Ed Gillis wanted to teach his sons about how glaciers are formed, so he took them to the top of New Zealand's Fox Glacier and let them fire questions at a pair of geologists.
For eight-year-old Heron Gillis and his brother Sitka, six, the world is their classroom.
In February, Ed (our friend and a former team member), his wife Jocelyn and their two sons began a six-month bicycle trip across Australia, New Zealand and French Polynesia. The family is part of a growing global trend: parents "world schooling" their kids while exploring the globe. It offers fascinating opportunities for connecting education to the real world.
Before leaving British Columbia, the Gillis' got assistance from teachers to prepare a basic curriculum for their boys. At their evening stops, the Gillis' work through prepared lessons. The scenery and experiences hammered the lessons home, creating a real-world connection to core subjects such as math and history that no classroom could ever offer.
Visits to volcanoes provided a lesson in geography. Reading signs and speaking with locals in French Polynesia has put the boys years ahead of their peers in bilingualism. "A lot of their math is going into grocery stores, looking at prices, and helping us plan our daily budget," says Gillis.
While standing on a glacier, or snorkelling at a coral reef, Heron and Sitka have seen first-hand the impacts of climate change.
"Instead of sitting at a desk and reading about coral reefs, I got to actually snorkel in one," Heron told us in a Skype conversation.
World schooling can take experiential service learning to the next level. Surveys conducted by research firm Mission Measurement have shown that incorporating issues of social justice and environmentalism into classroom lessons results in youth who are more active and engaged citizens.
While standing on a glacier, or snorkelling at a coral reef, Heron and Sitka have seen first-hand the impacts of climate change. Meeting Maori and talking about their culture and place in New Zealand society opened a discussion on aboriginal rights and history in Canada.
In a recent TedX talk, American world-schooling advocate Lainie Liberti and her teen son Miro talked about visiting communities in Columbia impacted by illegal gold mining. "To me, this is more real because it's someplace I've experienced," Miro observed.
World schooling is not without its challenges, notably cost.
With a daily budget of $100, the Gillis' estimate their trip is costing them around $15,000. They saved for four years, seizing every opportunity to collect air miles.
On the upside, technology means parents don't necessarily have to take an unpaid leave from work to do a world-schooling trip. They can continue working remotely. Renee Martyna, founder of the Canadian world schooling Facebook page Knowmads, helped establish a co-working hub in Bali where world schoolers and other travellers can connect and get some work done in a social environment.
A study by market research firm, The Wagner Group, found that teens who take educational trips get better grades in school and, when they grow up, earn an average of US$5,000 more income than peers who haven't travelled.
Any trip can become an educational experience. One of our team members fondly recalls a three-week family summer vacation when he was 11, driving from Ontario to B.C. with a camper trailer. He says he learned more about Canadian history stopping at Northwest Rebellion battlefields in Saskatchewan, and B.C. gold rush towns, than he did in eight years of elementary school.
Although they've only just returned from their big adventure, the Gillis' are already planning another world-schooling trip to Europe in five years.
There are online resources to help aspiring world schoolers like Martyna's Facebook group and Shift Ed. The National Geographic Society web site also has curriculum materials to help turn any trip into an educational experience.
Whether your next trip is in Canada or another country, consider how you can make it a world-schooling adventure.
Craig and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.
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Introduce your children to books that encourage compassion and generosity toward others. Try “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss for its message about the environment, “The Legend of Bluebonnet” by Tomie De Paola for its focus on sacrificing for others, and “Something Beautiful” by Sharon Wyeth, which is about seeing beauty in the unlikeliest places. Biographies about inspiring figures (“Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” by Doreen Rappaport) can also spark important conversations on how they can pitch in.
A great way to get your family invested in volunteering is to use it as a way to explore their interests and talents. Are they into sports? Volunteer to coach a youth league or help them start a collection of unused gear to donate to a school or organization in need. Are they crazy about animals? Pitch in at a pet shelter or with an animal welfare organization. To foster an even deeper sense of togetherness, participate in activities that explore your family’s heritage, whether it’s volunteering at a museum or reading stories at your local community center.
What sparks excitement in a teenager may provoke boredom or confusion in your grade-school child. Try to turn younger children on to volunteering by starting with simple visit to a food bank or clothing drive where they can sort items. Alternatively, you can help them start an ongoing collection (glasses, old cell phones, etc.) to donate. For older children, activities that connect to their interests and skills will help them develop their talents, stay out of trouble and serve others.
It’s too easy to lose out on the real spirit of the holidays when you’re caught in a whirlwhind of materialism. How about finding a way to make your holiday about slowing down and spending time with your family? There are plenty of food banks, hospitals, homeless shelters and retirement homes that welcome volunteers on holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s a great way to establish a ritual of volunteering with your kids that could well extend through the rest of the year.
Even if your family can’t devote a whole day to volunteering, incorporate giving as a routine. Make service both a long-term commitment and an everyday occurrence. And the benefits are long-lasting: According to Tanisha Smith, a national director of volunteer services for Volunteers of America: "Two-thirds of youths who volunteer become active adults who volunteer."
We admit that it’s a hard sell to get your kid to sacrifice the allure of the traditional birthday party, but Volunteer Guide has some great pointers for making volunteering -- and fun! -- the main attraction. Encourage guests to donate a small sum to a charity of your family’s choice in lieu of an extravagant gift. And instead of useless party favors, kids can leave knowing that they’ve made the world a little brighter, whether they’ve written a letter to a sick kid or planted a tree.
Volunteering is a great opportunity to model good values and have important conversations with your kids. Make it meaningful by asking them questions before, during and after: What do they hope to get out of this day of service? What did they learn? Go to DoingGoodTogether.org for more great discussion-starters.
Follow Craig and Marc Kielburger on Twitter: www.twitter.com/craigkielburger