On May 3rd 2014 my daughter turned 4 years old. If we were back in England, she’d be starting school in September. I think it’s far too young for children to start school but nonetheless it plays on my mind that Sienna won’t be following the same path as her friends.
As a mother, I don’t want her to be labeled as ‘one of those kids.’
And I am slightly worried that she’ll either be too smart or not smart enough, if and when, we eventually introduce her to the school system. However, on the flip side, I’ve grown so comfortable about the idea that I’m eager to get started. I love the whole idea of teaching her many subjects based on her current interests.
I’m happy to say that in the four short months we’ve been sailing around the Mediterranean, I’ve seen Sienna’s skill-set explode
Not only can she count to 10 easily but she can do it in three languages. She’s no longer shy about meeting new kids or joining in with others regardless as to whether they speak English or not. Her vocabulary astounds me – just yesterday she asked me to explain ‘photosythesis’ and told me that we’re on earth because ‘gravity’ keeps us here. And her desire to learn and ask questions is amazing.
But until recently, I haven’t put too much thought into homeschooling
In fact, the question of how I’m homeschooling my daughter hasn’t even come up. My husband and I encountered a massive learning curve – we sold our house, purchased a 56’ sailboat and handed our land-based life in for one on the sea. Aside from figuring out how to sail the boat, we’ve had to learn about engines, repairs, moving between countries, and dealing with massive change. It hasn’t been easy but it’s been the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done…and we’ve only just started.
It’s August now, four months after we started on our epic around the world voyage, and one month before Sienna would be joining her peers at school. We’re moored up in Kos, a Greek island very close to Turkey and the idea of schooling keeps niggling at me. I put a post up on my Facebook thread asking friends from my hometown (NY) and England about the curriculum I should be looking at. Within minutes I had loads of resources, great ideas and fantastic support.
Coming from New York State, I was told to look up the NYS Common Core Learning Standards from P – 12 and several of my British friends outlined the key components in England. Fortunately I also had some teacher friends offer to send me worksheets and guidelines.
Thus far on our journey, I’ve simply offered explanations to Sienna when she enquired about something
We already read books and I’ve downloaded several educational iPad apps. She’ll work on letters, numbers, reading, math and I have a few great sciences apps – they allow here to mix, freeze, spin, and burn things to create new elements or potions. Further, I found several apps about ocean conservation as I felt the topic was apt for what we’re doing.
Aside from that, if I see a book on Greek gods or something kid friendly helping her to learn more from the area we’re in, I’ll grab it. In Malta I found a couple great coloring story books (about Malta) and in Greece we have a mythology sticker books and a fantastic ancient Greek encyclopedia that we flip through ever week.
Today, however, I decided to make a concerted effort to test out the whole concept of theme-based education
Rather than separate learning elements into subjects the goal is to combine a variety of subjects using one theme. Let me explain what I did to give you and idea.
A big of background first…
As my husband, Sienna and I were walking around Kos Town yesterday, Sienna tried to pull a leaf off a tree. I quickly said to her that “trees have feelings! They can’t talk, but if they did they’d say, ‘hey – don’t pull my leaves off!’” I then asked Sienna how she would feel if I came up to her and pulled her finger off. After a long giggle Sienna started asking questions about trees.
Her first question was, ‘why do we have trees?’
Like a game of tennis, my husband, Simon, and I went back and forth explaining the benefit of trees. I explained that they help keep our air clean and Simon mentioned all the creatures that use trees as a home. And on we went.
Knowing that Sienna was interested in trees, I went online and found this great 3 page write-up on trees for young kids
The write-up also came with a worksheet allowing us to fill in the blanks to describe the parts of a tree (roots, trunk, branches, twigs, leaves, crown). View the write-up here: Teaching children about Trees
So, I read the write-up as Sienna coloured the tree on the worksheet. So far we already have had quite a few subjects coming in – reading, colors, nature, ecosystems, writing, science. I was actually surprised when Sienna was able to name all the parts of the tree without my help! While she told me what they were, I filled in their names. And when I said that the paper we were writing on was made from tree pulp, she said, “I already know that mom!’
After reading about the benefits of trees and their parts, I then copied her arm and fingers making a tree trunk and branches. We cut out the outline, pasted it onto a sheet of paper and then I found a template of small leaves that Sienna could cut out and paste onto the branches. (This is where I got the idea from – Homeschooling Tree Craft)
While she was cutting the leaves and using the glue stick to fasten them on the paper, I pulled out our jar of Maple Syrup and said, ‘Sienna – this is maple syrup. It’s made from the sap or the juice of a tree!’
Excitedly, she wanted to try it. I then gave her a little spoonful and said, once you’re done adding the leaves to your tree, lets make some pancakes and you can put the syrup on them and enjoy one of the most amazing delights of a tree!
