For travellers accustomed to picking up at the drop of a hat and jetting off to Rio or Riyadh without a care in the world, becoming a parent can be a culture shock. So long to travelling light. Goodbye bargain off-peak airfares; hello pricey, crowded, peak-season holidays.
But in the growing movement of worldschooling, parents don’t believe you have to postpone your travel goals until the kids are grown up.
The Australian-Canadian Tupy Family is travelling overland in a VW Kombi bus from Cusco to Niagara Falls and blogging about the experience. Talon Windwalker left his job as a hospice chaplain six years ago to travel full-time with his son, Tiger, then 9.
Lainie Liberti and her son Miro traded in a comfortable upper-middle class lifestyle in Los Angeles for a life on the road seven years ago and haven’t looked back. They blog, run a small fair-trade business hosting retreats for other worldschoolers, and have started a Facebook group for the worldschooling community that has grown to nearly 10,000 members.
All the children learn while travelling, though every worldschooling family has a different approach. Some insist on formal lessons and use the same curriculums their children would be working on in their home countries. Others prefer a less rigid approach, working on the assumption that kids learn best through their own life experiences on the road. The common bond is the shared belief that travel is an essential part of being a well-educated and well-rounded person.
Two-and-half years ago, I met the Snaiths, a British family of four: Gilly, a former biology teacher, Steve, an accountant who retired young, and their girls, Lucy, then 5, and Alisha, then 8, at a monkey sanctuary in Belize. Their guide was teaching the girls about monkeys and Belize’s distinctive Kriol dialect. I saw their impressive truck and struck up a conversation.
I learned that the Snaiths, who blog on their site Overlanding Family, had driven to Belize from Canada, and planned to spend four years travelling to all seven continents. I was curious and a bit incredulous – how was that possible, I wondered – and began to follow their blog. Sure enough, the Snaiths have made slow and steady progress right across the globe. They have formal classroom time in the truck for two hours each day, using a UK curriculum for some subjects and topical lessons specific to the place they’re in for others.
They are now three years and five continents into their landmark journey. I caught up with them in April as they pulled into Alice Springs, Australia, to find out what it’s like to travel the world for years at a time, kids in tow.
Q: Whose idea was it to drive around the world with the family in a truck?
Gilly: We met on an organised overland trip across Africa in 1995 and we’ve really been talking about it ever since then. We’ve both been on board equally from the start.
Steve: Travel has always been a big part of our relationship and we’ve always done adventurous holidays. And we lived overseas as expats in Prague and Moscow for nearly 20 years.
Gilly: The idea of this adventure gave us something to dream about on those long winter nights in Moscow when we thought, ‘Why on Earth are we here?’
Q: How did the idea start?
Steve: It started as perhaps a one-year overland journey. We thought that we’d drive from London to Cape Town in a Land Rover. We kept dreaming but we never got around to doing it. As we kept working and saving, our dreams and plans got bigger and bigger. And then the family came along, so the number of participants grew and the vehicle grew. And eventually it came to, ‘Are we going to do this or not?’
We wanted them to be old enough that they weren’t babies who need lots of infrastructure – nappies, pushchairs and so on. And we didn’t want them to be too old that they were getting to a critical point in their education. We realized if we were going to go, we had to go now.
Q: Did you ever get cold feet?
Gilly: We had our fears and concerns. My on-going night-time sweat was imagining us driving off a cliff in South America, and wondering, ‘Are we doing the right thing?’ But generally, no.
Steve: We just kept putting it off. There was always something coming up at work. But we came to the point where we knew it was go now or wait until the children finished school, which would mean putting it off for at least 10 years.
Q: What were your jobs before you took off to travel?
Steve: I worked for one of the world’s biggest accounting firms.
Gilly: I was a high-school biology teacher.
Q: You retired at 48, Steve?
Steve: Yes. I get positive and negative comments about this. Some people admire you, others are jealous or annoyed. It’s about deciding what’s important to you. We wanted the time and the travel as opposed to a bigger house and a nicer car. Something that has become more apparent to us as we travel is that you don’t need everything. Experiences and time are far more important than material possessions.
Q: Please describe the truck you’re travelling in.
Steve: Our home is built on a 10-ton truck; it is 8m long, 2.5m wide and just more than 3.5m high. It is self-sufficient; we don’t need to be hooked up to electricity because we generate our own power from solar or the engine. We carry a lot of water and we have our own cooking gas, so we can put ourselves in the middle of nowhere for a good 10 days without needing any supplies.
It’s a big vehicle but we spend very little time in hotels, hostels or even campgrounds, so it is our home. It’s big enough to provide a stable classroom environment for the children.
Gilly: It has beds, it has a kitchen, it has a bathroom, with shower and toilet. We have a double bed, for us, and there’s sort of a bunk bed for the girls.
Steve: It’s different than a mobile home in that it is built to withstand much more rugged roads. We’re not scared to take it off the tarmac, but because it’s our home we don’t take it on the really hardest roads.
