Millions of families around the world have recently found themselves thrust into the world of home schooling with the closure of schools due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But for families who cruise long haul with their kids, boat schooling has always been a necessity, writes Erin Carey
For many, the opportunity to trade a bricks and mortar school for classes on deck or on the beach is part of the appeal of a cruising lifestyle. Here we take a look at some of the different approaches favoured by liveaboard and cruising families, and discover some tips that temporary home teachers can benefit from.
Learning outside of the classroom has been proven to bring benefits including increased self-awareness, confidence, creativity and imagination. However, the endless juggle of fitting in education, boat maintenance, socialisation and online employment can create a challenging dynamic while living in the close confines of a boat.
“Fulfilling the triple role of parent-teacher-playmate can be intense for all members of the family at times,” commented Philippa Steventon, who is home educating her boys on board their Bowman 40 Bella as they overwinter in Spain.
My husband and I also recently spent two years living aboard our Moody 47 Roam, with our three young boys. It certainly wasn’t easy. Educating our kids was the hardest element of our entire journey, including sailing across the Atlantic Ocean.
- Unschooling: An informal style that advocates topics and activities should be chosen by the children themselves.
- Eclectic: A popular approach to home schooling where parents pick and choose the best parts of several different systems and resources.
- Prepackaged curriculum: Also known as ‘school in a box’, preplanned curriculums can be used as supplied or supplemented as you see fit. Examples include Calvert, Timberdoodle or Oak Meadow.
- Distance learning: Where teachers use online instruction (or a variation) to teach students.
Article continues below…
Sailing with teenagers. Did that thought prompt you to wince or shake your head? Conventional wisdom steers many long-term cruisers…
Surreal. Not a breath of wind tonight. The sea’s surface is flat and unbroken. The sky is utterly cloudless and…
What method is best?
To decide what style of schooling is best for you and your family, it’s essential to be honest with yourself. What type of parent are you? Are you creative, crafty and excited by the idea of teaching your children? Or, like me, would you prefer to follow a pre-written curriculum to take the fear and doubt out of an already challenging exercise?
I quickly discovered that I didn’t enjoy the pressure of piecing together a curriculum. Initially our plan was for an eclectic style of home schooling, as I loved the idea of my children learning about the world around them. I envisaged teaching fascinating lessons about the history of the countries we were visiting and the science behind the weather systems through which we were sailing.
In reality, it was far more complicated than I expected to create studies for my children that were age-appropriate, engaging and fun. The point is that most people don’t get it right the first time and it’s important to remain flexible, continually assess what is and isn’t working, and be willing to pivot if required.
Both Megan Waitkoff Downey and Jennifer Dawson Sampica are boat-schooling mums to seven-year-olds. They too have found home educating more difficult than they anticipated.
“While parents understand their own child best and dedicated one-on-one learning is amazing, I also recognise there are a lot of skills and strategies that teachers learn in their studies that I simply don’t have in my toolbox,” admits Megan.
Putting some strategies in place can make learning more enjoyable: Jennifer has found that things run more smoothly when there is a set schedule. “Each Sunday I create a lesson plan for the week. That way, my son and I can check it off together,” she explains.
Finding other experts to teach your children is another great way to engage your child. “Whether it’s a scientist giving a shark talk, a photographer explaining his turtle images, or a tour guide at a nutmeg plant, it’s always better when it’s hands-on,” said Stacey Paczkoski Brassington.
The rich experiences my family were fortunate enough to gain were beyond educational. In Grenada, we watched giant leatherback turtles laying eggs on the beach and learnt how chocolate is made. While exploring Martinique, we climbed an active volcano and visited a slavery museum. Bequia taught us about the history of whaling – and on we went, each location teaching us something new.
“When we left Cowes, the advice we were given by our head teacher was to make sure we keep them up to date with the relevant stages in the English and maths curriculums and that everything else would come from what we were doing on the boat,” adds Philippa Steventon.
Regarding duration and frequency, around two to four hours a day, over four or five days a week seems to be common practice and enough to keep kids on track. It will also depend on how long you plan on cruising, the age and temperament of your children, and whether or not you want them to integrate back into the school system.
“Our children were five and seven when we left the dock and I tried to replace the school day with a boat schooling day. It didn’t work,” recalls Kate Hall, who is currently in the Caribbean with her boys aboard their Hallberg-Rassy 46 Kathryn del Fuego.
“There are days when workbooks work perfectly. There are days when they don’t and we play games, use dice, counting and do mental times tables and spelling games instead.”
Anyone with children knows that bringing other people into the mix usually improves the dynamic for the better.
The Hall family paired up with two other family boats when their schedules aligned, and organised a ‘boat school’ rota. “While in the Windward Islands in the Caribbean we sailed with three family boats for a period of three glorious weeks. Between us we had seven children and created a Year 1, Year 2 and joint Year 3 & 4 classroom for the three yachts,” recalls Kate Hall.