Not knowing how to make pancakes, but having an idea, I mixed some flour, eggs, milk and oil. This goes to show how pathetic my cooking skills are! My intention was to make a crepe but it ended up being slightly thicker than a crepe and much smaller than an American pancake. Regardless, it tasted great and Sienna had a little lesson on cooking too.
Once we were filled up on pancakes with syrup from a tree, Simon asked Sienna to walk around Kos with him finding as many different leaves as they could. The leaves had to be on the ground and each one had to be different – that was the challenge.
The duo are out on their walk now freeing me up to write this article!
I’m sure I’ll get better at theme based education over time, however I feel that it was a great first attempt. Not only did I have fun doing it, but it seems like we all have a greater appreciation for trees now.
Let’s fast-forward a few years and give you another example.
The first question that my husband, Simon, and I are asked about the 3+ years of our liveaboard sailing lifestyle is not, ‘do you do a treasure hunt for kids?’, but it’s ‘what do you do about your child’s education?’
That’s when I take a large inhalation and proceed to explain, and hopefully enlighten, my audience of one or many…(eventually I’ll get to the video and explanation of the most amazing treasure hunt ever but you’ll have to hold tight for bit).
Since our daughter, Sienna, was 3 ½ years old we’ve been using a combination of homeschooling and formal educational institutions as and when possible.
When Sienna was four years old we stopped in Marina di Ragusa, Sicily, Italy for six months. Sienna enjoyed going to an Italian pre-school from 8am to 2pm Monday through Friday. She learned how to speak Italian and was truly submersed in the Italian culture with other Italian children.
From the age of four until six we homeschooled Sienna using a variety of on and offline homeschooling resources.
Whatever country we were in we learned about the history, culture, food, landscape, animals, language, music and traditions. While learning about the various countries I would read to Sienna and get her to do some writing. Read Homeschooling a 5 Year Old On A Boat.
To cover Math, Simon and I just made sure to show examples of adding, subtracting and problem solving. For example, when going to a public market, we’d ask Sienna to get eight oranges. When we arrived back on the boat we’d all have an orange and Simon would ask, ‘how many oranges are left?’ As and when Sienna progressed we increased the difficulty level.
Prior to arriving in America, when Sienna turned six, I felt that homeschooling was increasingly getting more complicated. I wasn’t sure if I should follow the British school system or the American…or any other system?! (I’m American and Simon is British).
I suppose the question I had to ask myself is where will we end up and what system will I need to best prepare Sienna for.
Aside from complications I felt inadequate. I felt that as a mom I wasn’t a good teacher. Every week I tried to scour the Internet (when I could get a connection) to find fun ways of teaching. I felt quite alone and didn’t know what was best to do. My approach was flippant and almost desperate.
Due to a very limited time on the Internet (only when we were on land) I had to do things fast. I felt rushed. Looking back it would have been of benefit if I found a homeschooling online group of mums/dads to bounce things off of.
Also…I wasn’t having any luck getting Sienna to read.
Our plan was to visit America to avoid the Caribbean Hurricane season (and visit family) and then carry on sailing. What happened, however, is that we decided to stay for a year so that Sienna could benefit from a public school. In America, public schools are free as opposed to England, where they are fee based. Considering that I pay US taxes even though I haven’t lived in the US for 20 years I didn’t feel back about using the Public school system. In fact, I felt a bit better about the huge tax bills I’ve been paying!
Anyhooooo, we worked hard to find a marina that would take ‘live-aboards’ and a school that would accept our daughter as a resident. As fate would have it, we ended up in Charleston, South Carolina. Unbeknown to us, we enrolled Sienna in the 2nd best school in the entire State.
We couldn’t have landed in a better area for Sienna.
Not only was the school amazing but her First Grade teacher, Miss Royal, was the very best teacher a child could ask for. Within a couple weeks the school worked with us to get Sienna another amazingly special teacher to help her with her reading (Mrs Morrow) and the rest is history.
By year’s end Sienna went from not reading at all to reading at the appropriate level.
If we didn’t put Sienna into school would she have been able to read eventually?
I think so. I think Sienna’s life was so full of stimulus that reading just wasn’t appropriate for her at the age of six. Instead of reading, she was speaking Italian, telling onlookers the name of every fish in the sea, learning how to make friends aged 2 to 92 and being our spotter for inland waterway channel markers!
Looking back, she just wasn’t ready. And…I wasn’t ready to teach her.
Going forward I think I’ll be more relaxed with whether or not Sienna fits the ‘Standard’ for her age. In so many ways she’s more advanced and in others she’s behind. Overall, in the long scheme of things, she’ll eventually balance out and I have no doubt she’ll grow up to find a way to be of service to this amazing world we live in.
