Roadschooling: Teaching Three Kids in a VW Bus

When we first hit the road, departing Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to live the mobile tiny house lifestyle via a 27’ RV, it was myself, my girlfriend and my then 7-year old son, Tristan.

He was going into the first grade, and I was going to be his teacher. I’d never been a teacher before, and knew as much about homeschooling as a puppy knows about table manners. In my head, I imagined a traditional classroom, “minified”. I assumed I’d be standing beside a small chalkboard, writing things down as my son sat in the lone desk of our one-student school, and rattle things off as had been my experience as a child.

I hired a lesson planner, who in exchange for my hard-earned dollars, sent over material ever week that we were supposed to cover. The State of Pennsylvania had some relatively loose requirements for homeschoolers, cover x amount of subjects over the seven years or so that comprise elementary school. I got to work following those lesson plans which would ensure that we met our home state’s requirements.

That lasted about two months.

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Everyone thinks their kid is exceptional, right? I was no different, and quickly it became apparent to me that the lesson plans were not providing him with the kind of schooling he required. Was he truly exceptional? I don’t think it matters. What’s important is how things turned out. He blew through those early planned lessons, and was ready to move on to reading long before she was ready to send that type of planning along. Some things simply didn’t interest him, and I imagined ways I could entice him to want to learn more about geography and history than what was being sent over.

The even bigger realization I had was, now that we’re driving around the country and living in an RV, “We don’t live in Pennsylvania anymore.” The rules of that particular state didn’t need apply, unless we decided they should.

Over the next month, I taught Tristan to read. He picked up math incredibly quickly, even simple division and multiplication, at the age of 7. None of this was forced…if he didn’t seem interested in something, we didn’t cover it that day. I would spend an hour or two a day teaching him, far short of the usual 6 hour school days of public and private schools. He was doing so well, I even began struggling with what to teach.

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Our travels lead us to places like National Parks’ Visitor Centers, state capital buildings, museums or just on trails through the forest. We learned about deciduous vs. evergreen trees first hand, literally leaves in hand. We studied history with displays of guns and relics right on display in front of us. No reading from books, just listening to museum caretakers or reading exhibits right in front of us. This type of schooling went on for the remainder of that first year, right through the summer break. Suddenly, school didn’t feel like something from which you needed to take a break. Tristan looked forward to it.

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Then we ditched the RV and “upgraded” to our much smaller 1978 Volkswagen Bus. The reasons for doing this were largely practical: you can camp deeper in the forest, pull up to any gas station, and find parking in any restaurant parking lot with a tiny VW Bus. Not so much in a 27’ RV.

When this happened, our little roadschool institution changed as well. Suddenly, I had a lot more work on my hands. My normal job as a freelance web designer and writer, yes, but now I was spending hours every day fixing and breaking our engine, repairing interior parts of the Bus, and generally learning what all it takes to live in a 30+ year old van.

This took away from my availability to teach my son, and at the same time, I needed help. “Hey bud,” I’d yell, elbows deep in the engine compartment, “hand me the wrench with the number 13 on it.” He moved up quickly from playing fetch to holding a nut on one end of the engine while I turned the screw on the other. He read excerpts from how-to books as I did the greasier end of the job. This took a few months, and by then I had completely abandoned schooling him formally altogether.

I would crawl out from beneath the Bus, or close my computer after the work day was finished, to find him sitting in a tree with a notebook, composing fictional maps, writing stories, drawing pictures of fantasy worlds created with all of his free time. When we’d visit state parks and I’d be chatting with the rangers about which hikes offered the loneliest trails with the best payoffs, I’d turn around to find him digesting as much information on the placards as possible. He wanted to learn.

Was I depriving him by not being an active teacher in his life? The jury may be forever out, but looking back on it, what I was doing was instilling in him a sense of “figure it out!”

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As Tristan got older, he began to create his own projects.

In the US, we largely live in a society of explanation. We’re sat down all day at school and talked at, then expected to remember that information and repeat it on paper. This is how we measure knowledge, and indeed, it is a measure of “how much we can remember”. Knowledge, though, is only one part of human intelligence. The ability to problem solve without a manual, without someone walking you through it…I believe that’s the difference between those people who contribute something additional to this world, the inventors, the craftsman.

