the power of positive disruption

Traveling is a disruptive activity.  It eliminates your usual routine.  The scenery changes along with your state of mind and your curiosity muscle gets a workout.  So when you travel with kids, I think it’s a natural opportunity to experiment with homeschooling.

Our experiment came at a time when our son Angus was struggling at school; he seemed to be a bright boy but he just wasn’t reading.  We started to hear phrases like learning disability, special education testing, intervention programs, Attention Deficit Disorder and medication therapy.  The pressure was mounting when we got two very lucky breaks: an offer to live and work in Italy for 6 months and a supportive school principal who allowed Angus to take a long absence, as long as he studied while he was away.

We hadn’t planned it but homeschooling away from home was the best possible ‘intervention program’ for Angus.  Traveling disrupted his routine, gave him time out from the pressure at school and brought him into a world of new things to be curious about.  He started reading – voraciously – because he was really curious about ancient myths.

It’s well known that tailoring a meaningful curriculum and creating a comfortable learning environment for each individual child is one of the biggest benefits of homeschooling.  What we didn’t expect was that – even though it was brief and we were inexperienced – homeschooling away from home had significant and lasting effects.  When Angus rejoined his class for the last half of fourth grade he had become a strong reader.  In middle school he chose Latin classes, tested into selective high schools and now he studies Cognitive Science at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

I call that a very positive disruption.


all you need is love…

Homeschooling is not difficult but it is time consuming.  It takes time to prepare and supervise homeschool lessons but it’s no hardship when you love your kid and enjoy being together.  I think this is why homeschooling and traveling are a natural fit – away from your regular schedule you have more time for yourself and your family.  And whether you’re visiting Miami or Madrid – new places are an inspiration to explore and learn together.


Besides love, I think the next biggest thing that made homeschooling work so well for us was having access to the internet.  It gave us the confidence to try it out.  There’s an enormous homeschool community online so we could always find answers and advice – everything from help with math and  grammar to the story of Pompeii (along with cheap train tickets to get there).  Searching resources on the internet meant we didn’t need to pack alot of books so we could travel light.

how to get lost


I think knowing how to get lost is a good life skill to master.

What I mean is that sooner or later – no matter how vigilant you are – everyone gets lost or separated and it’s important to teach kids not to panic and how to get un-lost.

To avoid the panic part, here is what we did.  I hope you’ll forgive me if it’s the same obvious stuff all families do but when you travel it’s even more critical to remember:

  • Be sure your child always wears some form of ID because you never know.  Dogtags work well, boys especially think they’re cool and you can order them online before you travel.
  • Know where the local emergency room is and always carry a small translating dictionary, so you can communicate with non-English speaking medics if necessary.
  • If possible dress your kid in a distinctive bright color.  It helps in big crowds.
  • Also in big crowds – hold hands.  I know, duh.  But I’ll say it anyway.  Plus it’s just nice to hold hands with your kid – you won’t be able to do it forever.
  • Does your family have a secret whistle?  Angus could not whistle when he was little but he made a little chirping sound instead that worked fine.
  • We repeated every time we went out:  if you ever lose us, go back to the last place you saw us and wait there.  We will find you.  And of course don’t go with strangers.
  • On trains or buses, there’s another drill:  if the door closes and we get separated, get off at the next stop and wait there.  This happened to us in Rome when Angus was about eleven, taking the train into the city from the airport.  He got into the car and the door closed before I could wrestle our luggage aboard.  I remember the horrified look on his face as the train started to move out.  I took the next train 20 minutes later –  shaking with worry – but when I got off he was there waiting.  “I just did what you always said Mom.” he said calmly, “I knew you would come.”
  • Do you have anything to add?  Please add your comments to this list!

If you have a plan to avoid panicking, you’ll be able to think more clearly and getting lost can (almost) be fun.  It’s a puzzle really – a challenge to use a map and your observation skills to find your way back.

We liked this game to practice map skills:  we’d go out to explore and when we were ready to return I’d give Angus the map and promise him his favorite treat if he could navigate us home.  AngusFatima

They got to know us very well at the gelato shop.

unplugging on the road requires unplugging.  Step away from your usual distractions and quietly observe.  Of course, you’ll have to unplug your kid, too.  Nobody panic!  Just try it for a little while.

When you’re traveling there’s alot of new stuff to see so it’s a perfect setup to observe your children interacting with a new environment.  Take a walk together and watch what they watch, then talk about it and listen carefully for more clues.  When you plug in to their natural curiosity, home schooling will be a lot more fun for everyone.

Here’s the best part for grown-ups: if you practice looking at the world through your child’s eyes you’ll notice a renewed sense of wonder.

And there’s no app in the world for that.Pompeiiupsidedown

books are a key…

zeusD’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths was the key that opened up reading for my son – a children’s classic with spectacular artwork.

The first few weeks in Italy were difficult.  We all had a lot of adjusting to do.  Angus deeply missed his friends and pined for his school.  He was disturbed that the only television available was in Italian and convinced I was unqualified to be his teacher (he was right about that).  I was shocked and disappointed that we’d traveled to this magnificent place only to hear him complain that he was bored!  How ungrateful!   And what about me?  Was I going to be a prisoner of curriculum prep and those home school workbooks every spare minute and never see Italy?  How unfair!

A battle of the wills ensued.  Angus was sullen and uncooperative for two solid weeks.  He nearly had me convinced we should give up and go home when I noticed he was sneaking peeks at the D’Aulaires’ book.  He was not a strong reader yet so I think the strange and wonderful illustrations mesmerized him (just like me when I was his age).  A few days later he found The Odyssey by Dorling-Kindersley among keybooksthe books I’d brought along.

He kept it with him wherever he went, reading and reading and reading…

Suddenly the crisis was over. We had stumbled on the solution to our troubles.  Angus had cured his boredom with books and I had the inspiration to move our lessons out into the city; the myths he was so curious about were everywhere – decorating the buildings and fountains, in the museums and street names of Rome.  Bellissima!

PS: to this day Angus is never without a book, sometimes he brings two or three along on the subway to visit a friend.