For anyone planning longterm travel with kids, anyone who would like to travel and is delaying having kids to do so, or any parents who would love to travel but feel they can’t because of the kids, probably the single biggest concern is what sort of education a child will get on the road.
This is also a major source of anxiety for other family members, particularly grandparents.
Honestly? Education, once you get the hang of it, is one of the easiest things about travelling as a family. I’ve posted before about the wonders of unschooling, a child-led approach to learning. I’ve also posted about the sheer hell of imposing a school-y structure on travelling, AKA death by long division.
Most of Z’s learning is hands-on, supplemented by almost entirely self-directed reading. We spend very little time on more formal learning, though I’ve had to learn a lot myself to keep up with his questions on the places we visit.
Here’s the end of year report card on my now-ten-year-old son’s roadschooling. I’m hoping travelling parents, prospective travelling parents and, for that matter, others considering alternatives to the school system, will find it useful.
At school, Z’s reluctance to hand write meant he did not complete a single longer writing assignment. Using a netbook, and a small amount of the sort of one-to-one attention that most classroom teachers can’t find the time to give to able children, has transformed his writing.
He writes imaginatively and creatively, with good grammar, syntax and vocabulary, good structure and good flow. He writes happily on-screen, participates in blogs and online forums, and uses language appropriately to its context, though he tends sometimes too much to the concise.
Some standouts? An excellent piece of Vogon poetry, inspired by watching The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and supplemented by reading Jabberwocky together. A sinister story of his own initiation. Also a fine piece of instructive writing: Zombie Survival Guide for N0obs. He’s also now comfortable with formal writing, like reports and essays.
One major challenge? Handwriting. While I don’t think handwriting will be a big feature of Z’s world as an adult, the men in his family are unanimous that he should not be held back by childish, ill-formed handwriting.
So we’re trialling a calligraphy-led approach, learning left-handed copperplate as an art form, in the hope that treating writing as a thing of beauty and an art form will work within the unschool format. So far? He seems to be enjoying it.
Z is an able mathematician with strong visual-spatial reasoning skills, who enjoys problem-solving and puzzles and taught himself decimal and percentages. He also has sod-all interest in maths beyond currency conversions, logic problems and whatever he needs to understand whatever he’s reading.
Yet we’ve somehow covered Roman numerals, graphs, pie charts, negative numbers, mean, median, mode, geometry, powers and squares, area, volume, nets and shapes, probability, prime numbers and irrational numbers, including pi, largely using stimuli from around us or subjects that come up in conversation. Also, err, long division…
He’s a gamer, so the BBC Bitesize maths games have proved a godsend, as has the Woodlands Maths Zone. The Primary Mathematics Challenge papers have been a great way of crystallizing learning, challenging him and exposing gaps in his knowledge.
A big gap? He’s nowhere near as solid on his times tables as he might be had he drilled them as children do in school, which slows down his mental maths.
This year in history we have covered: the Cambodian genocide, the Khmer god kings, the Vietnam War (and the rise of Communism), World War II in Asia, the Dutch East India Company and British East India Company’s impact on South-East Asia, Kublai Khan and the Mongols, the origins of World War I, Confucius, the Vedas, the Spice Trade, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Japanese bushido code, the road to Philippine independence and the early history of Australia.
Z has talked to survivors of the Cambodian genocide, Vietnam war veterans and Agent Orange victims, explored fighting tunnels, hospital caves and the Tuol Sleng prison, hiked the Ho Chi Minh Trail and visited the war remnants museum in Saigon. He’s visited battlefields and monuments at Corregidor, Morotai and the war museum in Penang, and handled World War II weaponry.
He’s explored Angkor Wat, one of the wonders of the world, and the Cham ruins at My Son, Vietnam, and climbed on more tanks and cannons than you can shake a stick at. Through repeated reading of EH Gombrich’s A Little History of the World, he also knows more European history than I do.
Meeting hunter-gathering nomads and reading selected extracts from Guns, Germs, and Steel has given him an insight into primitive societies, also the origins of language and scripts.
He’s made great progress on the largely Western-centred, though very comprehensive, knowledge of history he acquired by way of the Horrible Histories series back in the UK.
Z has participated in mapping our travels and studied underwater navigation while learning to dive. He knows the globe, including the major capital cities well and has observed and commented on a range of different economies and agricultural patterns. He has spent time with different types of farmers and observed the negative impact of logging and biofuels on the climate.
He has learnt about different types of ecosystems and habitat, from rainforests to semi-desert. Trips to Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary and the Brachina Gorge in Australia, Halong Bay in Vietnam and the caves of Mulu National Park in Malaysian Borneo, not to mention climbing a volcano and diving an undersea volcano, a hands-on experience of an earthquake and holding dinosaur bones have given him a good handle on geological processes.
He has studied the Mekong river, giving him insight into the forthcoming water wars and the history of the region. He has also led the way on jungle trails, developing his natural navigation talents and conducted independent shopping trips in a range of language environments.
Z has studied plants and animals in a range of habitats, from coral reef to rainforest, and seen killer whales, dolphins, hornbills, tarsiers, macaques, dugong, monitor lizards, pitcher plants, eagles, manta rays, sea turtles, elephants and giant clams, among other things.
He’s stroked koalas, fed baby roos and both cared for and killed a chicken for food on the trail. He’s also studied the life-cycles and food chains of different types of creature, from coral to marsupials via plankton, strangling figs and palm trees.
Self-led study, coupled with talking to scientists, has enabled him to explore electro-physics and understand quite a bit, while qualifying as a junior open water diver and talking to experts has taught him about pressures, gases and physiology. Competition for light in the rainforest has taught him photosynthesis, which, with reading from Bill Bryson’s A Really Short History of Nearly Everything, he now understands as a chemical equation.
