Back-to-school season, for Andi Almond and her family, has looked very different than for most kids in their home state of Colorado. That's because when the other parents were sending their teens and tweens off to a new year of classes in late August, the Almonds were in Botswana, watching elephants and giraffes romp through watering holes in a national park.
Since then they've been, among other things: fishing in Namibia, hiking the rim of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, touring Johannesburg to learn about the lingering effects of apartheid, visiting Peloponnese ruins, rock climbing in Meteora and cliff jumping on Paros.
"I really do think that travel changes us for the better," Almond tells Yahoo Life, on the phone from Athens. She and her family are three months into their gap year, documenting it all on Instagram. To make it happen, her husband quit his job as chief revenue officer at a tech company and Almond took a sabbatical from a global strategy consulting firm following five years of planning and saving and working with a financial adviser. Now their kids, Aria, 11 and Finn, 13, are learning everything from history to science and literature through travel — something a long-simmering and now seemingly exploding community of parents are trying, with many calling it "worldschooling."
"The way I've been defining it is an alternative approach to education — like homeschooling, without the home," Almond says.
While there are no official statistics about how many families are using global travel as their children's classroom — partially because the approach to how it's done and defined can vary so greatly, but also because no one seems to be keeping track — the practice, at least anecdotally, seems to have only grown since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. On Instagram, there are over 258,000 posts with the "worldschooling" hashtag; Facebook has a range of private groups for worldschoolers, the biggest with 56,000 members.
"We've gotten a new group of people, since the pandemic started, that are recognizing they can live and work nomadically … and who maybe didn't have a desire to detach from conventional life before but were sort of forced to," says Lainie Liberti, now a de facto expert on worldschooling after finding herself in a similar position back when the U.S. economy crashed in 2008.
That's when she, a single mom, took her then-9-year-old son Miro out of school to embark upon a global-nomad existence that, despite generally staying put in Guanajuato, Mexico, since the start of the pandemic, has never quite ended. Liberti, who gained a massive following by blogging about her globe-trotting parent life with Miro, and by growing a huge Facebook community (as well as giving a TedX Talk with her son in 2016) now makes her living by helping others worldschool, and to foster that community, through companies and projects including We Are Worldschoolers, Project World School, Project World School Family Summit and Transformative Mentoring for Teens. Miro, now 23, teaches kids virtually, from Guanajuato, through a D.C.-based self-directed learners group.
"I was pretty miserable with my schooling experience [in L.A.] — it didn't work for me — and the contrast couldn't have been any bigger," Miro says today about learning through traveling to about 40 countries with his mom. "I was pretty engaged in my own education," he says. "Travel really exposes you to a lot of things, and I became passionate about history, politics, economics, politics, literature … Having seen so much of the world, I better understand my place in it."
It's important for families trying out the lifestyle to understand that it won't always be easy, Liberti stresses — something that Almond confirms, noting that there has already been an "epic" family meltdown, plus stomach bugs and a dental emergency — but that, with clear communication and open minds, it will be worth it.
How — and why — families are worldschooling
When Liberti dropped her conventional lifestyle and began globe-trotting with Miro, she did it by quitting her marketing job with enough savings to travel for one year. When neither wanted to go back once the year was up, Liberti began to monetize her blog, though the income was admittedly low in the beginning.
"We made about $1,000 a month, and we lived off of that," she says. "We really shifted what was important to us, though we struggled sometimes, going from making in one year what I used to make in one month."
The Almonds — who were inspired to give the lifestyle a try after Andi came across a book that reminded her and her husband how valuable their own gap year, taken pre-kids and in their 20s, had been — also took off with savings for one year. But others try to balance their travel with a job that's ongoing, either virtually or otherwise.
For Jubilee Lau, a former wedding planner who quit her job five years ago to worldschool her daughter Bridgette, now 15, maintaining this lifestyle has meant leaving her husband Alan home much of the time, so he can continue to earn the family income as a tech consultant in the San Francisco area.
The mother-daughter trips range from two to four weeks at a time, with two-week returns home to see family and friends, and with Alan joining about three trips a year. Currently all three are in South Korea after a jaunt in Thailand.
"What we enjoy most is the cultural immersion. We do some touristy stuff but often try to immerse in local culture," Jubilee tells Yahoo Life. "One trip that stood out was our trip to Kenya last year — we spent a week on a safari but then told the guide, 'No more animals; let's get to know people in the villages.'" The guide wound up taking them to his own village, where the family volunteered at the local school, attended church with the residents and was invited into people's homes. "I think those are the most memorable experiences," she says. "It's really humbled us to see how others live in this world."
In the past six months, Jubilee and Bridgette have been to Croatia, Montenegro, Iceland and Norway, all documented on their Instagram — and over the past seven years, they've been to 41 countries.
To them, worldschooling means "schooling, but in the context of this world," Jubilee says, and "what people understand as homeschooling, but as you travel, and learning in the context of where we're at."
Though the approach, for them, mostly eschews any structured curriculum, Bridgette sticks to stable, online courses for core subjects, such as math and English, that follow state curriculum, now that she's in high school. "She does want to apply to college," Jubilee says. "But we're trying to keep true to why we started."
They were inspired by the drudgery of standardized testing, which started in third grade. "From that point forward, we saw that the intensity of academics, and the curriculum, overshadowed the love of learning Bridgette had," Jubilee recalls. "Keeping her in the school system wasn't a good fit for her learning style or personality, so we looked into alternate education, decided to try homeschooling and started exploring different methods. … We also took advantage of the homeschooling schedule to start traveling." That's when, as Bridgette reached seventh grade, it all clicked.
