Next week, 30 five-year-olds from our local primary school will fasten their school shoes after a summer of neglect and find that elusive book bag in time for the school run. They know the drill – they have already travelled to school approximately 190 times since starting last September.
As one of thousands of primary-aged children for whom going to school isn’t normal, my five-year-old daughter, Beatrice, will make a different kind of journey. Her destination isn’t a seat in a classroom. Since June, her motor home school run has taken her somewhere new every few days.
Her playground is the 10 million square kilometres of Europe. Her classrooms are the homes of people we meet en route. And her teachers are her parents – my husband, Stéphane, and me.
After a month-long pause back in Britain, our family, with Beatrice’s three-year-old brother Xavier in tow, is about to leave the country again in a motor home. We’ve decided to continue these trips for as long as we can, “worldschooling” our children and working freelance as we go.
As a newly qualified primary teacher in 2004, I raised my eyebrows at families who refused mainstream education and went on so-called “adventures abroad”. The words “irresponsible” and “foolish” would have crossed my mind. Why would anyone want to forge a new path almost entirely alone when British primary schools are so good?
Over a decade later, I can answer my own question unhesitatingly: my daughter, like thousands of others her age, is simply not ready for the pressures of formal schooling. On first teaching a Year One class, I was shocked and had a crisis of integrity: it felt wrong to expect all these five-year-olds to read and write when they were clearly programmed for play.
There is a big step up from the gentle Reception Class, or kindergarten, where children have frequent play sessions, to first grade with its demanding curriculum. Many children, both boys and girls, squirmed on their chairs, struggled to hold a pencil, and seemed bewildered by all the to-ings and fro-ings of their stop-start timetable.
I am glad we stuck to our convictions, because towards the end of last year Beatrice needed emergency brain surgery after a hemorrhage. As she recuperated physically and emotionally, we ditched schooling at home in favor of play, allowing her to move around freely and regulate activities at her own pace.
As well as free-play (anything she wanted to play with for as long as she liked) there would be more intentional activities to choose from: making pictures out of buttons or stones, exploring magnets I had left on the table for her to find, or dressing up as characters from stories she had enjoyed.
She would spend a lot of time outside, fiddling with sticks, using a magnifying glass, building dens. All the time, she was moving, exploring, investigating, discovering. When the teacher inside me tried to sneak in anything more formal, it was met with resistance, frustration and, once, tears.
Initially, I felt the need to justify all this play to anyone who asked, embarrassed that I was not actively teaching her. Eight months on, she still learns exclusively through play – but now I’m confident with this decision.
Report after report from leading educationalists suggest that children’s brains and bodies are not ready – at four, five and even six – for literacy and numeracy. Cambridge University’s Dr David Whitebread, director of the Centre for Research on Play in Education, is one of many leading professionals who even petition the government for a later school-starting age.
International research stresses the benefits of play in learning and neurological development, emphasizing children’s need for long, uninterrupted periods of self-initiated play until age seven.
Experts such as educational commentator Sue Palmer, and Dr Pam Jarvis, an adviser for the Save Childhood Movement, warn of the damage our “too much too soon” school curriculum does to development, mental health and attitudes to learning.
Teachers know it, too, and many schools now push for play as best they can within the confines of an outdated and underfunded Victorian system that still demands instruction, rather than play, as the primary tool for learning throughout Key Stage 1 (up to age seven).
Leave Britain for the rest of Europe, however, and you see the experts’ advice in action almost everywhere. And that’s what we have done – twice, so far. Norway was the original inspiration for our travel and education project.
Last summer Stéphane and I searched, unsuccessfully, for jobs there, attracted by the Nordic preschool system, which is much gentler for four to six-year-olds. It is the model I wish Britain would adopt.
We returned recently, in May, to sample a day at a barnehage (literally “children’s garden”) near Bergen. A morning of indoor play activities was followed by more than two hours outside in the drizzle in a well-equipped concrete playground. There wasn’t a phonics-related action or spelling list in sight. My daughter begged to stay as we left.
We have seen this pattern repeated across the Continent. If Beatrice lived in almost any other European country she wouldn’t be expected to start school until autumn 2017, two years after her British contemporaries.
The Norwegian parents and teachers we met wanted to know if we Britons were actually crazy to send our children to school so young. “But childhood is about play!” exclaimed one parent of three girls, also a teacher. “Why teach them when they could be playing?”
We started to ask questions, too. What difference do those two years not at school make? How do other cultures view childhood, education, school? In the search for answers we’ve decided to carry on travelling so far through Holland, Norway, Switzerland and France, spurred on by family and friends, and – tellingly – more than a handful of retired teachers. Our intention is to live “life as normal” alongside the families we meet.
On past trips we have visited schools, kindergartens, homes and a private community school, and we have more of the same lined up. It’s already made us much more culturally intelligent. From the familiar and domestic to the more educational and practical, wherever we have been, we have got to know people who are like us… but different.
Almost everywhere we travel, we’ve learnt that parents and teachers alike define play as the central characteristic of childhood. Schools and preschools have the freedom and resources to act on the compelling evidence that children need to play.
Playing is not regarded as an indulgence, reward or break from the serious business of working or “proper” learning. Play for play’s sake is seen as the most valid reason to facilitate and fund play opportunities, even outside an educational context, from the playgrounds at all motorway service stations in Germany to the child-size shopping trolleys at Norwegian supermarkets.
We have felt the absence of these cultural kindnesses when we are back in Britain, where we still largely insist that children be predominantly productive rather than playful.
Travelling with children is not all fun and games, of course. On our first trip, we were surprised by our children’s resistance to change, accompanied by choruses of complaining: “I want to go back to England!” Stéphane and I responded with the mantra: “If we had stayed in England, we would never have… met Luca/eaten Zopf/seen the pink tractor in Liechtenstein.”
By the time we boarded the ferry home after the most recent trip, I overheard Beatrice reeling off a minute-long list of what she had loved and valued about “abroad”. She even asked if we could adopt some of it ourselves.
The parallels between my daughter learning to embrace change with my hopes for the British school system considering raising the starting age aren’t lost on me.
I am conscious that most families will never have the opportunity to do what we have done, whether it be travelling Europe or finding alternatives to starting school aged four, but I wouldn’t change the journey we’re on. With every kilometre we travel, I hope we are getting closer to a time when our classrooms are no longer filled with four and five-year-olds carrying the burden of oversized bags and the weight of curriculum demands but, rather, with confident six or seven-year-olds, ready to embrace the challenge of school.
Want to try your own cultural intelligence tour? Here’s how
- Don’t put it off! Just do it.
- It’s never too late… but we all know it’s cheaper to travel outside term times, and with younger children.
- Ask around. You’ll know someone who knows someone who has friends you can visit abroad. Social media makes this easy.
- Take your time – it’s better to really experience life thoroughly in a couple of places than to see lots of countries from the motorway.
- You don’t need a motorhome (but it does make it easier). Pack up the car with a tent and all you can squeeze in, and get on the road.
- Strike up conversations with strangers. Many people speak English and are only too happy to practise on you.
- Remember that children like stability and routine – it’s tricky while travelling but do your best to bring some normality (e.g. the bedtime routine) with you.
Credit: The Telegraph, www.telegraph.co.uk