep us within our very stringent trip budget. So, early on we loaded the app onto Oskar’s iPad and started handing him all our receipts. One afternoon in Auckland, I was savouring an expensive, but much-needed latte after a particularly arduous day of driving when Oskar asked me to hand over the coffee receipt. He then pointed out that he could not find my eight-dollar latte anywhere in the $150-a-day budget. (I whispered to my husband to please remove that app from his iPad before he discovered the bottle of cheap Malbec I’d slipped onto the grocery bill.) The children surprised us by often proving they could pitch in and contribute.
4. Breaking your own parenting rules is not always bad parenting.
Isla stood in the middle of the street in downtown Singapore and screamed, “I’m done with this dumb trip!” Her face looked like a ripe cherry tomato that was about to explode; the heat was a searing 40 degrees; and we were so drenched from the humidity that we needed to wring out our shirts.
She had reached her threshold when, like a mirage, I spotted a 7/11 up the street. Normally I’d not take my kids to one of these stores, where candy lines the shelves and soda fills the fridge. We might now hold the record for trips made to 7/11 in a single day, but I learned that sometimes when in different places you have to throw your usual rules and standards out the window. Our tour of Singapore incorporated the heavily air conditioned 7/11s throughout the city.
5. Little kids thrive on structure, but they grow from a little unpredictability.
If I were to do it all over again, I admit I might have waited until Isla was a few years older. We spent days on buses at dizzying altitudes in South America, ate food we weren’t familiar with in Asia, and boarded wobbly boat rides in the South Pacific. This is definitely not the structure, routine and consistency children at that age require. That said, over the course of the year, she did develop coping strategies, and we learned to slow down our pace and take breaks to allow our daughter to acclimatize to new environments.
Two years later, when I overhear Isla telling a worker at the zoo that there are wild pink dolphins in the Amazon that will swim right up to your boat, I realize maybe she isn’t as traumatized by the boat ride we took to get there or the questionable place that we stayed, as I had feared. Like any seasoned adventurer, she learned to handle adversity and marvel in the magical moments.
6. You should never leave home without a deck of cards.
“Uno!,” Oskar yelled, throwing up his arms in victory. His voice echoed through the ancient walls of Machu Picchu. We may be one of the few families to have passed an entire afternoon at one of the most visited ancient tourist destinations in the world, sprawled out in the shade of a stone wall playing the Frozen version of the card game Uno.
The thing is: The tour guide we hired was a bust; it was uncharacteristically hot; and the kids just didn’t want to walk anymore. We learned that sometimes we had to ditch our ambitious plans and enjoy some of the sites from the shade of a nearby tree doing something guaranteed to get us all back into good spirits. Stopping to play Crazy Eights or Snap! at some of the world’s most sought-out destinations became the new norm, and even back home, we’ve kept the habit of packing a deck of cards in my purse—just in case.
7. The rougher your holiday digs, the less your kids take for granted their privilege.
Travelling for a year, unless you are extremely wealthy, means finding economical and creative accommodations. We camped throughout New Zealand and Australia. In Borneo, we found a place to stay that had the charm of my grandmother’s attic. In Samoa, we slept in fales—permanent tent structures under the stars. Occasionally, we cashed in Airmiles or found an irresistible deal and treated ourselves to a hotel or Air Bnb. But those nights were rare.
Since coming back to Canada, we’ve booked more classic holidays. As I packed for a ski trip to Montana, Isla asked if I had brought enough toilet paper. When we arrived at our Disney resort, Oskar asked in earnest if the water was safe to drink. I laughed and told them the places we were staying had toilet paper and clean water, but the realization is not lost on me that through our travel, often to developing countries, Oskar and Isla have stopped taking basic things for granted – like hygiene and water security—and I’m glad they’re already starting to understand (and check) their privilege.
8. Local markets are way more super than supermarkets.
When we were travelling abroad, we’d browse all the fresh food (sometimes too fresh, in the case of cows and chickens) from farmers in local markets. The kids would race around, looking for fruits they’d never tried. They wondered why we didn’t get our food from neighbourhood markets in Canada.
And after we returned home, Oskar and Isla asked to start a garden. For the past two summers, they’ve been growing vegetables and selling them at a stand in front of our house. When the church at the end of our street lets out, they cannot keep up with the demand for fresh kale, beets and carrots. Part of their proceeds go toward funding their garden, the rest of their profit is equally split between themselves and a charity of their choice. I love that they made this discovery, that fresh and locally grown is best, through firsthand experience.
9. The knowledge and memories gained from travel keep on giving, long after your trip is over.
At first, after we came home, I worried about how much of what we had learned and experienced on our trip had “stuck.” When I let Oskar and Isla loose in a toy store for an hour, amid all their pleading for new Journey Girl dolls and Lego sets, I felt concerned that some of the lessons may be fading.
But then later at the park, when one of the kids is bitten by a mosquito, and they start talking about malaria medication and mosquito netting, that leads to a discussion about why we don’t have malaria in Canada. I love that our kids know the world is not the same everywhere and that they question why that is. And there are five words that regularly echo through our house: “Remember on the trip when…” That magic phrase triggers memories, feelings and discussions that will bond us forever.
How to roadschool
Thinking of taking a chunk of time out from your lives to travel as a family? Here’s how to make sure your kids keep up with their learning on the go.
- Keep your kids registered in school and cover the basic curriculum. It would be a rude awakening for kids to return from the trip of a lifetime only to find they were no longer in the same grade as their old friends. You can make sure they’re on top of the curriculum by buying coursebooks online, at a store such as Scholar’s Choice.
- Work with your kids’ teachers. Oskar made short French presentations (he attends French immersion) on places we visited—like the Galapagos or the Amazon—and sent videos back to his class.
- Visit educational stores wherever you are. When I ran out of teaching material (or forgot a book on a plane), I often found interesting replacements in the countries we visited. I picked up one of the best phonics books I’ve ever come across in Indonesia.
- Long hikes and bus rides create valuable time for learning. We took those opportunities to practice and memorize multiplication tables and hold impromptu spelling bees.
- Posting travel reviews improves literacy skills. Giving thoughtful feedback on restaurants, hotels or hostels on travel sites is a great way to get kids evaluating their experiences and writing about them. And they love the comments that come back from other travellers.