A new trend is emerging, transforming RV living into full-time schooling.
Chelsea Gonzales loves to travel, and she was determined not to stop when she had children. So she did what felt the most natural to her: she decided against traditional schooling and took her son on the road instead. They started RV living over two years ago when he was about four, but they didn’t pause when he was ready for kindergarten, and they’re not stopping anytime soon. Schooling takes place in the RV or on trips to museums, zoos and aquariums.
“Last summer, we were studying the Revolutionary War, and we went to a lot of the cool Revolutionary War museums,” Gonzales says. “We weave our history, language arts and science together, and it helps him and me get a better understanding of how all of these things fit into the world.”
Gonzales’ family is roadschooling (homeschooling on the road), AKA worldschooling. There are no records of how many families are roadschooling, but according to the Department of Education, close to two million, or 3.5% of American children are homeschooled. A roadschooling Facebook community has over 12,000 followers, and a worldschooling one has about 1,800. Experts have devoted their lives to helping families navigate this relatively new method of schooling.
“It’s hard to say how many families, or people in general, are traveling around these days, but based on Instagram, some meetups we’ve done, and just people we meet, it’s probably a larger number than most people would imagine,” says Nathan Swartz, a writer for Wand’rly, a magazine for full-time travelers, who along with his wife has been roadschooling their three children for the past eight years. “There’s a real trend toward living mobile these days, whether you have kids or not.”
But having school-aged kids adds something totally different to traveling, as you have to balance their schooling along with their idea of a good vacation.
Bliss Broyard knows this firsthand. She was in Uganda, just one month into her nine-month trip around the world with her five-year-old and eight-year-old, when she and her older daughter sat on the patio, both feeling frustrated. Broyard had envisioned exploring the world with her curious kids who would be enthusiastically documenting their journey to the arts organizations they visited. She’d forgotten that children were still children. While she’d started with the intention to do a program with her children that was more like regular school, filled with research, worksheets, essays and lesson plans, Broyard says she was met with resistance from her third grader. “We gave it a rest, and she [later] got very interested in group mythology when we were in India, and we found books that she was interested in reading,” Broyard says. “We exposed her to a lot of things and let her interest dictate what we were doing.”
That’s the beauty of roadschooling, says Caz Makepeace, who has been roadschooling her 10- and six-year-old daughters for the past two years. “Our life is focused on adventure and quality time together, and my girls are not limited in what they can learn, and they spend a lot of time being creative and imaginative, something schools don’t do a great job of fostering.” After doing one to two hours of schoolwork per day, they dedicate the rest of the day to “life learning.” They’ve cycled through Central Park in New York, wandered through the London markets, relaxed in the Iceland lagoons, and more.
The choose-your-own extended adventure is what many roadschooling families love most about their alternative approach. “This week, we accompanied a whale shark researcher in La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico, and next week, we’ll be diving in Belize,” says Emma Pamley-Liddell, who has been roadschooling for 14 months with her three children, ages seven to 14. “In March, the younger kids will attend a school in Costa Rica for two weeks, and then we’ll return to the United Kingdom for a few months.”
Every family does roadschooling differently. Emma Pamley-Liddell and her family have been “intentionally homeless” since 2011, and they’ve been mixing slow travel (four-plus weeks where they drag five large suitcases around with them) and quick travel (backpacking). During slow travel, they rent a bigger car and a house. Quick travel is more challenging. “Backpacking is quick, with lots of change, and trying to cram as much in as possible,” Pamley-Liddell says. “The kids get tired more quickly, and tensions can be fraught. We tend to share a room when quick travelling to save money, but living on top of each other can be challenging.”
With RV living and the adventure of roadschooling, everyone needs downtime, says Julia Simens, author of Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child, who works with families to get them ready to roadschool. “All children need time to zone out, as well as parents, who need time to not be the travel agent or teacher,” Simens says. “It is important that families build in downtime to just rest, regroup and plan for the next learning experience.”
Pamley-Liddell helps her children enjoy their experiences by allowing them to choose destinations and activities, but sometimes they also just have a morning of computer games to recharge their batteries. “It does help to be clear about expectations, though, and let kids know a timetable,” she says. “If we’re only in one place for three days, playing computer games during the day isn’t compatible — but giving them an hour in the evenings is.”
And while traveling is a privilege, it also takes work and dedication, Simens says. “It takes a family that is dedicated to this type of learning to do the planning and following some sort of time frame and structure,” Simens says. “It is not just going with the flow — it also means discipline to not miss out on key things.”
Since some children thrive on routine, it’s also important for a family to figure out the optimal learning experience for their children — but not all children in the same family thrive in the same situations.
Open-ended traveling can also get expensive, and families have found their own ways to finance their trips. Makepeace and her husband worked hard to become social media and travel influencers, blogging nonstop about their trips. They work with tourism bureaus to get many of their activities at a low cost, or even free, and they essentially get paid to travel.
For other roadschoolers, it’s not that simple. Broyar says her family went on their roadschooling adventure when her husband had a yearlong sabbatical, so he still had a salary. They also rented out their home to make a little more income, and they budgeted to spend less than $100 per day on the trip. To do this, they stayed in a combination of guest houses and Airbnbs, rarely staying in a hotel during their travels through 12 countries, including Ethiopia, Uganda, India, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan and the United States.
Michelle Neale’s family of four sold their house and all their belongings before hitting the road for about 18 months. Her husband started his own company so he could work remotely while experiencing RV living with the family. “We kept some things in storage, but we got rid of all our furniture,” Neale says. With the world at their fingertips, there’s no need for anything else.