Please enjoy the article we wrote for Parent Soup. We were hired for a short stint as travel consultants. One element of that position involved an online chat session which for the time (1998 — Google was born that year) was pretty progressive…
Pictured: Larry Fuente, Game Fish, 1988, mixed media., Smithsonian American Art Museum
The world’s longest field trip. A virtual school year. Road scholars. Whatever you call the educational adventure our family embarked on from September 1996 to June 1997, learning was at the heart of it. We discovered that parents can take teaching into their own hands –- during an extended trip, a family vacation, a visit to a nearby city, even a walk to the park.
Fueled by the desire for a once-in-a-lifetime experience and driven by the technology of our time, we set out to discover America. We traveled border to border, ocean to ocean, using museums, aquariums, cities and national parks as our classroom and playground. We were 42, our son was 14 and our twin daughters were 11. We were at a pivotal point in our lives, wanting to start new careers and make the most of our time with our children. The project evolved into Blondins’ Assignment America.
For about a year before committing to the trip, we were part of a group of parents that petitioned our children’s school district to provide a more academically challenging curriculum. Frustrated by the response we received, we enrolled our children in a new science and technology charter school, Northwest Academy, in Charlevoix, Michigan.
At the orientation, we presented a plan for our “school on wheels” that would use the Internet to relate our trip and learning experiences to the students and teachers at Northwest. The open-minded staff embraced the idea, and the school board loaned us a laptop computer and digital camera for school assignments and to develop our Web site.
Once we were on our way, we developed a set of tools that allowed us to reap educational benefits throughout the trip.
We took full advantage of visitors centers, local newspapers and our computer software to do basic research about the area we were visiting.
Write It Down
Keeping personal diaries and science journals of climate, tides, sunrise and sunset, plants, animals and topography helped us focus and learn as much as possible about each location.
Map Your Progress
Map reading, and mileage and time calculations provided infinite learning combinations for the children –- and prevented us from spending the whole trip totally lost!
Hit the Books
Reading relevant novels and nonfiction books aloud as we traveled through regions of the country was fun, made the miles fly by and enhanced our learning experience.
If You Build It, They Will Learn
Building the family Web site as we traveled made us reflect on what we had done at each stop and resulted in conversations about what we learned and what was important to share.
Every museum, governmental or financial center, subway ride, cultural event, seashore stop, wilderness hike, national park stay and simple walk with our dog, Buddy, was a source of endless observations and stimulating conversations.
Keep Learning Fun
Although we focused on education and learning in every activity, we also tried to make the experience fun for the whole family. In Washington, D.C., we started a tradition of letting each person choose the activities for one day. That person then had to plan the day’s schedule. We can each still remember what we did on our “special” days. A quiz game became a daily occurrence in big cities. When the children scored enough “points” by answering questions about the day’s events, we would stop for a treat –- usually an inexpensive Slurpee. One successful project was videotaping at Big Bend National Park in Texas. Each child chose a subject and narrated a segment about the park –- plant life, animal life and geology.
Tips for Taking a Learning Adventure
• Learn as much as possible about any location you plan to visit. Include the whole family in the research and discussions. The Internet, libraries and visitors bureaus are great resources.
• Read books and newspapers, listen together to music or books on tape while traveling, and then discuss what you read or heard.
• Consider everyone’s personalities and children’s limitations, and plan accordingly.
• Compromise. This is central to any family experience and cannot be overemphasized. For example, spending all day at an art museum may be a disaster for some young children or teenagers, but a shorter visit with a focus can be rewarding.
• Involve everyone in the decision-making process as much as possible.
• Keep it fun. That sounds easy, but it takes planning, flexibility and concessions. Sometimes it means deviating from your plan and taking a break.
• Assign age-appropriate tasks, such as finding a destination on the map or calculating mileage, fuel, distances and costs.
• Talk, raise questions, constantly make connections between things you see
and learn along the way.
What You and Your Kids Will Learn
It is impossible to calculate the knowledge that your children will gain. Our kids completed the basic curriculum for their grade levels in math, language, science and social studies, but they absorbed so much more than they were expected to learn in the classroom. We all discovered an immeasurable amount about geography, cultures, transportation, and regional differences and similarities. Through hiking, swimming, rollerblading and endless walking, we also more than satisfied the most stringent physical education requirements.
More important than any of that and all of the practical knowledge we gained is that we learned how to entertain each other, be patient, find the humor in any situation, express our needs, solve problems and have fun together.
Visit our message board, Learning on the Road, or come to our chat on Tuesday, August 11th at 9 pm in the Souper Events room, where we will be answering questions and comparing notes on how parents can enrich any family experience. We look forward to discussing the infinite ways to seize every moment with your kids –- whether it is during a long trip or a walk around the block. These are the times that can inspire learning, strengthen family bonds and create lasting memories.