One of my biggest reasons for wanting to travel with my children is to give them a global education. An education that is not about memorization but is about learning through living.
No matter what their educational philosophy, be it unschooling, traditional homeschooling, or immersion in public or private schools, traveling families will all agree that travel is an amazing way to spark curiosity and passion in their children.
In this two part series I have teamed up with Justin from The Great Family Escape to ask traveling 30 families one question:
During your travels, what was the best educational experience you had with your children?
Here are their answers:
Immersing in another culture, experiencing something new
Our philosophy is to invite curiosity and inquisitiveness by providing new experiences – opportunities to ask questions because of something we saw, a place we visited, a food we tried.
Some of our best experiences have come by immersing ourselves in another culture – when the children have the chance to see, feel, taste and experience something new – rather than just reading about it in a book or on the internet.
Like eating spicy Indian food with your fingers (using only your right hand), because there are no utensils. Or drinking water right out of a coconut that we picked ourselves off the tree. Wearing a sari, exploring tide pools, watching for wildlife, hiking to waterfalls, catching salamanders or starfish, climbing ancient ruins or active volcanoes.
A few of the most memorable adventures together were riding an elephant in India; spying dolphins in Panama; watching sea lions and gray whales in Alaska; a crocodile refuge in Mexico; listening to howler monkeys in Costa Rica.
The most rewarding parts are when they ask those questions, while you’re driving in a car, flying in a plane or on a boat – “Dad, how are clouds made?” or “Why are those frogs red?” or “How do you say ‘waterfall’ in Spanish?”
They’re eager and ready to learn, they want to know. And you’re there with them, excited to answer their question, or to find out the answer together.
Isn’t that the way schooling should be?
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A little Marine Biology in Mexico
Early last week I tackled my fear of night scuba diving. Tigger was fairly bummed he couldn’t join us for that. I always admire his courage and lack of fear, even if it sometimes gives me more grey hairs. So to make it up to him, I decided to take him on a sunset snorkel. The beach near our hostel has some excellent snorkeling during the day, has a super easy current, and since evenings here are about 24-26C it’s still warm enough to enjoy ourselves.
I try to always find the teaching moments in any activity we do. I make them subtle so he doesn’t always feel like he’s in school, which, since we’re unschooling, technically he is. He was taking so long getting ready that I decided to go ahead into the water without him to help encourage him to move a bit more quickly. We weren’t equipped for a night snorkel after all.
Immediately I was discouraged. There were hardly any fish around. I knew we would probably see less fish at this time of day, but I didn’t count on almost no fish! He was still struggling to put on his fins, so I kept searching. I managed to see a sea urchin as it moved over a rock, but he had seen those already. So I continued looking. Then suddenly I spotted movement and an odd shape. I carefully swam over to a small set of rocks and noticed a small ray going along the sand. I was so excited! I kept track of it while I yelled to my son that he was missing out. By the time he finally made it into the water, though, I had lost sight of the ray.
I swam back and forth trying to find the small ray when suddenly I spotted a much larger one. I signaled for Tigger. We got to watch it as it dug in the sand looking for food. As I have seen throughout the area while snorkeling and diving, generally the fish pay absolutely no attention to us, and this ray was no exception. Perfect for us since that meant that we could hover above and watch it for several minutes. During the walk back home, we had a great discussion about stingrays, nocturnal sea life, and general marine ecology. And even a little bit about underwater orienteering (using the sand patterns to guide you back to shore). These are the kind of memories that live on for a long time, and they provide an education no regular day in a class could ever provide.
Absorbing the daily life in Turkey
We find great educational opportunities wherever we go. Sometimes that means finding a great science or natural history museum, but more often it means just taking in the world around us and learning about how the place we’re visiting is different than what we’re used to at home.
Our trip to Turkey last year was especially great because the culture and architecture are so different than home. While we visited many of the typical tourist attractions, we also learned a lot from just wandering the streets.
