These three moms travel the world to educate their kids

When a lizard gives birth, does it make a sound?

Kirsten Bowman knows the answer. It’s an emphatic yes. And it’s the sound she woke up to recently in her family’s homebase in Nairobi, Africa.

For Kirsten, an Outschool teacher and homeschooling mom, lizard childbirth in Africa is just part of another day as a “worldschooler” - a family traveling the globe, not on vacation, but as part of a long-term trip for educating their children.

While worldschooling is still uncommon, there are an increasing number of families forgoing a more sedentary set up for a nomadic education experience. These families draw from other philosophies, especially Unschooling, and often use travel as part of a broader child-led learning experience.

We spoke to Kirsten, and two other worldschooling moms- Astrid Turner, and Heidi Hardin-- about what it’s like to travel the world while educating their children. Their answers have been lightly edited for context and clarity.

What is like to travel as a worldschooling family?

Kirsten: Our patterns change wherever we are, but we do have daily patterns, the same as anyone. The food changes in each place, and our favorite dishes to cook change. Right now, we are so excited because our cook is currently in the kitchen making our favorite family meal of chana masala and chapati, which is a wonderful East African dish. We can never really replicate it elsewhere (the ingredients just taste differently).  

Kirsten's kids pose at a viking museum in Bergen, Norway.

Astrid: Life is different in the skoolie (the family’s converted school bus); there is less room, for one, so that means a simpler lifestyle with less "stuff" to carry along.

It also means we all have to work together and pitch in with chores and helping out. The school bus tends to make us stand out a little more than traveling in an RV or motorhome. People tend to be more curious about how we converted it and what the inside looks like, how our children manage school, how we support ourselves, etc. Conversations like these have been a nice way to meet some other traveling families and make new friends!

Heidi: As a family, we feel homeschooling is the absolute best for us! We have freedom!  Freedom of time, space, what to learn, when to learn, how to learn, where to learn. We follow general curriculum guidelines to keep him within standards. But to be honest, we veer off track a lot. He is a year ahead of his grade peers and even further ahead in math. We push hard in Panama, home base, which allows us more freedom of time and exploration while traveling in meeting curriculum goals.

How does Outschool integrate with your traveling?

Kirsten: On one hand, they help to establish the normalcy and continuity. The kids take math class every day for a half hour, no matter what country we’re in. You still are going to have Ms. Brigid for a half hour every day to teach you math. So, in some aspects they keep the normalcy.

Currently we are in East Africa learning about the colonial period and land grabs. The kids are reading Dictatorland to understand the independence movements throughout Africa and the ramifications, studying the different government systems. They are studying the Masai culture and the geographic landscape of the rift valley, desertification and how Africa is working to create a green belt to stop the desert from encroaching farther down into the continent.

Heidi: I love using Outschool, mostly for math. It is very structured and my son has lost all math anxiety he had by learning with me at home. I felt a new teacher, a new way of learning was in order this year. And he took off!! He loves Outschool for the interaction with the other kids.  Homeschool is not accepted in Panama, (we can do it there because we are not citizens). The classes and the teacher's personal attention and advice has been amazing as well.  

Heidi's son explores a root cellar on the Pequot Indian Reservation in Connecticut.

Astrid: Outschool is perfect for our family because of the flexibility in schedule and the many options you have in choosing classes. Traveling in a skoolie bus conversion allows us to be very flexible in where we end up, too!

I think taking classes on the road has helped my children to see that opportunities for learning are everywhere. Teaching on the road has been a great experience for me, as well. I love it when I can relate to a student more and find common ground with them because of my travels, and some of them follow our Instagram hashtag to keep track of where we are on our trips.

What’s your advice for families interested in worldschooling?

Kirsten: It's not easy to make sure that everyone's needs are taken care of. It can be tricky financially and you can get super frustrated when you are pulling out your hair to create this amazing life and learning experience for your kids and some days they spend the whole time lamenting that there is no Chipotle restaurant in Nairobi.  

But it's worth it in the end. When you hear your kids so easily and casually discussing with other adults the cultural difference between capitalist U.S. and socialist Tanzania, you can have a really big, “pat yourself on the back for that one” moment.

Also, just because it is hard does not mean it's not doable. It’s totally doable. You just have to realize it's not a vacation - it's a trip. There is a big difference. A trip is a lot of work, but the rewards are also great. Just put one foot in front of the other, take one step at a time.  

Astrid: Taking classes on the road can be just as easy at home, but the key is often the internet connection. Make sure you have a capable and reliable data plan; free WiFi hotspots do not always support a live Zoom conference, so I always have a backup plan.

Astrid's family works on their converted school bus, Serenity.

With teaching, I've found my normal carrier's network to be a great option, so I just make sure I have a large enough data plan to cover my needs. In some areas you may need to purchase a portable hotspot through a different carrier, just in case your carrier doesn't work in that area. However, I have always been able to drive to a better spot for my classes when needed.

Another thing to think about, if you have a family, is the background noise. It can be a challenge when you have several people living in a small space! We usually plan around my classes so that Dad and the kids go out to eat or play outside while I'm teaching, or they drop me off at a library where I can find either a private room or find a quiet place outside.

What are your favorite stories from the road?

Heidi: A short story: my son took a Wilderness Training three-day class. Because of all the camping we do, he and his dad will be concentrating on bushcraft. He immediately went to the beach we were on and created a survival shelter using beach materials, in the way the teacher taught them in class. What more proof do you need that kids learn through play!

Astrid: Last year we drove from Arkansas to Southern California, then back again through a different route. Our favorite stop was Moab, Utah, where we visited Arches National Park and camped outside of town. It was beautiful and such a wonderful experience! I taught my Outschool class from the library patio and the kids had fun exploring the town. We ended up deciding to stay an extra day because it was just so amazing there.

Kirsten: I do remember this last spring sort of being in awe. We were in Victoria, B.C., and we went out on a zodiac to see the orcas, which was a bucket list item for me and so exciting for the kids. My son was taking a marine biology class on Outschool and had a report on whales due the following week. We were able to take video footage, and he was able to interview the naturalist who was a specialist on orcas in order to have a really cool presentation on orcas for his Outschool class the following week.  

The following day, they woke up and took their Outschool math class at 8am in the hotel room.  Then, we spent the day at the B.C. museum learning an immense amount about the geographic landscape, climate change and the first nations people. At lunch time, we went to the café in the museum. I pulled out my tablet, and the kids took their French class online while we ate. Then they went back to museum learning. It was seamless. Just a day in the life of a Worldschooling, Outschooling family.  

You don’t have to travel the world to use Outschool. But if you do, there’s no better option to support your child’s learning - whenever, wherever. Sign up for your free Outschool account today.

Gerard Dawson

Gerard Dawson teaches English full-time at a public high school in New Jersey. He also writes about teaching, learning and technology for education startups.

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