How does this all relate to tiny house living? Well, inadvertently, I’d stumbled upon something. Living in a tiny house on wheels forced me into the situation, but since then it’s become one we’ve embraced.

The world is a teacher. Can parents and teachers help the process along? Certainly. Can a parent or teacher or entire school full of educators ever teach what a young boy can learn running around the forest? I don’t believe so.

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We continue to live in a small vehicle—and we certainly could go back to a massive RV with a tow car, alleviating some of the problems we had before—because it keeps our children outside, and we’ve got three in total these days. By ages two and three, our youngest boys knew how to ride bicycles, never knowing a pair of training wheels. A year later we went to Mexico and they not only learned to swim, but dive, snorkel and jump off of cliffs. We study trees and birds. We walk across a town to eat dinner, and have our five year old lead us back. We’re also teaching them to read, write, count and do math, sure, but only because they’ve expressed interest.

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Why are they interested? Because throughout all of those other activities, they see how valuable the “Three Rs” would be. Winter, the 5 year old who leads us home, says one day, “I know this is the way, because I know that sign. But if I could read, I could probably get us back faster.” We started to teach him to read the next day. Our youngest, Wylder, freshly 4 and adamant about the concept of fairness in the world, first began counting so he could equally dole out pieces of candy to each of his older brothers, no one getting more than their fair cut.

For us, living in a tiny house and traveling around is all about being conscious of everything we do, from the natural resources consumed to the tally on how well we spent our time on any given day. When you remove some of the larger comforts of a big house, the cleaning and sorting that comes with that type of living, the routines one finds themselves falling into when not traveling around all the time, it becomes easy to let a few minutes pass by on the couch or in front of a television. When you consciously decide that you’ll live your life outside whenever possible, then the world opens up in a way that you can’t help but see.

This is all well and good to put down as bytes on a blog though, but where’s the proof this will actually work? Stick around! In the coming posts here on Tiny House Blog we’ll show you real, live proof of how this crazy tree-hugging approach to education has paid off for us, and others we know.

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Susan LaDuke - October 24, 2016 Reply

Couldn’t find any better educational example than teaching children as you travel. Although I understand the importance of of curriculum in a class setting, having the world as your classroom is ideal. The idea that your children WANT to learn shows more success than most tied into a classroom setting.
I often wonder how my children woud have done if this opportunity had been available. They’re incredibly successful regardless but it was something I always wanted to do.
Congrats on going against the mainstream and raising some well educated, fabulous children. They’ll be better prepared for life!

    Nathan - October 25, 2016 Reply

    Thanks Susan!

    It’s been all my pleasure over the years, and I certainly thought it was going to be a lot tougher than it actually was. 🙂

    The “parent” in me also wanted to say, at first, “Well, my kids are just smart / special / etc.” but over the years we’ve met a bunch of kids who travel like this, and I can’t think of a single one that didn’t thrive in such a setting…not saying they don’t exist, but percentages-wise we’ve just found it to be the opposite. I really think that the one on one time and giving the kids the freedom to learn when they’re ready makes a world of a difference.

    Have a great day!

Skyval - October 25, 2016 Reply

This is so beautiful and that picture of the little boy in front of the Grand Canyon (or wherever it was ) … ” Now that’s school !!! “

Jon - October 31, 2016 Reply

Wow, this is extraordinary. How is Tristan now? Great job, being able to travel as a youngster while enjoying education is a brilliant way to live. Awesome

Colette - November 2, 2016 Reply

This sounds so wonderful. I have 2 boys, 3 and 5, and dream of doing something like this one day. I’m not sure how we could make it work with finances and work. How were and are you able to finance this lifestyle? It sounds like you have a job that allows you to work wherever you are, which would seem like the only option. Is your partner working or is one income sufficient? I’m curious for a family of 5 what annual income is sufficient to cover expenses? I struggle seeing how between debt and expenses we could make this lifestyle work. I travelled and lived a simple lifestyle for many years before having children, but having children has changed our world so much and made it seem like being settled is the only option. It’s nice to see how others are creating such fun and adventurous lives with kids!

Tracy - November 11, 2016 Reply

What a cool and fun way to grow up as little kids. I envy the simplicity!

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