We learned about how different regions of the world use different spices by tasting the local food. We learned about how people in different cultures dress differently, and about how we show respect by covering our heads or taking off our shoes when we visit a mosque. And just about every time we went we saw different ways of dressing. This was such a great way for the kids to see that people could be kind and welcoming without looking just like us. Even the way people shop is different from what we’re used to. And sometimes people catch their own food.
At the end of the day, I think the kids learned more from these experiences than they did from the history we tried to teach them at Topkapi palace or Aghia Sofia.
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People are people. Lessons from Tunisia.
One of the things we’ve wanted to accomplish with our children through world travel has been to help them to see that people are people, no matter where they live, what they look like, or how they believe. Spending three months living in Tunisia, a tiny North African country with (at the time) a Theocratic (Muslim) Dictatorship was the ultimate educational experience. Wintering in an apartment deep in the Muslim world allowed our American kids to see Muslims as people, not propaganda posters. This is a lesson I wouldn’t trade for anything.
They learned to live by the daily rhythm of the call to prayer from the mosque, to greet veiled ladies in the market in Arabic, to wrap a Bedouin scarf properly to keep the sand out of their faces in the desert, to sip the strong tea and dip the bread in honey “just right.” they learned the depth of the meaning of “Inshah Allah” from our neighbours, our cab driver and our friend who lived in the troglodyte house near Matmata. They learned about the religious differences between Christianity and Islam during Eid-Al-Kebir (when the Muslims celebrate God providing a ram to Abraham in place of his son ISHMAEL as a sacrifice.) They learned that there are many similarities as well.
Not all of the lessons were easy, or fun. They learned what it feels like to be a stranger in a a strange land, illiterate, unable to communicate (Mom speaks French, but none of us read or speak Arabic.) They learned about the harshness that sometimes results in a patriarchal society where children and women are subordinates when Elisha was slapped hard across the face by a man who was a complete stranger when out playing one afternoon. They learned what it’s like to be discriminated against simply because of their nationality when we, as Americans, had to provide more documentation than anyone else to get internet and when we were ratcheted down in our access as a result. They learned what it is like to be discriminated against based on skin colour and religious persuasion when the artichoke seller changed his call to “Artichokes on sale to Arabs not whites,” when he saw us coming, and when rice was tripled in price for us, and when the secrete police “guarded our biked” for us every week outside the church we attended with a few other western Christians. They watched our apartment too.
The best education experience our kids have had didn’t just happen over the winter in Tunisia. It happens every day as we walk the planet. The best educational experience they have is putting faces on the faceless, names on the propaganda posters in forming relationships with the exploited, the war-torn, or the persecuted. It is, perhaps, the best lesson any of us could eve learn.
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Turtle Conservation in Indonesia
On Pulau Derawan, Indonesia, we learnt about turtle conservation. It was pretty magical. Walking up the beach at night, looking for laying turtles, then watching them lay.
Z got to help the guys from the hatchery remove the turtle’s eggs, count them, and rebury them. And he released some babies that had hatched into the sea.
It was amazing hands-on learning, and we consolidated it with a project on why turtles are under threat, using examples he’d seen on his travels and read about in the news — from pesticide fishing to reef and habitat destruction, through to hunting and oil spills. It really helped add to what he’d learnt about ecosystems from diving and spending time on reef.
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The kindness of strangers, a man literally takes his shirt off his back in Morocco.
For us parents, the biggest “educational” value we hope our children will take from the years on the road is that it is a good thing to be humble and to need and accept help and that when ever you think things are going bad somebody will step out of a crowd and give you a hand and this purely and solely out of love and nothing else. This is the number one reason we decided to show our boys the world; we want them to understand that the world and its people are something we must take care of and we can actually like rather than fear.