Similarly, for Heleen Van Assche, her husband, Jurgen, and their two daughters, 10 and 12, who share their travel adventures with their 28,500 followers on Instagram, as well as through their website, their nomadic lifestyle began with the idea of taking a gap year after selling the children's clothing and toy store they owned in their home country of Belgium. That was in 2018.
"We rented our house, took the kids out of school and traveled the world for a year. My husband started [doing] web development, and I started to learn about blogging and Instagram," Heleen tells Yahoo Life. But it wound up being just the beginning.
"When we returned mid-2019, we immediately felt we couldn’t go back to our 'normal' lives," she says. "While the kids were back in school, we decided to sell our house and leave again by the end of the school year. Then COVID hit. But we went on with the plan anyway. So since mid-2020, we're traveling full-time, the kids are homeschooled, and we work online."
Jurgen still does web development, and Heleen is a photographer and brings in family income through side hustles of Instagram collaborations, passive blog income and online photography courses. But, she admits, "The financial part has definitely been our biggest struggle and is slowly becoming better. We work hard to make it sustainable so we can continue this lifestyle in the future."
It's important to keep living this way, because "we love the freedom," Heleen explains. "We left the rat race, aren't slaves to our schedules and have the option to be together way more than normal." Also, she says, "we believe the kids learn a lot from meeting other people, other cultures. … The fact that they learn it from real life and not out of books is something we cherish a lot."
Together they've visited over 15 countries and make regular trips back to Belgium to stay with her mother. Next up: Morocco.
As for schooling, they don't really have a schedule. "Days that they are very focused, we do a lot. When they have a hard day or we have a busy travel schedule, we don't do anything. … For math, science and languages, we use books and online platforms. For other general knowledge, we rely more on our travels and visiting museums." Last year, when the family returned to Belgium for nearly three months, the girls had no problem with a temporary drop-in at the school and "even were a bit ahead of their classmates."
As for the Almonds, Andi and husband Randy split teaching duties: He's in charge of math, science and history, relying on guidance about online resources collected from teachers ahead of time, and she's got literature, writing, languages and civics/volunteering. For literature especially, Almond tries to choose books that match their locations — Trevor Noah's memoir while they were in South Africa, for example. For her son, who's been taking Mandarin, they'll eventually live with a local family in China and enroll both kids in an immersion school for three weeks. Figuring it all out as they go, Almond admits, "is not without its challenges."
Others do what they can to worldschool while still keeping one foot in a home base with steady employment — like Iliah Grant Altoro, who is just about to get back into frequent traveling with her kids post-pandemic. Based in Minneapolis, the single mom of three maintains a part-time job with an airline while also doing freelance writing, leveraging both to take her kids to far-flung countries as frequently as possible.
"We backpacked across Southeast Asia when the kids were little for four months," Altoro tells Yahoo Life. While she's mostly homeschooled her kids — now 6, 12 and 14 — this year "is a little unique," she says, because her oldest is giving public high school a try, and her youngest is going to a Montessori school for first grade (her middle child is still homeschooled). They've visited 30 countries together, were most recently in Guatemala and Greece, and plan to hit Vietnam, Tunisia and Turkey in the very near future.
Altoro says that, as a woman of color with children of color, seeing the world feels vital.
"I call it a revolutionary act of resistance, because it's teaching my children that they belong," she says. "In a country that's supposed to be their own, they don't fully belong … so to take them and put them in places where they just get to belong or feel a part of something, to be true global citizens, they then build an identity of 'I belong … there is a world that accepts me as I am.'"
It's also helped build empathy and character in all three, she's found, adding, "My kids are so comfortable in uncomfortable situations."
But she also stresses, for those who cannot take the plunge but are tempted, that it's possible to "build global bridges even without travel," once you’ve opened your mind to it. Because, Altoro says, you can travel but "be with expats, be at a resort, do everything that’s comfortable for you," and stay at home while taking advantage of the diversity — through food, culture, language — that's around you.
"Sometimes we think the only way this can happen is through travel, but I raise my kids to be authentic global citizens everywhere," she says.
While there is no apparent body of research on worldschooling, untraditional approaches to education rose significantly during the pandemic.
U.S. Census information shows that homeschooling — which comes with various legal requirements that vary by state and does not take worldschooling into account — doubled during start of the 2020-21 school year.
"It's clear that in an unprecedented environment, families are seeking solutions that will reliably meet their health and safety needs, their child care needs and the learning and socio-emotional needs of their children," the report stated. As for the results of such an approach, a recent Harvard University analysis found that homeschooled children were more likely to engage in volunteerism and be forgiving in early adulthood than those who attended public schools; it also found homeschooled kids were less likely to attend college but noted it could be due to a variety of factors, such as choosing alternatives and being hampered by unfair admissions standards.
Still, for those who have been able to make worldschooling happen, even for a short time, the rewards are powerful.
"We have always traveled with the kids, since they were babies," Almond says, "and our [early-20s] gap year really shaped us into the people we are — hopefully globally minded, inclusive people."
Now, by exposing their kids to a wide range of cultures and languages, and by living with local families and doing volunteer work, she says, "I hope it gives them a unique worldview and opens their eyes to a diverse set of experiences about the world — and how they can help shape it into a better place."
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