He has enhanced his knowledge of space, planets and star formations by using a 14-inch telesceope to observe the southern skies, made musical instruments and greatly enjoys working with his new circuit set. He’s enjoyed hands-on science learning at some excellent child-led museums, among them Scienceworks in Melbourne and Sciencentre in Brisbane.
Occasional gaming on BBC Bitesize Science ensures that he has also covered the UK science curriculum. Repeated reading of Why Is Snot Green?
and similar volumes has enhanced the science general knowledge he developed through the Horrible Science series back in the UK.
After watching turtles laying, helping to extract their eggs and releasing baby turtles into the water, he wrote a great report on turtle conservation on Pulau Derawan, Indonesia.
Z has experienced and learnt about many different belief systems, and is working on a family tree of how world religions fit together.
He’s learnt about Buddhism from student monks in Chiang Mai, about Hindu gods and goddesses in Bali and at Angkor Wat, about Christianity (and its Judaic roots) at the Moriones Easter festival in Marinduque, the Philippines, and about Islam during Ramadan and Eid in Malaysia and Indonesia. He’s also learnt about a range of minority belief systems in Laos, Borneo, Indonesia and Austraia.
Attending weddings and funerals from different cultures, and visiting grave sites, has also taught Z a lot about life, death and the beliefs around them.
Z draws constantly and loves making art of different kinds. Stand-out art activities from our trip: working with clay with a sculptor friend in Manila, the Philippines, designing and making two silver friendship rings and a wooden box in which to present them in Ubud, Bali, contributing to a crowd-sourced lego art project at the excellent Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, Australia, and making a shell art piece, entirely coincidentally, on my birthday.
He also enjoys taking photos and working with them in iPhoto, making movies and editing them in iMovie, and this is something I think we will develop.
While we have witnessed lots of different types of music and dance, and listened to some classic tunes, music is currently a gap in Z’s education. We’re hoping to start some formal music classes among other arts activities in Ubud, Bali in 2011, introduce him to Neil Young, and see where that takes us.
Z read early, enjoys reading and was comfortable reading anything from broadsheets to airport novels when we left. We’ve extended his reading range by reading Oliver Twist together (parts out loud, the most exciting bits independently) and he’s produced an excellent essay on social problems in Dickens. Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and Artemis Fowl (new cover)series have been the bedtime reading standouts, with Clive Cussler a close second.
Z is a natural linguist who can extrapolate from related language families to put languages together, and communicates effectively both verbally and nonverbally with children from many different ages, backgrounds and language cultures.
However, he prefers not to speak a language unless he absolutely has to. He has quite a good understanding of basic Indonesian. Formal language lessons in Bali will, I hope, give him the confidence to speak rather than simply correcting me as we complete our journey through Indonesia.
Z is highly computer-literate and is now onto his second blog. He has administrator privileges on his own Netbook and uses them almost always appropriately, from defragging and retuning upwards. And, nope, he won’t be downloading Cheat Engine a second time.
Zac has qualified as a Junior Open Water Diver and has swum half a mile and the same back again through deep sea with some current, although he is unwilling to learn conventional swimming strokes. He is also happy to dive from high boards.
Though he doesn’t look it, he is physically very fit, has ascended and descended over 2k vertically in two days (a climb that many adult males do not complete), and can hike 30+k through tough jungle in a day.
Our 2010 travel lifestyle, where we spent no more than one week in a place, has not provided for team games or organized sport. I’m hoping that a move to extended stints of a month or so in one place in 2011 will provide more opportunities. He would also like to do more climbing.
This is currently a gap in Z’s education, and something I am hoping to address, perhaps by selecting a play as our read-aloud book and doing some arts classes in Ubud, Bali.
Z interacts extremely well with adults, in particular young adults, having spent a lot of time with them over the past year. He interacts equally well, though, with children of different ages and from different cultures, of whom he has met many.
When his cousins in Melbourne brought him into school for their end-of-term parties, he chatted confidently, happily and collaboratively both with his cousins, whom he loves to bits, and other children in their classes – more confidently, in fact, than he would have done before we travelled.
Over the Christmas period, he picked up with his best friend from school, who flew out to join him, as if no time at all had passed.
The family are all agreed that Z will need to re-enter the school system for at least some of the year at some point, both to allow him the space he will need to grow as a teenager and to get him access to facilities such as labs, so it’s great to see that his first year out of the system has, if anything, enhanced his coping skills.
I’m not a radical unschooler. So to measure Z’s progress, he sat the exams that UK children sit at the end of the school year they turn eleven. He achieved the top grade boundary (level 5) on every paper.
More to the point, Z is, as I hope readers of his old blog, The Nine Year Old Strikes Back, and his new one, A Ten Year Old’s Travels, will recognize, and I know those of you who know him know, a normal, well-adjusted and happy little boy.
I feel quite uncomfortable in writing this piece, because I feel that it makes him sound like some sort of hot-housed prodigy, which he isn’t, and me like some sort of nightmare pushy mother, which I really hope I’m not…
But I also want to share the journey we’ve come on, from “well, I’m sure he’ll learn quite a bit while we’re on holiday” to “this is actually a far better education than he would have been getting in school”, in the hope that it will help some people out there to conquer the worries about education and get their children out into the big, wide world.
I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts, whether you’ve done this, are doing it or would never, ever do it, on how best to fill the gaps I’ve identified here, and others you might see. If you’ve got any questions on how our take on unschooling works, please drop me a comment.