Boatschooling, Part 3: Things I wish I’d known

another kind of school
We get more questions about homeschooling than almost anything else. To try and offer meatier background on our approach I’ve split out a few blog posts on the subject: first, offered thoughts on finding a boatschool path; second, what we actually DO on Totem; and here, things I wish I’d been able to internalize before we started our homeschooling journey.

Planning to homeschool was stressful. The early months of homeschooling were, too. I wish I could have let go of the anxiety I felt. Aside from the pressure leading up to our departure (did I have the right materials on board? Was this even going to work?). It was pretty intense the whole first year if I’m going to be honest with myself.

To be clear, this was my burden. The kids did not find it stressful to be taken out of their mainstream school path. But reflecting on the process as a parent, how can we be easier on ourselves? It’s natural to wonder if we are we doing the right thing, of course, and while we are all responsible for guiding their development, knowing their education in our hands is a daunting responsibility. It’s one felt especially keenly as a homeschooler.

Here’s what I wish I had known when we started homeschooling.

1. You may not get it right the first time

Going cruising is a massive lifestyle transition. The homeschooling path that felt right to you during planning may not necessarily be a fit with your life once you depart. You may find that the mode you intend to follow doesn’t work with a child. That’s OK: it is not a failure to stop and change the course you’re on. We seem to evolve what we’re doing all the time, but I believe that this is a natural flow for anyway. It’s no failure to acknowledge you need to make a change, even a big one.

Our friends on s/v Don Quixote started off with Calvert before they had even moved aboard (which, by the way, I think is brilliant-  I wish we could have gotten away from the traditional system before departure, to smooth those learning curves). It turns out that Calvert was not a fit for their family, a really nice thing to work out so they could more readily seek a path that worked before they were out of the country, and materials harder to source.
after school
2. Your child may not like homeschooling

It is almost inevitable that you or your children will compare your new learning path with the one you left behind. For children experiencing sadness at saying goodbye to a loved teacher or friends for a cruising adventure, this might be especially difficult. We actually didn’t have this problem, but I’ve heard it repeated from other boats. Possibly it was easier for us because we left with relatively young children. Possibly it is because our guiding principle is to keep learning fun.

A kid who says they don’t like homeschooling is reacting to a symptom. Homeschooling is almost certainly not the real problem: something else is. Help them separate those feelings, and talking with them to understand the root of their feelings so you can made any adjustments you need so that homeschooling works for everyone. A social kid may miss being in a large classroom, an athletic kid may miss a soccer team, another may miss a favorite reading nook at the library. Find out what the root of the problem is and how to help them become happier learners where you are.

3. It helps to have a tribe

If we were back in our land based community, we would surely have been part of at least one group of other non-traditional learning families. Just because we’re mobile doesn’t mean that isn’t possible. Kid boats have a way of being drawn together, and we make the most of that however we can. It’s a great chance to do group activities that we can’t always do on our own, and opens the door to more learning by sharing experiences and discussing them together. Older kids can mentor younger ones, which offers great benefits for both.

kids dont' like cruising. much.

In La Cruz, Mexico, tween girls from two different boats wrote the script for a production of Harry Potter- staged in the marina amphitheater with all parts played by cruising kids. It was brilliant and a great experience for all. In Barra de Navidad, we learned about bats inside the ruins of a hotel along the lagoon, and planned a Bat Day that involved some pre-learning and then a visit to the “bat caves.” Everyone brought information about bats to the table to share. We took a dinghy trip to explore the place, making observations and taking photos. Afterward, we lined up what we saw with what we had read and discussed to better understand bats. Doing it with a pack of kids made it different and fun from “everyday” learning. It’s the kind of thing you’d organize with your homeschooling group at home, but can just as readily organize in our floating community.

4. You won’t be perfect. Deal with it.

It is perfectly normal for it to take some time for you to gain confidence in how you’re homeschooling. Trying to let go of the stress around that, if you can, will make it easier on everyone. Be willing to let go of things you thought were essentials and try something new. Talk to other families around you and learn from their experience. As much as the kids loved doing projects like the Bat Day with other kids, it was helpful for me to talk to other parents about what they were doing, what was and wasn’t working. We all have hurdles and can help each other through them. Ultimately, there are good days and bad days: days I feel like we nailed the whole learning thing, and days I feel like a failure and want to give up. It took time and experience for me to know when I needed to get out of my head and realize that there is no perfect, and what we are doing as a family is amazing.

