I’m spending the week with three charming gentlemen who regale me with tales of their epic world travels. They describe the sheep on Scotland’s Isle of Skye, the vegetarian sharks in Belize, the sugar in Costa Rica, and the beaches in Cannes.
From grown men, it might be braggy, but because these are my nephews — a 14-year-old and twin 10-year-olds — it’s sort of astonishing.
They’re bopping around the globe with their parents full-time and gleaning their education from the sights, cultures, and adventures they encounter. It’s called world-schooling, and it’s a thing now (see the 12,000 members of the We Are Worldschoolers Facebook group).
Three years ago, my brother-in-law Rich and his wife, Jen, were your average Bay Area homeowners. He worked long hours as a tech company director, she was PTA secretary at the kids’ elementary school and the family had frequent homework battles. On a vacation in Hawai‘i, the kids became jazzed about sea life and the Polynesian culture — and it sparked an idea.
“We’d never seen them so excited about what they were learning in school,” said Jen. “We thought, wouldn’t it be amazing if we could travel all the time and let them learn from life experiences that piqued their curiosity rather than be bored in classrooms?”
Then Rich’s company was acquired, and he was laid off — with six months’ severance. It was now or never. They rented out their house, researched secular homeschooling options for the road, put all of their belongings in storage, and hit the trails, meandering across Europe and staying in houses they rented on VRBO from Ireland to Austria to Monaco to Malta. The kids did online school a couple of hours a day between visiting forts, museums, castles, caves, and stone circles.
“They were a lot more receptive to learning because they were really excited about the places we were going,” Jen says.
There were misadventures, of course. They got lost a lot. Like no-cell-service, no-GPS, beg-a-roadside-innkeeper-for-directions lost.
They started with 10 suitcases but began leaving them behind when they couldn’t fit them in their tiny rental cars, and ultimately the five of them whittled their possessions down to a scant few necessities.
They fell so in love with their new lifestyle that they decided to stay on the road indefinitely, selling their house and car and giving away most of their things in storage back home. Rich got a job working remotely and now can work anywhere there’s Wi-Fi. That includes Mérida, Mexico, where they visited Mayan pyramids.
“The workers made their own tools, but the conquistadors came and brought disease,” Miles, 10, tells me before advising me never to chew fresh coffee beans in Costa Rica. “They taste horrible.”
He and his twin, Aidan, started a blog to document the 72 types of ice cream and gelato they’ve sampled all over the world, from Rome, Italy, to Charlotte, South Carolina.
Over the last year, the family has driven 6,000 miles through 36 of the United States from California to Florida, up to Maine and down to Illinois. They don’t know where they’re headed next — but it won’t be back to Manhattan, if Aidan has his way.
“It was too dirty,” he says, “and people bumped into us and didn’t say sorry or excuse me.”
Though Jen says traveling together has made the family closer than ever, they do miss their friends (and pets!) back home. And their grandfather misses them terribly. “Our families were together since the kids were born and then — cold turkey,” he says. “It’s been hard.”
But they’ve met new friends around the globe, including many others in the close-knit world-schooling community. The kids often Skype with pals in England and Romania.
Plus, it’s fairly easy to entice friends to come visit when you have a rental house on Cozumel, where a man comes by every morning with a churro cart.
Beats the hell out of homework battles.