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Schooling the Sailing Child

Not everything you can teach your kids while cruising will come from a textbook.
Whether you're cruising for an extended period or just for a few weeks, if you've got school-aged kids on board, taking responsibility for their education is an issue you'll love to face.

That said even families who are cruising short term should consider the option of voyaging during the school year, because it's one of the best times for family travel. There are fewer crowds, off-season rates, and no need for a rushed itinerary. Coping with your children's schooling while traveling is less demanding and more rewarding than most parents imagine. And don't think the kid's education is at risk. Travel is really the ultimate means of education because it exposes children to things they normally only learn through books.

What follows is a list of the various schooling options available to the sailing family. Taking along a host of school books and teacher's instructions is fairly common for short absences from a formal school environment, but the idea of homeschooling over a longer period can be somewhat intimidating to parents, especially those with young children just beginning their schooling. Not to worry.

School Supplied Curricula  

Adhering to a regular schedule of lessons is a good way to add structure to your child's learning. 
This option requires the cooperation of the teacher and is most practical for families with short-term travel plans whose kid(s) will be reentering the classroom before completion of the school year. Unlike a correspondence course, all organization, instruction, and corrections are the parents' responsibility. Most teachers are willing to supply work for absentee students, even on long absences, if approached well in advance. This is particularly true if the rest of the class can benefit from your child's travel experience through an exchange of postcards, letters, or e-mail as well as a presentation when he or she returns.

Correspondence Courses    Primarily designed to educate children living in remote areas or traveling abroad, correspondence courses have now become a major teaching tool for parents schooling their children at home. The material is often lightweight (a serious consideration when traveling, even on a spacious sailboat), teaching instructions are usually clear and the curriculum well organized with explicit instructions for parents with no previous teaching experience. One of the most well-known correspondence programs is offered by the Calvert School, providing accredited homeschooling courses from kindergarten through eighth grade. A popular program with cruising families, lessons in this system are outlined daily and all curriculum materials, planning and instruction are provided by the course. We have used this program in the upper grades and found it a very appealing, literature-based option, although we did deviate from time to time to allow the children's studies to take advantage of our sailing experiences and accommodate their interests. Many families, for instance, use Calvert, but substitute Saxon's Math for the arithmetic program. (The Calvert School can be contacted at or 105 Tuscany Rd.,Baltimore, MD 21210. Another valuable resource of correspondence options is the publication Growing without Schooling, Holt Associates, 2269 Mass Ave., Cambridge, MA 02140.)

Devising Your Own Program  

Reading with a child is an invaluable tool for seagoing homeschoolers.
This approach allows for the most flexibility because it runs the gamet from choosing your own subjects and devising a curriculum to allowing your children to discover and pursue their own interests. I particularly favor this option for the early elementary years when the major educational emphasis is on reading, writing, and the basics of arithmetic. With the wealth of materials available these days, it isn't necessary to purchase an entire, expensive correspondence course for a child at this age. Our daughter Gwyneth just learned to read by herself at seven, for instance, using the Explode The Code phonics workbook series and an assortment of Easy Reader paperbacks. Second Grade level arithmetic is supplied by one workbook, which will last the entire school year, an inexpensive option compared to a full correspondence course.

Daily Structure   When outlining a daily curriculum, count on spending anywhere from one to two and a half hours for the elementary age child. Beginning right after breakfast tends to organize the day and it helps to provide some structure for the more formal aspects of education, as well as capitalize on a child's ability to function well mentally first thing in the morning. Children will usually polish off an amazing amount of academics in record time, making you wonder what goes on in a regular school all day.

Some parents favor establishing one area of the boat as the daily "classroom" to introduce another element of formality to homeschooling, as well as set recess breaks and enforce a certain code of behavior (e.g. no throwing spitballs). This is most important when dealing with more than one child, otherwise you might find yourself in a perpetual state of confusion regarding who was doing what and where. Once the more challenging aspects of  the day's lessons have been accomplished, most children like to choose their own cozy spot for things like recreational reading, story writing, or artwork.

Travel as the Teacher  

Establishing one area of the boat as the daily classroom is an important aspect of onboard schooling.
Things seen and experienced while traveling on a sailboat can also reinforce the normal curriculum. And abandoning regular school activities for some travel-related experience can often be more valuable. This is what we have always referred to as "international school." Even the simplest acts can become a valuable learning experience when traveling—a night sail, long-term provisioning, arriving at a new destination, shopping without a vehicle, meeting other boat children, catching rainwater, and navigation are but some of the potential instructional topics found cruising. Any relationship you can create between what they are experiencing and what they are learning is going to make school more meaningful for children of any age.

When debating whether to take your child out of school to go sailing, remember that the greatest educational lesson children learn through travel is the one they learn effortlessly—an understanding of the world they live in. This, after all, is what education is all about—developing and expanding children's perception of the world and everything in it. By expanding their horizons through sailing, you will be expanding their potential for learning. Travel becomes the ultimate classroom with the world as its text book and experience as its teacher.

Kevin Jeffrey is offline  
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