Warning/disclaimer: I am a teacher who has taught at both primary and secondary levels in Australia and overseas. I had been teaching for nine years overseas in international schools before our big lap. I am pretty passionate about education and inquiry-based education.
We have two children aged 7 and 9 (Grade 1 and Grade 4).
Before we even started our big lap we decided that that distance education and home schooling weren't for us. It goes against my educational philosophy to have kids completing worksheet after worksheet on topics or subjects that the kids have no connection to or isn't real. We also didn't want to have to spend hours each day doing schoolwork when we are surrounded by much better learning opportunities.
We decided to unschool our kids while travelling. Unschooling is a form of home schooling that is directed by the students or the circumstances, rather than a defined curriculum. That means we get to choose what we learn, when we learn it, and how we learn it. It is very child focussed, with the kids learning what they want to learn and how they want to learn. With some guidance and input from us.
Tools of the trade
We purchased each of the kids an iPad with the main purpose of the iPad being learning (they do get some games and videos but usually only after they have finished learning activities), and we have heaps of other learning tools, games, books (lots of books), paper, activity books (usually purchased on the road, many attractions have activity books or worksheets), pencils, paints, Lego, Little Bits, Osmo kits, sports gear, flashcards and a few other odds and ends.
Osmo is a great way to connect iPad learning with real life.
Using a Little Bits kit, helps us learn about electronics and is a great way to get some STEAM done.
Play is vitally important to learning and we have the best classroom in the world.
What do we actually learn?
This depends on where we are and what the kids are interested in.
Some examples include:
When we were in Kakadu we learn't so much about the local Aboriginal people: their art, lifestyle, culture and traditions.
As we travelled down the middle of Australia, passing through Tenant Creek, Uluru and the Flinders Ranges, we heard more Dreaming stories and learnt the differences and similarities between the first Australians from different parts of the country. It was a great lesson in comparing and contrasting.
When we were in Darwin we learnt about the war, the bombing of Darwin and the Royal Flying Doctor Service. We also visited the museum and got our Cyclone Tracey facts straight.
In Central Queensland we followed the Dinosaur Trail and learnt about the dinosaurs of Australia—the dinosaurs of the inland sea in Richmond and the land-based dinosaurs in Winton and Hughenden, including seeing first hand the best preserved remains of a pterosaur in the world. We also visited the only evidence of a dinosaur stampede anywhere in the world. We also dug for and found our own fossils.
We have learnt heaps about mining and mines on the road. In Sapphire we visited a mine, sifted through a bucket of wash and found our own sapphires and garnets. We also visited gold mines (Sovereign Hill) and opal mines (Coober Pedy) and even witnessed first hand the huge open cut Super Pit in Kalgoorlie. Each of these places had museums, information boards and plenty of experts and locals willing to share their knowledge.
We have seen so many Australian animals where they are supposed to be (in their natural environment, be that the bush, river, ocean, etc.). Kangaroos, emus, koalas, possums, wombats, dolphins, stingrays, whales, birds, lizards, snakes, crocodiles, bandicoots, quokkas... Many times we would go on tours or go to information centres to learn more about the flora and fauna of Australia and then relate this to our first hand experience.
We have visited farms and factories to find out about how Australia works now, but we have also taken trips back to the past to understand how people lived in the early days of Australia. We visited Sovereign Hill in Ballarat and the old town in Echuca (and went on an old time paddle steamer). We have also visited many old and historical buildings and spent a day chasing family history around Uranna with my mum's cousin. All of these experiences allowed us to travel back in time and gave us an insight into life in the past.
This list could go on and on: whaling museums, zoos, school of the air, local landmarks, shipwrecks, war history, meteor craters, space lab debris, sinkholes, caves, timber forests, gaols, telescopes, mega fauna, art galleries, nature walks, snorkelling and giant trees, just to name a few. There are so many excellent educational opportunities all over Australia.
Yeah but what does this mean?
Every time we have a new experience the kids have to do something educational. Maybe there is a scavenger hunt or a worksheet for them to fill out, we have also purchased activity books from various museums and attractions. They can write about their experiences in their books, read a story about the area (or have it read to them), draw a picture, write a poem, make a Lego model or create something on their iPads showing what they have learnt. This is an important part of their learning and a great way to consolidate their learning and introduce some real life opportunities for literacy and creativity. Usually, this recap activity is the kids choice. Sometimes we do some coaching and convincing, but we try to give the kids choice as it increases their motivation.
After visiting the Port of Echuca, Arlo decided to make a Toontastic film about our experience. I wanted her to make a Clips video like we had done after visiting Dubbo, but she was insistent so I let her make it. It took ages. She drew images on the iPad, wrote a small script and ended up creating a pretty entertaining video of our day.
As another example here is Galen's Clips video of our trip to Dubbo Zoo.
The kids even used Keynote on their iPads to make Animated Christmas cards.