Q: Do you have any privacy?
Steve: Their beds are about 4m away from ours. So that’s one of the challenges. The living space is 5.8m long. That’s our apartment basically.
Q: How do you divide the responsibilities?
Gilly: I’m the teacher.
Steve: I drive the truck and keep it full of things. That’s my domain.
Q: Trying to teach your children while on the road might be daunting for some. Gilly, would you still have tried this if you didn’t have the experience?
Gilly: It helps to be a teacher, but it’s not impossible if you have no teaching experience as long as you work out what you want to do beforehand. I’m a high school teacher: teaching Lucy to read is completely different from teaching 16-year-olds preparing for their exams.
I wanted their schooling to be quite structured so I bought curriculum books in the UK to support them in their English and maths, and that was very helpful to start with. It’s only the maths that we stick with completely in line with the UK system. For English we follow it but go beyond it, and for everything else we study using topics, usually based on where we are. We want to give them the best experience without disadvantaging them when they return to more formal education.
Q: Can you give some examples of topics you’ve studied?
Steve: Gilly picks topics that are relevant to our destination. So instead of studying the Romans when we were in Central America, for example, Gilly did the Mayans, and learning about the Mayans is so much more alive when you’re parked next to a Mayan pyramid.
Before we went to Antarctica, Gilly spent quite a bit of time teaching them about Antarctica, so when we were on the ship they could go to the presentations put on by the scientists and even ask them questions, because they had studied Amundsen and Scott’s expeditions and could understand why one succeeded and the other didn’t.
Here in Australia, we’ve learned so much about Australian history, the penal colony, Aboriginal culture and history. They learned about the Great Barrier Reef and then went snorkelling in it.
Q: In some countries, do worldschooling parents have to submit a curriculum to a state body?
Steve: We’ve met mostly French worldschoolers. The French system is very supportive. Homeschooling is illegal in Germany. We were expats; we lived in the Czech Republic before we left. And the children have never lived in the UK, so they’re not under the remit of the UK government. I don’t think we needed anyone’s permission to do this.
Gilly: My opinion is that if you’re only worldschooling your kids for a year, don’t worry very much because they pick up so much just from everyday life and they’ll catch up easily. But for us – we are traveling for four years – that is a huge chunk of their schooling, so we have to get it right.
Q: Do you have a set schedule for class hours?
Gilly: What we found worked best for us is two hours of formal schooling every day, seven days a week.
Steve: And we might take a few days off but we don’t take long school breaks like traditional schools do. They generally do it from 8 to 10 am every day, and that leaves the rest of the day free to do whatever we want.
Q: How can parents assess if this kind of lifestyle might work for their families?
Gilly: Children have good days and bad days. You have to persevere.
Steve: And I think kids have to understand the different roles – mother and teacher. From the parent’s side, you need to ask yourself: are you prepared to put the work in to make this successful? Do you have the discipline to make your plan work?
Children who do very well academically will probably be fine, as will children who don’t fit into normal schools to begin with. Having one-on-one individual instruction, and having the chance to explore their own individual interests and what they see around them can really aid their education.
Gilly: Our children are happy with a normal classroom structure, but there are kinaesthetic learners who have to be out doing something to get it. For boys who can’t sit still, for example, worldschooling might suit if you can structure their education to be outside learning, doing experiments and so on, that would be wonderful.
Q: Have the girls been able to make friends with other kids on the road?
Gilly: It depends on where we are. We hoped that their Spanish would be good enough to make friends in Latin America, but their Spanish never quite got to that level. If they loved football, they could kick balls with other kids and immediately bond. But our girls like to play long, complex games, role plays and for that, you need a common language.
Steve: The problem is they only interact with other kids they meet for short periods of time. The concern is how to build up the long-term friendships. They haven’t really had a chance to do that while we’ve been travelling. That’s the biggest challenge when they go back to school — just fitting in and forming those long-term friendships. From the schooling perspective, that’s what they are missing the most. It is that social aspect, the team sports, playing musical instruments, things like that.
Q: Would the girls prefer to continue on as worldschoolers or go to a traditional school?
Gilly: I think Alisha would like to try a mainstream school. We left school three years ago, so she’d like to try it. Lucy is quite relaxed; I think she’d be content to keep travelling.
Steve: She’s been travelling for a third of her life, so she doesn’t remember what traditional school was like as much.
Q: Is that why you don’t want to do this indefinitely? You want to let them establish some roots?
Gilly: Alisha would like to establish some roots. If it didn’t work out, returning to schooling for her, I think we’d have no hesitation about upping sticks and doing it again. We’d have no problem continuing to travel.
Q: How does your cost of living now compare with when you were living in one place?
Steve: We spend less in a year travelling than we did when we were living our regular lives. Even if we took the rent we used to pay out of the equation it would be close. We have no school fees anymore, we don’t take (shorter) expensive holidays like we used to.
Q: What advice can you give others about trying to budget for an epic journey like the one you’re on?