When our boys were 2 and 3 we backpacked through Morocco. One night we found ourselves on a 12 hour journey on a local bus. The four of us had been lucky to get four seats on the busy bus. At about 3 a.m. Desmond (our older son) woke up and without warning vomited all over himself and the seat and us and the corridor. It went very quickly, but the mess was incredible. We had no spare clothes with us (as we had put the backpacks on the roof of the bus), just a nearly finished role of toilet paper and a couple of wet wipes. We tried to clean up the mess as well as we could without waking everybody on the bus, but it was pretty hopeless and our poor son had to stand in the aisle whilst we were trying our best. A young man, maybe around 25 years old, woke up, assessed the situation, quickly took his t-shirt off, used it to clean up the mess on our son’s arms and legs and offered his seat to our tired Desmond and his mother (me). He was left standing up without a top, but would not accept his seat back. We simply couldn’t believe his generosity, his helpfulness, his giving without expecting anything, his unconditional love for our Desmond! We wanted to invite the man for breakfast upon arrival and buy him a new shirt, but he had gotten off during the night unnoticed and all we could do was to pray that Karma would work and that he would be a very lucky person.
Since then, we had countless more situations like that and people every where in the world have gone out of their ways to help us. I hope this story will touch you as much as it still touches us, and the thing is that these kind of moments happen much more often in poor countries and nations that get mostly bad headlines (like Pakistan, Syria, China, Mexico)! Of course they happen elsewhere too, but honestly, do you know a rich guy who would take his shirt off at 3 a.m. to clean up a stranger’s vomit???
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American History in Boston.
Our most educational trip was a recent week we spent in Boston and out on Cape Cod. We’ve been going to Boston for years for events and for short vacations but this was the first time we really concentrated on studying history in a fun way with all of the kids. We loved walking the Freedom Trail and discussing all of the events that brought our country Independence, but there are two things that stand out in my mind. First is that all the times I’ve walked past the Old State House I had never toured the inside or reviewed the actual events of the Boston Massacre. As much as I love history, there are so many facts to remember, or forget as the case may be. I was floored when it was brought to my attention that only 5 men were killed in the massacre. It was a good reminder of how media plays a part in our history and how certain words evoke mental images. The other fascinating part of our trip was visiting Marconi Station in Wellfleet where the first wireless transmission was sent between America and Europe. Looking at the advances in technology in the last 100 years from the first transmission is mind boggling!
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Passion, conservation, volunteer spirit, at animal rescue centers.
One of the greatest educational travel experiences we’ve had as a family (three boys plus mom and dad) has been to visit animal rescue centers. The staff members and volunteers we’ve encountered have been universally friendly and knowledgeable and were willing to spend time with the kids talking about the animals, their care, and the dangers they face. Inevitability, we learn about indigenous cultures and national politics, since conservation issues s often cut across the various spheres.
Here are a few specific places I can recommend:
Parrot Sanctuary, Hacienda Nohpat, Mexico: We stayed almost a week in this hacienda in the Yucatan, on the outskirts of the bustling city of Merida. In addition to being a beautiful place to stay, the property is also an active parrot rescue center. The parrots came out to have breakfast with us on the patio every morning.
Turtle Sanctuary, Mexico: The center is in the southern part of Isla Mujeres, an island off the coast of Cancun. It was built to protect the island’s native giant sea turtles, which used to be killed for their meat, shells, and eggs. Now the center cares for several turtle species and every year, they are released back into the ocean by local school children. We’re headed to Costa Rica in August and plan to visit the Sloth Sanctuary, as well as the Jaguar Rescue Center.
We always make a donation to the help the center’s cause. A friend of mine who travels to Africa several times a year for work visited an elephant rescue center in Kenya and adopted two baby elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Fund. She visits them every time she goes.
Visiting rescue centers has taught all of us about conservation, but also allowed the kids to meet inspirational people who are truly passionate about their work.
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Nuclear Energy in The Grand Canyon!