5. It all works out

About two months in, I was sitting on a beach in San Diego with my friend Annie. An experienced cruising mom, she talked me through my worries, and promised me it would be OK. That’s not to say that you can just will it to be OK, but that it really helps if you can just relax a little. If only I could have internalized her advice back then! It took me months. With the perspective of time, I realize this anxiety is common. It’s just hard to pop up the periscope and recognize this is normal when you’re living it every day.

I don’t mean to be flippant by saying it all works out as if that was just going to easily and organically happen, but if you are worried, and you are still reading this, then you are probably the kind parent who will be working at making this journey successful and possibly shouldn’t worry quite so much.

Whatever path you choose, opportunities for learning are a natural part of every day that we’re out here as a family. The unofficial holiday, Learn Nothing Day, is a standing joke in the unschooling community. Do you know how hard it is to go for a day without learning anything? Now imagine yourself actively looking for opportunities to learn from inspirations in the world around you. Then put yourself in a lifestyle that changes the language, geology, culture, scenery, history, etc. on a regular basis. The learning opportunities are tremendous, and really, it is all in a flow.

We shouldn't worry

11 Responses

  1. Behan – this is another great article! Thank you for writing it. I have to say that it’s amazing how ‘kid boats’ do have a way of attracting each other. Last month we met a boat on an island in Greece that had two girls – 9 and 11 years old. Our daughter, Sienna (4 yrs old), met and fell in love with them instantly. We parted ways and then found each other a few weeks later. Needless to say, we’ve just spent 12 days with them cruising around Greece and Turkey. The things that my daughter learned were priceless. Being around the two girls helped her to mature, learn new things and have loads of fun. And I’m sure the 2 girls learned things too! We had craft days, went on adventures seeing monasteries, enjoyed horseback riding, snorkelling, and on and on. And us adults learned loads too – being able to spend time with other cultures is a real eye-opener. Our friends were from South Africa and we’re from America/Britain – the discussions we had!!! That being said, I’m feeling more and more comfortable with boat schooling…Thanks again for such a great article and a great website. Big smiles, Kim

    1. Thanks, Kim! Homeschooling afloat has been a continuous learning process for ALL of us; I’m glad it’s settling in for you. And yes, kid boats do attract. We’ve changed our route plans, and friends have changed theirs, so that our collective posse of kids could spend more time together. Everybody wins! I do love how little age (or gender) matters among boat kids when it comes to making friends, and think it’s one of many benefits they have over staying at home in ‘normal’ lives.

  2. Behan, our little boy will be 4 1/2 when we head off cruising. Since we plan to be out many years, are there school supplies that you cannot live without or wish you had brought? I notice the microscope, which seems like a good purchase. Do you like the brand you bought and would you recommend it? Also, are there toys (besides legos) which seem to go over well and keep the children engaged longer on passages?

    Thanks for answering my questions. I do believe the eclectic boatschooling approach appeals to me most.

    1. Overwhelmingly, you can get basic school supplies along the way, and really don’t need to stock up on stuff in advance. I can’t think of things I wish we had brought, but I can sure tell you what we brought TOO much of: notebooks, paper, pens, and pencils! What’s often not as easy to come by are quality goods. I truly under-appreciated what good, easy access to quality products we have at home. So things like good art supplies, which will last longer and be more satisfying to use. What’s available in most countries where we have cruised is cheaper, but inferior. Like our Lyra colored pencils now. At 4 1/2, it will be big crayons and paints to play with- just go with your gut and go with quality.

      You nailed it with Legos- they’re just so fantastic! Our kids have also gotten a ton of mileage doing imaginary play games with their stuffed animals (the 10 and 12 year old still do this all the time). I’m less tuned into the needs of a four year old now, but will think about other things for you.