Steve: The vehicle is your biggest expense. People do trips like this in 20-year-old Land Rovers, motor homes, vehicles like ours. Your day-to-day costs involve food, some accommodation depending on how you travel and whatever trips you do. When you travel long term, you can’t do all the daily activities you’d do on a two or three week holiday. You become more discerning about what’s important.
And then, if you’re going around the world, as we are, there are costs to ship the vehicle. We do that about once a year. And then there’s vehicle maintenance and fuel.
Gilly: We don’t usually have to pay for accommodation thanks to our vehicle. The more self-sufficient your vehicle is, the easier it is to budget.
Q: What kind of feedback do you get from people you meet?
Steve: Most people are positive. We hear, ‘I wish we could do that.’
It’s your trip, there is no right or wrong way of doing it.
But we’ve seen other [worldschoolers] get negative comments, mostly through the Internet. I think the best thing to do is ignore them. The advice I have is, it’s your trip, there is no right or wrong way of doing it. If you want to do it, you shouldn’t listen to the people who tell you you can’t. But you need to have some planning, have some determination and you need to be able to make some sacrifices.
We spent 18 years worrying about things before we started this trip. Most things just sort themselves out. People say, ‘You’re on holiday’. We’re not on holiday, this is our life. I say I have a job. I drive a truck, sometimes for six hours a day. I fix things, which I’m very bad at. I do the washing. I handle the border crossings. It becomes part of life. You get on with it and make it happen.
Q: You started in Halifax, Canada, travelled through the Americas, then on to Africa, now you’re in Australia, but you spent the longest amount of time so far in South America. Is that where you money goes furthest?
Steve: We’ve been to five continents and South America is probably the easiest to travel around. In Central America, you’ve got more border crossings. In most of South America, you don’t need visas, there isn’t a lot of special paperwork for the vehicle and it’s an amazing continent with so much to see. We met people who have been traveling around South America for eight years.
There are people who do this for one year who are moving relatively quickly. And then there are the people who take it really, really slowly. We are somewhere in between.
Q: Was Africa the most difficult continent in terms of logistics?
Steve: Not really because we did the easy part: the south. South Africa, Namibia and Botswana are wonderfully set up for camping. Zimbabwe was a bit more challenging because of the politics.
Q: How will you get back to Europe from Australia?
Gilly: After we’re done in Australia, we’ll ship the truck from Freemantle [in Western Australia] to Singapore. We plan to go through Southeast Asia, drive across Myanmar to India, then Nepal, China, and through the Stans back to Europe.
Asia will be our biggest challenge paperwork wise as far as visas and vehicle formalities. The road to the Nepal-Tibet border and the Zhangmu crossing that used to be used by foreign vehicles is currently closed due to damage from the earthquake last year. If it or a potential new border crossing doesn't reopen in time, we will have to find another route back to Europe.
Things might be a bit rushed in China, because there we have to pay for a guide by the day. You’re not allowed to drive a foreign vehicle through China. We’ll also need a guide in Burma, which has just opened up. Singapore will be a challenge because it is illegal to drive a vehicle with a bed and kitchen in it. Malaysia is 20 miles away but you can’t get a permit to drive to the border. We’re told we’ll either get towed or put on a loader where a truck will drive us to the border.
Q: Your plan is to get back in time for Alisha, who is 10, to start school in the UK next year. Is that a kind of deadline for you to get home?
Gilly: High school in the UK starts at 11, so she’ll be one year in when we get back. But at that particular period it’s not that academically relevant. We know she is where she should be. We’re not worried about academics; it’s more the social side. When teenage girls get together, it’s not that easy to come in from the outside.
Q: Will you sell the truck?
Gilly: Our plan at the moment is to return to the UK for 10 years, which is when Lucy turns 18, and give them a chance to have some roots. But we’d also be quite happy to take them back out. We’ve seen how much they’ve developed and thrived with this lifestyle. As they get older, they might need more internet access. I can’t teach a 15-year-old history, I’d need to use correspondence courses. So we’d have to stay in places longer to have better internet connections. But we wouldn’t have any problems continuing with this lifestyle.
Steve: And Gilly and I can see ourselves travelling again after the kids have gone their own way. We might get a slightly smaller truck if it’s just the two of us, though.
Q: Jason Lewis, one of our 2015 Travel Pioneers, said that the longer you’re gone, the harder it is to return home. Will it be hard for you to park the truck and stay put next year?
Steve: It is one of our worries. What’s next? After dreaming of a trip like this for so long and then fulfilling many aspects of that dream, what’s next? I think it will be difficult. People say you get culture shock going abroad, but I think coming home is harder.
People say you get culture shock going abroad, but I think coming home is harder.
Gilly: It’ll be a huge challenge for all of us.
Steve: We don’t think of ourselves as pioneers really. We just love seeing the world. I suppose we are just greedy. We wanted to see as much of the world as we could for as long as possible, so we went out and just did it.
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