It was one of those moments when you realize you’re doing the right thing by taking the kids out to travel the world. Sitting around the campfire, sleeping under the stars….time to talk….conversations drift…and all of a sudden, you find you are in the middle of a most incredible educational experience!
We had a lot of wonderful educational experiences during our travels far and near – way more than I can count. But I think the most important and valuable of them where the times when we just talked. Those times when my husband and I shared our knowledge freely and easily; not trying to make a “lesson” out of it, just talking. And our sons trying to make sense of what we’re saying.
Those were the times we couldn’t have planned if we tried. Spontaneity at its best. Teachable moments extraordinaire.
So out of them all, which one was my favorite educational experience? The night we camped near the Grand Canyon and our conversation drifted– to nuclear reactions and nuclear bombs. It wasn’t long before we were talking about energy sources… and the need for renewable energy…and finally, how we could solve all the world’s problems.
Our nuclear conversation happened in the fall of 2006 when our sons were a mere eight years old, but it’s still a vivid memory for us all. I often wonder how much my boys would understand about nuclear fallout if it wasn’t for Davy’s carrot puke soup. I know that makes no sense –you’ll have to read the whole story here.
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Feeling inspired? Be sure to check out what other traveling families have to say on The Great Family Escape!
Learning your P’s and Q’s in Costa Rica
In Pavones, one of the beach towns I stayed at here in Costa Rica for two weeks, I connected with some families who were really into teaching their kids to be kind and thankful. A couple from Alaska had the habit of expecting their two kids to say please and thank you for every little action and so their two and three-year old boys were very used to it already (with lots of reminders from their parents), unlike most children that I know that age.
Before this, I had a preconceived idea that we should not impose on the children to say please and thank you and that it´s better to wait for it to come naturally, but seeing the gentleness that this couple carried this conditioning, I changed my mind. After all, we don´t mean from the bottom of our hearts every please and thank you that we say, we also do it out of an educational conditioning and it´s nice to have it. It was great to have Luísa watching a boy younger than her saying lots of please and thank yous. There are no better teachers than other children.
A German mother in that town was also really kind to her 4-year old girl and one time when we were ready for a snack at their house, they had this little ceremony of holding hands and thanking for the food, saying a few funny verses that made everyone smile. This was super sweet for us to be part of. As I later read in a book about the Waldorf education that the first 7 years should be dedicated to teaching thankfulness to children, I incorporated the holding hands together before eating (sometimes).
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Soaking up history in Scottland
One of the best educational experiences we’ve had with our daughter (who is eight) was at the Battlefield of Culloden, in Scotland. We were renting a home on Loch Ness, and loved the atmosphere of the Scottish Highlands – we took a Loch Ness Boat trip, saw Urquhart Castle, met artists and musicians, ate well, shopped in Inverness. But the thing that struck our daughter most was Culloden. We pulled into the parking lot, and were overwhelmed by the large amount of cars and buses. We asked Lillie if she really wanted to go in – she had learned about the battle before we headed to Scotland – and she gave a definitive YES.
Culloden is the site of the battle that changed the course of Scottish, British – well, truly, world history. On April 16, 1746, the Jacobite army fought the British army, to reclaim the throne of Britain for Bonnie Prince Charlie. It was an incredibly uneven battle, where the Jacobites weren’t fully prepared, were starving and cold. A surprise night attack plan failed, and in the day, the exhausted Jacobite soldiers surged to their death. The Culloden Experience is a beautiful new visitor center on the site. After you walk through – and read of all the experiences, see the artifacts from the time (and found on the Battlefield in the years since then); view the short film in the surround movie theater, walk the hallway hearing voices from each side, well, then you head out to the Battlefield proper. It’s huge, a moor, full of weeds and water and uneven ground. It’s awe-inspiring, that people fought so hard here for their beliefs.