What about reading, writing and maths?
We still do lots of reading, writing and maths, just not worksheets or textbooks or anything not related to where we are, what we are doing, or real life.
We try and make maths and writing as real life as possible. Just the other day Arlo was making Tanya a loom band anklet using a pattern of eight colours. They sat down for about ten minutes measuring and using multiplication to work out how many bands she needed and how long it might take. This started a discussion and some writing about the 8 times tables. It was the perfect example of real life student-led inquiry.
Later that day Galen was making tables patterns with potato chips as we sat around the pool. Arlo joined in with leaves.
This helped add some understanding to the times tables we have been doing in the car and on walks.
The kids have handwriting books, Big life journals, writing books, maths books and heaps of apps to get their dose of the three R's. The main difference is we give them choice. Sometime though we have to encourage them to do certain activities with rewards (free iPad time) once they complete tasks.
What about the iPads?
As a tech geek, the iPads get a bit of a work out for learning. iPads are great learning tools and we have paid for three learning apps, the rest are free. Some of our go-to learning apps include:
Reading Eggs and Maths Seeds
A paid app, but well worth the money. It is from ABC so it has Australian content, is age specific and allows the parents to track progress. The kids love it and it has helped heaps with Galen's reading.
Another paid app, this one is a library of hundreds of online books and videos that give the kids extra reading material at their level.
Another paid Australian app and a competitor to the popular Mathletics, I chose this one because it was more fun and the maths seemed to be much more problem-based and real life. Galen's just finished Matific Grade 1 and was over the moon with his progress.
This allows Arlo to borrow and read books from our local library. We also can download audio books for the long car trips.
BTW research has shown that Audio Books can be as good as reading a book when it comes to comprehension and creativity.
Apple Clips, iMovie , Keynote and GarageBand
These (plus photos) are our go to creation apps. We also use the Everyone Can Create Ebooks (free) to help us make some pretty cool stuff. We do need to do some more work on GarageBand so we can start making our own music for our videos and movies.
Creating is such an important part of learning and we encourage the kids to use the iPads for creating much more than consuming.
Toontastic, Coding the Musical, Adobe Spark, Stop Motion Studio and Bloxels Builder
These are some other pretty cool story making, game making and coding apps that the kids love to use.
Although not free (you need to buy the kits) this is a great way for the kids to connect real life to the electronic. There are games where they need to physically move tiles, draw picture or solve problems and they get feedback from the app and have lots of fun.
There are so many educational apps out there, but these are our main ones. I think it is important to choose a few apps and do them well, integrating them with what you are doing in real life. It is also important that we make ourselves available, or sit with the kids when they are doing iPad learning.
They are just tools to help with the learning, they don't do the learning for you.
Play and Art
We make sure we factor in lots of physical play time and some sport when we can. Playing, taking risks, failing and solving problems are all important life skills. Playgrounds are one of the best places to do this, playing on a beach or in the bush are pretty good too. You can learn so much by making a dam and river on the beach.
Board games are also important and a way to get used to not always winning, even if there are a few tears.
We also try and get the paints and art supplies out so the kids can get creative and have some fun.
The Car trips
We spend a lot of time in the car so we utilise some of our car trip time to get some learning in. We listen to podcasts—WOW in the world is our favourite and is very educational and fun. We have recently been practising our tables and listening to times tables songs on Spotify.
We listen to audio books and play games. The kids love Number of the Day, where someone chooses a number and then we take turns making sums that equal that number. Everyone can join in at their own level and hear how others are thinking about maths.
We also do pop quizzes and often just chat about what we have been doing or what we will be doing. The kids have been spending hours and hours talking about scripts and plots for their latest Lego movie or Strong Girl movie and some days have gone back to the van and made movie trailers or stop motion videos about what they have talked about in the car.
This was an earlier movie. They have improved since this, using the iPad stand helped.
There is other real life learning that is happening as well
The best bits
Some of the highlights of our unschooling experiment include:
Learning happening all the time. We are not restricted to a 9-3 school day; learning happens on weekends, evenings and on school holidays (there is no summer learning loss).
Learning happens everywhere: the car, the beach, the van, in museums, on walks—pretty much anywhere we go, when we want it to happen. We still spend most of our time just enjoying our trip (it's not all learning). The kids have the option of adding to their experiences with extra learning.
Learning is kid-driven and natural. We are learning about things we are seeing and doing and the kids get to choose what they learn, read and do most of the time.
Learning is relaxed. We are not spending hours filling in worksheets or doing tasks for someone else, rushing for a deadline or doing homework.
And all of this means...
Learning is FUN. Sure we have our moments of stress, frustration and thrown iPads, but most of the time the kids are enjoying what they are learning and are constantly surprising us with what they remember or can work out. They have some creative and interesting ideas.
Arlo wanted to use her iPad to make a time lapse of us having lunch.
So far so good, the kids seem to be learning.