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School's Out
January 19, 2013 COMMENT comment
     
SCHOOL'S OUT
By Annabel Candy
 
 
I am a serial expat who's lived and worked in eight different countries and travelled in many more. I was privileged to go to great schools in the UK and I have two university degrees. But travel has taught me more about myself and the world around me than anything else, so I naturally want my children to enjoy those learning opportunities and travel too. I want my children to learn about the world by seeing it for themselves, by experiencing other cultures and being immersed in new and strange environments. So most of the time my children go to school where they can play with friends and experience group activities but I'm not afraid to take them out of school for days, weeks or even years at a time because, with so many learning opportunities in the big, wide world outside the classroom, it would be crazy to confine their learning to school.


"I'm not afraid to take my kids out of school because with so many learning opportunities in the big, wide world outside the classroom, it would be crazy to confine their learning to school."

Like most children, my kids love animals so I dreamt of taking them to the jungle where they could see wildlife in its natural environment, not just learn about it from books, TV documentaries or visiting zoos. Like most children they are fast learners so I wanted to give them the opportunity to be bilingual. There is a small window of opportunity for children to learn a second language easily and speak it without any foreign accent, generally thought to be before the age of seven, and we wanted to give our children that opportunity by moving to another country and immersing them in the language. With those dreams in mind we sold our beautiful island home in New Zealand, our business and our kids’ toys, to travel round Central America.
 
When we left New Zealand, our children were aged two, five and eight years old. There's never a perfect time to pull your children out of a school but we felt that the younger they were, the easier it would be for them to adapt to change, and the faster they'd be able to catch up when they did go back to school. Our children were all born in New Zealand and our youngest child Kiara was only two, so we weren't worried about her education. Luke, our oldest child aged eight, was a smart child with reading and mathematics levels well above his age so we felt that even if he did fall behind in his schooling he would be fine in the long term. But we were concerned about our middle child Max, aged five, who had only been at school for two terms and was just beginning to learn to read.

 
"After travelling around Central America, we eventually settled in Costa Rica. Our two boys started at a local school, which was very basic. There were no books, no posters on the walls – we even had to buy them a desk and chair."

After looking into all the options, we decided not to follow a set home-school curriculum but to create our learning experience customised to each child and their needs. Travel would come first and homeschooling second but we stuffed one bag with workbooks, worksheets, reading books, pens and paper that would serve as a mobile classroom. We also packed plenty of games including Uno, chess and Cranium cards, which would help the kids practice numbers, social skills, turn taking and logic.
 
Before leaving, we prepared for our travels by learning Spanish together from a fun CD and a book with songs and stories for children. We also spent hours pouring over travel brochures, cutting out photos of wildlife, places and activities and pasting pictures into a scrapbook to take with us. The children were sad about leaving their friends and home – and selling their toys didn’t go down too well either – but the scrapbook gave them something to look forward to and made the transition easier and created excitement for the whole family.

"Children have an incredible capacity for learning... Just relax, enjoy those travel experiences as a family and turn everything that happens into a learning opportunity."
 
We planned to travel round Central America for about six months then settle down and send the kids to a local school so home-schooling would only be temporary.
 
But we soon discovered that when you're in a new place, you don't want to sit down and do worksheets; you want to get out there and explore. Home-schooling the two older boys was also tricky with a demanding two-year old to entertain and the children missed their friends. Despite these problems we focused on reading for 10 minutes most days and six years later, all our children are well above the average reading level for their age group. That taught me that children have an incredible capacity for learning, so when you’re travelling don’t worry about them falling behind with their schooling. Just relax, enjoy those travel experiences as a family and turn everything that happens into a learning opportunity. After travelling round Guatemala, Panama and Nicaragua, we eventually settled in Costa Rica.
 
Our two boys started at a local school and, although they spoke little Spanish and struggled to begin with, after one year they were fluent and got top marks in all their exams including Spanish. I knew that I had truly achieved my goal of helping my children be bilingual when my oldest son complained that my Spanish was embarrassing.
 
The local Costa Rican school was very basic. There were no books, no posters on the walls and we even had to buy them a desk and chair. The children learnt by rote, copying down everything the teacher wrote on the blackboard and cramming for exams every six weeks. It's boring and old-fashioned compared to the way children are educated in developed countries today, so after 18 months in Central America, we decided to stretch the kids again and move to Australia.

It was sad to leave the monkeys and toucans behind but we wouldn’t swap the experiences we had in Costa Rica for anything. Our children had 18 months of basic or no schooling but it didn’t affect their academic abilities.
 
"It was sad to leave the monkeys and toucans behind but we wouldn't swap the experiences we had in Costa Rica for anything..."
 
They appreciate the school they go to now, the many books in the library, the games they play in the classroom and the endless after school activities. Most of all they are confident, creative and curious to see more of the world. There were some gaps in their knowledge but nothing they couldn't catch up with.

Soon after moving to Australia we visited a petting farm. My daughter was four by then and could recognise the four different types of monkey that live in Costa Rica. She was totally clued up on the birds, animals and bugs of Central America, from rhinoceros beetles to bats and from snakes to sloths; she'd had close encounters with all of them.
 
So I was shocked when she pointed at a calf and asked, "What's that, Mummy?"
As a baby growing up in New Zealand she learned to recognise animals in books and moo, baa or neigh accordingly. Now, there she was unable to recognise a cow.
"It's a cow," I said.
Then she pointed at a goat.
"Is that a baby cow?" she asked.
"No! It’s a goat!" I said, stunned.
Finally she looked at the sheep and asked,
"What's that?"
She must have been the only New Zealander in the world who couldn't recognise a sheep. That Kiwi kid had totally adapted to her new surroundings in Central America and learnt much more through travel than she ever could have at home.
 
 
 
 
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