“Each morning the ‘school bus’ (aka one of the dinghies) took the children to each boat at anchor for the morning’s lessons. At 11am the school bus collected the children for a swim before lunch and then a play on the beach afterwards.
“For parents and children alike it was bliss. No tears or shouting (parents included!); the children even looked forward to their lessons.
“It’s amazing the difference in teaching other people’s children. They listen and are keen to learn from you; you aren’t their parents! Swap the children round and teach theirs or just mix them up (one of yours and one of theirs).
“I was nervous about asking or offering, but once you’ve done it, you would want to do it every day. As parents we all came from different backgrounds and experience (plumber, vet, physiotherapist, civil engineer, stay-at-home mum) but we all had something different to offer when teaching and the children thrived on it.”
One misconception about home-schooled children is their lack of socialisation. On a boat, addressing this largely depends on what part of the world you are cruising in and how willing you are to put yourself ‘out there’ when it comes to social media and tracking down other children.
The popular Facebook group Kids4Sail is full of like-minded families who are located in different areas all over the world. Each month they have a location roll call, where people can find other boats with similar aged children in their area. The No Foreign Land website is also useful.
In my experience, a common trait of boat-schooled children is their confidence. Our boys learnt to speak to people of different cultures, backgrounds and ages. As a result, they’re now mature for their age and outgoing.
Stacy noted the same: “My boys are confident in meeting new people, asking for directions, negotiating with market vendors. Being out in the world with people gives them social skills and increased self-esteem.”
Was teaching effective?
After four months on land, it has been interesting to watch my children integrate back into the schooling system. Our youngest didn’t receive any formal schooling while on the boat, and is doing well in his first year of primary school. He’s notably more worldly and confident than his peers.
Our two older children have settled in reasonably well, but there have been a few speed bumps along the way. Not surprisingly, sitting still for six hours a day was one of them.
Unfortunately, being different can also make children an easy target for bullies. Sadly, not being up to speed with the latest trends, video games and YouTubers did create some adjustment issues. Luckily, four months on, life has returned to a new normal.
Academically, we have identified a few gaps, but overall they have adjusted well, and it appears that maybe all of the stress and worry about whether we were doing it ‘right’ was unfounded.
With the closure of schools, the list of remote learning resources is ever expanding. Here are some starting points:
Singapore Maths: Highly effective method that has been adopted around the world over the past 20 years. Books from £12.
MathsOnline: Australian system of online maths tutorials for all ages. Over 1,400 tutorials available, lasting around 5-10 minutes. Can be studied on any devices, around £24 per month.
Mammoth Math (USA): A full maths curriculum. Textbooks can be downloaded and printed on the boat, from around £25.
Khan Academy (USA): Available in 40 different languages. Free online resources with written lessons as well as video.
DragonBox: Maths games app.
Prodigy (USA): Curriculum-aligned maths game, free parent accounts available.
Teach Your Monster to Read (UK): Free and fun phonics game and app for younger children learning to read.
Explode the Code (USA): Bestselling phonics programme for younger children, available online or as a workbook. £55/1 year subscription
English Stars (AUS): Yearly plan for primary aged children, follows Australian curriculum with detailed teaching plans for every module. Around £56 per year.
Science & other
Code Club (UK): Free coding projects for 9-13 year olds using the Scratch program.
Mystery Science (USA): Online video lessons for primary years. Each is based on a story and ends with hands-on activities designed to use supplies you already have at home/on board. Around £20 per month.
Twinkl (UK): Wide library of printable resources and worksheets for UK primary school teachers and parents, in all subjects.
Time4Learning: Interactive multimedia content including animations, instructional videos, worksheets and hands-on projects. Monthly subscription £16-25.
Duolingo: Language learning for Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, Arabic and many more.
Structured Home Learning (UK): Complete, timetabled plans and resources from reception to GCSE. Modules designed to be completed in a morning. From £299 per year.
Critical Thinking Company (USA): Books and software for all years, covering reading, writing, maths, science and social studies.
Timberdoodle (USA): Comprehensive curriculum delivered on a USB. Christian-based as standard, with non-religious pack options. A full year’s resources range from £500-£850.
Calvert Education (USA): Online learning with individual and family subscription options, over 45 courses. £330 per child or £590 for a family plan.
Oak Meadow (USA): Complete curriculum for all ages, including 36-week lesson plans, optional craft and activity resources. Uses a Waldorf/Steiner holistic approach. From around $400.
Galore Park (UK): Text books and resources used by UK independent schools for KS2 upwards, including 11+ and 13+ exam prep.
If you’d rather bring in an outside teacher, especially for older students approaching key exam years, several online schools offers correspondence-based teaching by tutors.
About the author
Despite having little sailing experience, Erin Carey, her husband Dave and their three young sons quit the rat race and bought their boat, sight unseen, on the opposite side of the world. Erin is founder of Roam Generation, a communications business sharing the stories of adventurers and sailors.
First published in the June 2020 edition of Yachting World.