Sienna’s year in school has come to an end. I’m now back on the homeschooling journey and am more prepared than the last time. For the summer we’re going to do a ‘test’ run and do schooling every week day when we’re not sailing. I’m using some left over teaching materials from her school and I’ve purchased various supplemental books/kits to work from.
Once we leave American in November, after the hurricane season ends, I’ll work from a mostly off-line homeschooling program. The program I’m looking at provides all the materials I need in addition to a schedule so I can make sure Sienna and I are kept on track.
All that being noted, and coming back the response to my audience about, ‘ what about your daughters education,’ academics are only a small part of Sienna’s education!
The lifestyle of being a boat kid provides so much more! So, so, so much more.
Sienna doesn’t just hang our with her peer group – she has friends of all ages. On the dock we’re currently berthed on, she’s friends with a couple girls aged 12 (Ashley) and 14 (Savanna) and their parents, Heather and Tripp. She spends loads of time with both our boat neighbors – Brad and Cherie (In their 50’s) and Jodie and Robbie (In their 30’s) and is often found petting our other lovely neighbors, Mercedes and Ron’s dog Pepper.
On a couple docks away from us is the lovely Lily and Nora – Lily is four and Nora is nine. Several nights a week we all gather on the dock to swap stories, give updates as to what’s going on with our boat repairs and discuss new recipes. The kids all run around catching crabs, puffer fish or unidentifiable floating creatures.
On occasion a boatie will yell out, ‘lets all go for a sunset cruise’ and we take a boat out and enjoy the sights.
I often joke that it’s like we live in a commune…but it’s an awesome commune.
We are all respectful of each other and never have we had a situation where our neighbors become ‘too much.’ We all share and look after each other…and that goes for the children too. Sienna can visit any neighbor of any age and they have a real conversation about real stuff. She’s not pigeon holed into a ‘little kid’ to be heard and not seen. I think it’s great. I often look at our daughter and think that she truly has a fairy tale life!
By integrating with a range of people that are different age groups Sienna is always learning a wide variety of things. She’s learned to feel safe asking questions and it’s amazing how much time people will take to explain things to her.
Aside from learning from people of different age groups, Sienna learns about things like the weather by living through it. Last year we experienced one hurricane downgraded to a tropical storm and Hurricane Matthew. She knows that a squall is and what to do when one is spotted. She knows if tomorrow will be nice or not based on the amount of airplane trails she can see in the sky!
I could go on and on.
Anyone that thinks Sienna’s education is limited due to our lifestyle choice simply doesn’t understand our lifestyle. And that’s okay. I surely didn’t realize all the benefits until I made the crazy decision to sell up and sail away! Errr…actually, more and more I’m thinking that my ‘crazy decision’ was probably the most sane thing I’ve ever done.
Anyway, without any further ado allow me to introduce you to a glimpse of Sienna’s life while docked in Charleston Harbor Marina in Charleston, South Carolina.
Our neighbors Brad and Cherie Schutz have docked next to us for almost the full year we’ve been in Charleston. All our neighbors are fantastic and Schutz’s are no exception. We’ve had many game nights, potluck dinners, have helped each other with various boat projects (most recently How to install outboard stabilizer fins), have gone on excursions to parks, fun fairs, restaurants, miniature golf and more.
The one downside to having such amazing neighbors is, however, the terrible feeling that comes when we all have to part ways and say good-bye. It’s flat out heart-wrenching . As I write this, Simon is helping Brad and Cherie move their boat to an outer pontoon. And this week Simon and I will assist Brad with moving the boat to a land-based storage area.
Brad and Cherie have the boat for sale. Are putting it on the hard and moving to Colorado to start their next adventure.
And as for us, we’re heading to Bermuda. And then, not long after, we’ll be on our way to the Pacific.
If only we could put people in our pockets and carry them around with us! My family and I will dearly miss Brad and Cherie and all our B dock buddies. The lump in my throat grows as the days draw closer to our departure date.
Before tears start to flow, let me leave you with this video. Brad spent weeks planning a treasure hunt for Sienna. As you’ll see in the video it wasn’t any normal treasure hunt…it was an amazing adventure.
So, these are the kinds of things a boat child gets up to… Especially if you have Captain Brad from sailing vessel Puffin as your neighbor!
Voyaging with Kids – A Treasure Hunt For Kids Video
Click here for more articles I’ve written about homeschooling. And if you enjoyed the video above, make sure to check out Sienna’s experience with starting her own cookie business. Read about/watch: Voyaging with Kids – Homeschooling
Will you be a new sailor soon or are you one already? Make sure to check out my bookstore full of helpful guides. You might want to start with my Sailboat Buying Guide for Cruisers.