      As much as we love our microscope, it’s a bit of a white elephant. It was really expensive- I think around $800? We were making a fair bit of money back then so it didn’t seem like a big deal. Now, with a laughable below-poverty-level income, I look at that and think – it would buy us groceries for two months! 20/20 hindsight, I wouldn’t get something so “nice,” I guess. But if you’ve got the cash to spend, pick something that you can connect to a laptop. It’s much easier for a small child (or a crowed of bigger kids) to share the experience by looking at a screen vs. squinting into an eyepiece.

      1. My daughter is 4 Carla and we brought several educational workbooks, purchased educational apps for the iPad, puzzles (increasing in difficulty), a couple board games and brought paper, magic markers, glue and as many craft packs as I could find. She also has some stuffed animals and a dolls house that she plays with for hours. Like Behan mentioned… Sailing around the Mediterranean, I’ve found it impossible to find quality craft supplies like coloured card, glue, foam shapes/stickers, popsicle sticks, paints, etc. etc. There are hundreds of toy stores but none of them have crafty stuff and it’s ‘Arts & Crafts’ time that lasts the longest. We have a printer so I can print off DIY crafts so that works, but it’s a pain getting the printer out! Last month a friend came out and I had her bring paper, craft kits, glue and we became the ‘Arts & Crafts’ boat – all the kids from other boats wanted to hang out with us. Heheheh. Not sure if that’s a good thing or not. I must say that a small DVD player seriously helps. I try my best to spend loads of time with my daughter as we’re sailing but we need a break from time to time. We purchased a small DVD player and extra speakers – when the engine runs, the normal DVD sound isn’t loud enough. I will be writing more about homeschooling on my website the more I get into it… I hope this helps!

  3. Hi Behan, Kim & Carla~
    Behan, your blog site is amazing and I was fortunate enough to find it just yesterday. Great work as I am consuming it all. What is crazy to me is who responded. Kim Brown (Hi KIM!) who I have been in touch with the last couple of months through her blog and Carla Barrett (Hi are you?) who I had the pleasure of meeting at a local boat show and have been in contact since. Wow…just blown away at how small this world is and so deeply content to have such like minded people all in one spot!
    We will be heading out in a years time now! Thank you all of you again for all your information…

    1. Malissa, it is amazing and wonderful how small the cruising world is! Circles cross and recross on the water as well- it’s a beautiufl thing. I’m so glad you’re finding helpful info on the blog, good luck on the path to your own adventures afloat!

  4. Behan,

    Thank you so much for these home schooling posts. We are about to take off cruising from Long Beach CA in July, 2015. Like you I find the home schooling responsibility daunting. I am so afraid that I am somehow going to short change my kid. My research began with traditional programs like Calvert but I quickly decided it was not for my son. SO glad you have validated that decision. My son Nico is 11 and just started middle school last fall. He hates it! He is a kinetic and visual learner and has never thrived in traditional school. Put him in a noisy classroom with 37 other kids and he just checks out and gets lost in his head. The one class he thrived in last semester was Marine Biology so I am definitely going to pursue that. If you know of any textbooks or otherwise that I should get please let me know. It is comforting beyond belief that there are other moms out there going through the same thing, with the same concerns. Keep posting Behan. We are are reading them voraciously! Thank you for sharing. Your posts are invaluable to us!

    1. Teresa, I’m so glad to know these learning posts are helpful for you! As for marine bio books for Nico, I’d start at the library – and, go big. Don’t let the librarian give him “age appropriate” books only, get a selection. If you have access to an academic library, so much the better. And then, just see what resonates for him!

  5. Just finished reading this series on boatschooling and I just have to say thank you! I’m already homeschooling two of my three children and we’re planning to join the cruising community in the next year or so. We have a curriculum we’re following now, but I’m pretty sure we’ll be much less structured for at least the first “school year” on the boat, what with trying to figure out our new lifestyle. The bit about “Learn Nothing Day” cracked me up and was really encouraging. Some days, I’m afraid my kids don’t learn a single thing, but I was reminded by that paragraph that they actually do learn something new, nearly every day, even if all they do is play with Legos!
    I can’t wait to see what captures my kids’ attention the most as we begin this new stage of our family’s life! 🙂

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