Why travel-schooling is not just another family holiday

What we are learning from making the world our kids’ classroom

When I shared my idea of taking a sabbatical from my job as a senior economist in February this year, I was met with wonder, as expected. However, the person’s next sentence would invariably disappoint me because almost everybody misunderstood what I was setting out to do with my family. Most colleagues and friends thought of this as a travel adventure, some kind of a tick mark on our family’s bucket list. It is very much an adventure, a travel adventure yet it is also fundamentally different. Because why we set out on this journey is totally different.

Learning through unstructured play in the wide open spaces on Churchill Island, Australia

My husband and I are both travelers and we are immersive travelers. Between the two of us we have traveled to nearly a hundred countries and lived in (tax-paying residents) at least five major global regions. Our kids were born in different locations, they were vaccinated in hospitals across the world from Qatar to Canada. And their Skype pals exist in a dozen countries. With our family’s lifestyle and experience already being so international, what then are we trying to achieve through travel-schooling, that is different from travel-ing?

Lots.

Choices

In travel-schooling, our itinerary is focussed on educational experiences. For example, when we started off with Tahiti in February, it was a natural next step to my daughters’ growing interest in marine life. In the preceding year, we had purchased a family membership of the Ripley’s aquarium in Toronto and the girls had made a dozen trips. Now it was a great chance to take this interest forward and have them interact with marine life in its natural habitat. The lagoons off the coast of Moorea in French Polynesia offer the chance to swim with sting rays and black tip sharks in a calm, natural environment. As it is the animals’ natural habitat, they do not feel threatened by visitors and freely swim around us, even caress our bodies playfully. This was neither the easiest place to get to, nor economical in any way, yet it was a deeply immersive educational experience. Travel schooling is full of such experiences, which have the potential to fire imagination, directly. Based on what piques at our curiosity, we curate specific experiential learning opportunities, and travel to them.

Conversely, we also ruthlessly drop any experiences which do not align. Even if they may be “wonders” or “once in a lifetime experiences”. For example, scenery and architecture bores my girls who are soon turning five and three years old. So when we made our trip to Australia in March, we dropped Sydney and the Great Ocean Road altogether and instead spent a week on Phillip Island so we could immerse in interacting with fairy penguins and koalas, even making multiple visits to the sanctuaries if the children enjoyed it. And we did…

Penguin Parade at Phillip Island, Australia where nearly 30,000 penguins return to their nests every night

I am sure the opera house in Sydney is phenomenal, in fact it is on my personal bucket list. Yet, the point is that if we are travel schooling instead of a family holiday we can’t maximise what we see, instead we make strategic trade offs in the interest of appropriate learning.

Detours

Just as we made strategic omissions, we also remain open to curiosity-led detours. In fact, as slightly more seasoned travel schoolers, now we even look for them. Detours are very useful learning journeys, in fact, they are crucial to making travel as enriching as possible. The mind is most open to learning when it is intrigued. So we remain on stand-by for sparks of such intrigue and then let them take us on an unplanned path.

Recently we did a 17 day road trip across northern US to get from Toronto where we live, to Vancouver where we are spending the summer. The detours punctuated our journey with so many priceless moments. For example, while staring at the route we were taking through Iowa I spotted something called the Maharshi Vedic City. An opportunity to expose my girls to anything Vedic seals the deal for me, so I quickly googled what a Vedic city in rural America was all about. Fascinated that Maharshi Mahesh Yogi had built this city based on Vedic principles of architecture, we decided to make a 100 kilometre detour to visit it. My younger daughter had dozed off in her car seat but the elder daughter had a great time playing in the astronomical observatory they have built amidst houses, each of which has a golden kalash on its roof. I also walked with her to the Ayurvedic spa and meditation centre, the decor of which included interesting art based on chakras and mantras, important spiritual symbols in the Vedic culture. Here, nothing was obviously educational yet the calm, Veda-inspired atmosphere certainly must have left a subliminal impression on her mind. As for me, I’ve added a longer stay at this serene yet energetic city to my own bucket list.

The essence is — very unlike a family holiday, a travel education journey needs broad planning but flexibility in details. Because often it is such unplanned forks and twists which give us something to learn and remember about our journeys, many years later. We may meet interesting people (or animals!)

Namast-eh? to the Llama matriarch in Kerwood, Ontario, one of our first detours

Structure

Another key element of travel schooling is that there is a structure to the day. We rarely ever step out for the day before 11 a.m. On most holidays, that’s half a day lost. Yet we learnt that children need a sense of home, especially because travel schooling can stretch from days to several months. A structure of some sort is a good way to create that anchor to their daily lives. For us, our morning and bed-time routines worked well. We always started the day with a good breakfast and journaling (my daughters love art!), sometimes even a couple of hours at a nearby cafe. And every night we read their favourite bed-time stories. Over time, we also added another element during the day — playground. Everywhere that we go, we make sure to find a good park or playground nearby which we then frequent during our stay.

I had wanted to write this article right away when we were beginning our travel schooling as an experiment. I’m glad I procrastinated. That article would have been the ideas in our minds, whereas this one is seasoned with what we learnt about our own intentions behind what we are doing, through actually doing it for six months. In a nutshell, the fundamental difference between travel schooling and a family holiday distils down to why we embark on it. In travel schooling, learning is the primary objective of traveling, not an incidental outcome of a holiday.

If you are dreaming about a similar travel schooling adventure for your family, do write to us. We’d be delighted to share tips. If you’re further ahead on such an adventure, do let us know too because we’d love to learn how to do this better!

Writing about my eclectic life for The Globe and Mail, Tourism Whistler, The Ascent, The Startup and Towards Data Science. Follow me, IG: https://bit.ly/3pLaDYf

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