Most folks travel in their twenties when they have few responsibilities or in their retirement when they have fulfilled them. We thought we’d try splitting the difference. As a family we value experiences — learning by doing — which is why we chose an alternative school for our children that used the Expeditionary Learning (ELOB) approach. Our concept for our around-the-world (RTW) trip emerged primarily from that core value. We talked a lot about whether we wanted to travel in between school years, or take the kids out of school for the whole year. This decision was made a bit easier by the fact that Anne is a teacher, and we can home school the kids for the year without major impacts to their overall school journey.
The timing of our trip is no accident – it’s based entirely on Alex and Leah. The 2012-2013 school year is 5th grade for Leah and 7th grade for Alex, and we wanted to avoid them missing a transition year if possible. Middle school in Seattle is 6th-8th grades, so Alex will miss the middle year of middle school. Leah will skip her last year of elementary school, but will hopefully return to join Alex at the same middle school. Additionally, the kids are old enough to carry their own luggage and fully participate in our adventures, but not full-blown teens yet.
Making it Work
We have come to understand that the key to a successful family experience is acknowledging that it takes four individuals working together. Our kids may be ten and twelve, but they are still part of Team Van Loen! This trip is not a Disney cruise and we have never billed it as such. Our journey is not FOR them, it is WITH them. As with any team, we have our different strengths, weaknesses, styles, and priorities — so honest communication, compromise, and flexibility are essential. It only takes one cranky person (adult or child) to impose misery on the group and it is impossible for everyone to be perfectly content all the time.
Memory is a funny thing as well. A few weeks ago we took the kids on a hike to the ruins above Cusco. Both kids complained about how hot/tired/hungry/thirsty they were for what seemed like the entire time (my memory). Yet, yesterday when asked what his favorite activities had been, Alex listed that hike as “awesome.” Ignoring crankiness is clearly an important skill that I’m still learning. The other advantage of spending so much time together is that we have the unique opportunity to become tuned in to each others state of mind/body and multiple opportunities to practice navigation.
Planning successful experiences with kids requires more thought than for an individual or couple simply because there are more factors involved. Rushing is an especially bad idea as is the lack of a “plan B” and snacks. Our kids want to stop to watch animals, get ice cream, walk on walls, play in fountains and smell the flowers – so outings tend to take longer. They can handle one museum, not four – so we pace ourselves. In our experience, time and low stress are the real keys to family happiness.
How Children Enrich the Travel Experience
Kids are are naturally present in moment. They ask really good questions and are remarkably keen observers. Our children make us think and see things from a different viewpoint. Soaking up the experience comes easily to them and is joyful to observe. Having our kids with us opens doors and makes us approachable. As a family we have found that we get a more friendly treatment than traditional tourists. Locals seem more patient with us and willing to initiate conversations about our shared experiences as parents.
What do We Hope to Learn by Traveling as a Family?
For us it’s not really about the travel itself – but the shift and shared memories that make it worthwhile. We wanted the kind of shared experiences that require a complete exit from our ordinary life. Living in new places with different people, cultures, and expectations will hopefully sharpen our perspective of ourselves and deepen our understanding of others.
The Van Loen family left their “normal” life in July 2012 to start a career-break and slow-travel the world. They will be volunteering, exploring, and learning throughout Peru, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, China, and finally taking the Trans-Mongolian railroad across Russia. They will be homeschooling their kids while they travel, with the goal of expanding their horizons and changing their perspectives. You can read about their travels on anvl.travellerspoint.com, follow Van Loen Adventures on Facebook or follow the family on Twitter as @anvltrip.