And our daughter? We had expected to stay an hour, maybe two. We closed the place, after five hours there. We spent long hours in the Visitor Center, where she read each information point, watched maps, interactive battle plans. She tried on period clothing, felt a spent bullet. We got our audioguides and headed out to the Battlefield itself. She was in awe – stunned to see a place of war, where so many died and where history was made. Even through the rain, she meandered along paths time and again, listening to the stories and FEELING the sense of place, of history. We had to drag her away, when we were told that we were the last visitors. She looked back the whole time we drove away, unable to tear her mind away from the impact of Culloden.
It sparked countless conversations, about history, Scotland, monarchy, clans, war, peace, gender roles, families, immigration, geology, archaeology, and more. She still talks about visiting Culloden – for her, it was the highlight of our stay in Scotland. It’s a classic example of when someone WANTS to learn, they throw themselves in wholeheartedly. I’d go there again in a heartbeat.
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Sleeping in a Cave Hotel in Turkey!
When backpacking around Turkey, we heard about Cappadocia’s underground cities and how its people to this day lived in rock caves. We thought that as a family it would be fascinating to learn firsthand about these underground cities and above-ground cave homes. The landscape of Cappadocia possesses incredibly unique rock formations. Even more intriguing is how people have burrowed themselves into this unusual land, making it their home. They’ve not only created a life for themselves, but have thrived for thousands of years.
As a family, we took tow days to tour Goreme’s Open Air Museum (above-ground cave dwelling monasteries) and Derinkuyu Underground City (one of the largest and deepest underground cities in Cappadocia) with very informative guides. The experience was a mixture of claustrophobia and amazement with the everyday lives of people who lived in the underground cities and cave dwellings.
Through our tours, we learned that Cappadocia is World UNESCO site, having over 200 underground cities, with only 43 of them open to visitors. We read about the underground cities and cave dwellings on the internet and even stayed in a cave hotel to enrich our experience. As a family, living in a cave hotel for a week was an educational experience in itself. The discomfort of living in the dark and cold during the winter gave us a better appreciation with what the cave and underground city dwellers lived through hundreds of years ago. To finish off the experience, our son wrote a grade three report about what he learned in Derinkuyu.
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The really big questions…..in SE Asia
Cambodia and Vietnam, due to its culture, have given our five year old a lot of food for thought. Specifically, as cemeteries tend to pop up everywhere and anywhere and look very different to the ones at home (they are sometimes just mounds of dirt, adorned by shreds of coloured paper to represent flowers) questions have arisen regarding theology.
Once, while on the back of a motorbike, driving on the dirt roads through the countryside of Battambang, Cambodia, my five year old asked me about eh cycle of life. “Why does God make you, and then you die?” Nice–I had to really scramble to answer that one!
And then in Cambodia and Vietnam, we’ve been confronted with people with physical deformities, more than you would normally see at home of course du to the poor medical care here and poverty in general. So the children ask questions as to why they look like that (elephantiasis, missing limbs, etc.) They are learning that 1) they are lucky to be normal and 2) people with deformities are people too, 3) people with deformities cannot help the way they are and 4) its ok to look and ask questions, but please do not stare!
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Confidence, generosity, and appreciation in SE Asia.
During our travels we’ve visited just about every museum, science centre or zoo that Asia and Australia has to offer. Exploring Petrosains Science Centre in Kuala Lumpur, learning about deforestation and it’s effects on elephants at elephant rehabilitation centres throughout Asia, seeing how strong Orang-utans are when a baby girl orang-utan proved she was 20 times stronger than their father in Kota Kinabalu, learning how volcanoes form firsthand by eating lunch inside one in Bali and observing the structure and lava flows, touching clouds in the mountains of Malaysia to understand that clouds aren’t solid … all of these were priceless educational experiences.
But perhaps the most educational experiences our children have had was meeting another travelling family from Belgium who were driving around the world in a converted army truck. Actually they were a huge influence on us all. My husband dreams of driving around the USA in an RV have expanded to exploring the whole world in a truck. Meeting another family that had driven through countries I had never even dreamed possible with kids helped me rethink what was possible for us. Noah and Hayley learnt the most from them though.
