For some kids, science class doesn’t take place in a laboratory, but a national park. Learning about ancient Rome doesn’t mean reading a textbook, but clambering millennia-old ruins. And studying a foreign language isn’t about memorizing conjugation tables, but going around the corner to the grocery store.
You could call those kids lucky. You could also call them worldschoolers.
Worldschoolers are families who are educating their children while traveling extensively. Rather than attend a traditional in-person school, the kids might homeschool or remote school while campervanning around the U.S., spending a few months in Thailand, or driving between vacation rentals in France. (In normal times, at least.) Some families worldschool for a couple of months or a few times a year; others are nomadic for years. Their budgets range from limited to lavish.
While nobody tracks how many families choose worldschooling, it’s a lifestyle that’s become more appealing in the pandemic.
It’s true that Covid has restricted travel worldwide—but at the same time, many children are learning from home and parents are working remotely or, sadly, out of work. So some travel-lovers are making lemonade out of lemons by taking the clan on the road.
Worldschooling can be fun, exciting, and character-building for the whole family. But it can also be a challenging, intimidating, or even a bad fit for your family. Whether you’re considering it or just curious, here’s what you need to know about this intriguing trend.
1. You can try it out
Some worldschooling families sell their home and belongings and head for the horizon. You don’t have to—especially during a pandemic and/or when you’re just starting out.
If worldschooling looks appealing, you can test the waters with shorter trips. Book a vacation rental that’s within driving distance of your home or rent an RV for a couple of days. If your kids are learning remotely and you plan to continue, try to schedule your trip for weekdays to see how it feels. (Make sure you’ll have a good internet connection.)
You can also try out a structured homeschooling program for a couple of days, or plan a lesson or two yourself. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, and there are plenty of free resources online. Read a book about local history or wildlife, then do a simple craft or writing exercise. The idea is just to get a sense of how a longer journey might work, not to make a big commitment.
2. There’s no “right” way to worldschool
There are about as many approaches to worldschooling as there are families who do it. Some kids are enrolled in online schools or structured homeschooling programs. Others have private teachers or tutors who travel with them.
Many parents use their travels to inform—or even determine—what and how their kids learn. In some cases, they’re “unschooling,” an approach where parents support and guide their children to follow their own interests, said Jessie Voigts, who has a Ph.D. in international education and publishes Wandering Educators, a site for teachers who travel.
Unschooling has no curriculum; there are no required subjects. It can be very rewarding, but demands a lot of parent time and attention. “When my daughter was tiny she was super-interested in ancient Egypt,” said Voigts, whose family unschools. “We mummified a chicken and we built the Sphinx in sand, and it was just so much fun.”
Former teacher Jennifer Miller, who homeschooled her four children until they were in college, offers a rule of thumb: If you think you’ll be traveling for more than a year, take a more structured approach. For shorter trips, keep it more fluid.
“I would encourage people to experiment with different modalities for learning,” says Miller, who supports home educators at Headstart Homeschooling. “And see what they can learn about their kid and their educational process.”
3. You’ll need to look into laws
Many U.S. school districts, private schools, and colleges will be remote this fall. If you stick with a remote program and simply do it while traveling, you don’t have to jump through any legal hoops. But attendance is compulsory and you’ll have an inflexible curriculum.
Families who decide to homeschool will have to deal with legal mandates—which vary from country and country and state to state. In Germany, kids must attend school. In the U.S., some states have stringent homeschooling requirements, while others are much more flexible.
Get familiar with local laws before you commit to any learning plans. The Homeschool Legal Defense Association (HLDA), which supports homeschoolers around the world, is a good place to start. And a pro tip: If you’re going to be living on the road, you may be able to establish a home base in a place with looser rules, which can mean fewer headaches along the way.
4. Leaving might be easier than you think
Sara Clemence, one of the co-founders of The Expedition, spent months fantasizing about taking her family of four on the road. The idea seemed totally unrealistic—until she made a simple list.
“One day I did a back-of-the envelope calculation of how much it would cost for us to travel for nine months,” Clemence said. “Then I made a list of the big changes we’d have to make—and it wasn’t as long as I expected. I was kind of surprised at how possible it all seemed.”
She and her husband had to sublet their New York apartment, take their son out of school, help their nanny find a new position, and put their personal belongings into storage. Instead of tackling all of those challenges at once, she started with a single, small step: finding someone to photograph the apartment.
5. You still have to travel responsibly
It goes without saying that you should abide by any local quarantine requirements and other public health rules when traveling. But also: just because you can go someplace doesn’t mean you should.
Careless behavior can spread Covid-19 and devastate communities. “People really need to weigh their own wishes for traveling for education for their kids with the real on-the-ground impacts that could have for other places,” Miller warned.
Think twice about traveling from an area with high infection rates to one with low infection rates. That’s especially true for developing regions, which may not have robust healthcare systems, but it also applies closer to home.
Voigts, who lives in Michigan, says her family is very careful when traveling from the southern part of the state to the northern region, where they have a cottage. “We bring in everything so that we don’t have to go to the store or interact with locals here,” she said. “Downstate, we have much higher Covid cases than here, so I don’t want to be a vector and bring it to them.”
6. Covid closings will be a factor
Don’t count on being able to visit museums, art galleries and restaurants while you travel. Even if they’re currently open, policies can change quickly. Businesses may be shuttered with little notice. Borders, too.
It pays to be flexible, both in terms of your itinerary and your educational plans. And remember that nature offers heaps of learning opportunities.
Some U.S. and Canadian families are renting RVs to tour state and national parks and historic sites. British families have more freedom to roam internationally than American families. Both in the U.K. and Europe, historic sites are often less crowded than in the time before Covid, while remote beaches and nature reserves can be a delight to explore.
And families don’t have to visit majestic national parks to learn from the outdoors—kids can get a lot out of observing tides, seasons, and animals. “There are also a lot of interesting survivalist techniques,” said Voigts, whose family has been preparing fare from Ray Mears’ Wilderness Chef over a campfire.
7. Most important: take it easy
Even educational travel should still feel like a vacation, not a forced march. Fortunately, worldschooling takes much less time than regular school. “We schooled two to four hours a day, not more than four days a week, for the entire breadth of the children’s education,” Miller said, adding that an hour or two of formal learning is plenty for younger children.
You can reduce physical stress by organizing your travel around your family’s circadian rhythms. Avoid early starts if you have teens and late nights when there are little ones.
Apps that limit screen usage can help kids of all ages manage their relationship with technology—though it’s important to give them time to catch up with friends.
Finally, don’t let fear for your children’s education hold you back. “I think there’s an opportunity for people who have time this year to go do something different,” Miller said. “It’s going to be fun to see what happens.”