Before meeting this family, they had been a little unsure and insecure about their new lifestyle. We’d only been travelling for a few months and they were still adjusting. Despite stopping longer in each location than we’d originally anticipated to give them a chance to adjust and make friends, they became shy and only wanted to pay with each other. When they met the young boys from this family it all changed. It was the first time they’d seen kids travelling like they were and overnight they went from shy to confident. They started playing with other kids, even when there was no language in common, talking to new people that we met and exploring more without wanting us with them. They started embracing the trip and talking about going to Africa, China and even Antarctica. The boys were incredibly generous with their possessions, sharing their toys with Noah and Hayley, and even giving their favourite toy away to poor children that they met on the streets of Cambodia. From this point on Hayley and Noah became better at sharing and adopted a similar principle of being generous to children that had less than them. Pretty big lessons for children who were only 2 and 4 at the time.
Since then they’ve met children from throughout the world and a whole range of other travelling families. I still feel that even with all the educational opportunities we’ve enjoyed, meeting other families along the way and having the chance to play with children from other cultures has been the biggest educational advantage of this trip. The kids now have friends from all over the world, who speak different languages and play different games but that doesn’t stop them from finding a way to play together. They understand that people speak different languages, come from different backgrounds, and realize that they are lucky to have more than a lot of other kids, even though they are just travelling with a handful of toys. They are confident, will talk to anyone anywhere, form friends quickly and are more sharing than most kids their age. As I said, these are huge lessons for children this age to learn!
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After five years on the road its hard to pick!
This is such a tough question for us because we have been traveling the world non-stop for 5 years as a family ( already to 42 countries on 5 continents on 23 dollars a day per person) and our PRIMARY means for travel has been for education, bonding and becoming fluent as a native in the world’s major languages. Thus, EVERYTHING we have done has been an amazing educational experience.
Do I pick swimming with dolphins in Portugal while working with marine biologist, or riding a camel at Petra in Jordan, cruising and training through the Norway Fjords, walking the ancient walls of Dubrovnik,Croatia, or Rhodes,Greece or Rothernberg, Germany, swimming with sharks or feeding turtles in Bora Bora, a sleep over in an African tent with wild animals in Sweden at Europe’s largest zoo, sailing the Turquoise Coast in Turkey, flying with Harry Potter near Scotland at Hogwarts, playing native instruments with an Aborigine in Sydney, hands on learning with archaeologist at Ephesus, Troy, Mycenia, and Pompeii , hiking 9000 ft up to the ancient Buddhist Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan, spending time in Fez Medina which is as close as anything on this earth to doing time travel back to the middle ages, learning to surf in Kauai, visiting the best museums on 5 continents ,experiencing the best live theatrical shows in Manhattan, London, Paris, San Francisco, Madrid etc, or even knowing how to make one’s way on every subway and train system of most major cities from Paris, New York City and London to Singapore, Vienna, Bangkok , San Francisco or Stockholm, not to mention being an old hand at traveling by cargo ships, train, bus, plane, sailboat, RV, car, walking, biking, and hiking the world.Or even her online learning like piano, violin and Chinese teachers on different continents over webcams as we roam.The possibilities are endless and I’ve barely made a dent.
There is a reason why our Soultravelers3 Twitter page has a picture of the Sahara on it. I’d say a 6 year old taking a two hour ride on a camel deep into the Sahara to over night in a Berber tent during a rare rainbow was a peak experience, but even more so bringing treats to 60 Berber kids and that 6 year old doing a violin concert for these kids who had never seen a violin and live without running water.
BUT I think I’d have to say the very best education was immersing her in Spanish and Mandarin so that she is fluent as a native in both and knows the cultures deeply ( because the only way to really know the culture is to learn the language well and spend time with locals).