What learning looks like on our sailboat

Like many families in the U.S., our school year looks a lot different than it has in years past.

Gone are the days of getting up at 6:30 a.m. and rushing to eat, get dressed and in the car in time for school.

Instead, the kids get up when they get up. After breakfast, they usually head outside for some vitamin D and fresh air.

Once back inside, they don’t head to desks or any sort of designated learning space. Instead, we compare their schedules with my husband’s calls for work and figure out who needs to use the one table we have first. Some days, the kids don’t even crack the computer and we spend most of our time outside.

T approves of this wrecked fishing boat near Dockton, Wa.

We’re homeschooling, which definitely has changed what our day looks like now. And we are homeschooling on a boat, which means we have to make learning happen in limited space, often with limited computer access and make considerations for weather and the time it takes to sail from one place to the next.

Homeschooling from a boat can be challenging at times, for sure. I sometimes look dreamily at the beautiful art tables and massive science kits I see when I search for homeschool ideas on Pinterest. But, once disabused of the idea of what learning “must” look like it is easy to see how a boat provides a deep, rich and fun learning environment all the time.

We’re just three months into this homeschooling/boatschooling thing. Here’s what learning is looking like on our boat so far.

They were born to learn

Our son has turned into an avid birder with help from a birthday gift from Nana of new binoculars.

As soon as we decided to homeschool I knew I wanted to take a mostly unschooling approach to their learning. Unschooling is a little hard to sum up. Here’s how I interpret it: The unschooling approach trusts that kids are learning all the time, even when it doesn’t look like “learning.” And that the best way for kids to learn anything is to let them follow their interests and then, rather than teaching, we adults sort of work in the capacity of a concierge/facilitator, or a coach, when asked for help.

I’ve known for a long time that the best way for my kids to learn anything is to find a way to connect it to whatever they seem fascinated with at the moment and then mostly to get out of the way. That approach is how our daughter taught herself to read when she was little and how our son became the world’s youngest expert on marine invertebrates.

Both kids scouring Puget Sound’s Blakely Rock for marine invertebrates during low tide.

So, now instead of delving into their interests after school, they get to delve all day long! And we adults find ways to weave in math, literature, history, science, as well as organization skills and good writing habits and the like through their interests.

Really, the transition hasn’t been that hard. It’s just requiring a shift in perspective.

For example, our son was very interested in learning about octopus. He did research on the computer, read several books and watched “My Octopus Teacher.” Then he decided to write everything he learned into a report, infographic and a slideshow presentation, which he presented to family.

What did he learn from this? Well, marine biology, of course, as well as the science of the ocean and the food chain. He also worked on spelling, punctuation, paragraph organization, research citations, how to use Google slides, how to make an infographic and how to present something over Zoom.

Boatschooling is worldschooling

We recently visited a memorial honoring the Japanese-American residents of Bainbridge Island who were forced into internment camps during WWII.

Being on a boat adds another layer to our homeschooling approach. We all are learning together how to read the weather better, how to tie knots, navigate, read charts and how to fix a leak in our hull (just to name a few things).

And, of course, all that sailing we do counts, too!

A on the helm taking us back to Elliott Bay.

We spent summer 2020 cruising the Salish Sea with the kids, touring the South Sound to the San Juan Islands, and many points in-between. It might have been a school break, but it wasn’t a learning break. The kids absorbed tons during our voyage.

We visited Roche Harbor and learned about lime kilns, the formation of the community and experienced an amazing sculpture park. In the San Juans, we got to see fossils first-hand on Sucia Island and near Penrose Point State Park, we got to learn about sea snails while snorkeling.

Sometimes what we see on a trip becomes the culmination of what we’ve been reading and learning about. Other times, it sparks a new curiosity.

For example, we recently visited a memorial on Bainbridge Island honoring the Japanese-American residents who were forced to leave their homes and go to internment camps during World War II.

The experience visiting the memorial was emotional and thought-provoking for each of us. Then, a few days later we started listening to an audiobook called “Weedflower,” which is a fictional account of a young Japanese-American girl’s experience going to an internment camp during the war.

This could be a door for a new exploration for either of the kids, or it could just be a good side trip. Either way, both the park and the audiobook have provided fodder for conversations about racism, world wars and what life was like at different times in history.

Computers and books play a role, too

We’re a family of nerds anyway, so a lot of what we’re doing now is similar to what we were doing before. Everyone loves to read, but we have limited space on the boat for tons and tons of books. I try to limit print books to those with lots of illustration and load up the Kindles for everything else.

We also selectively use a few digital resources. In addition to great movies and documentaries, both kids have taken a few outschool.com classes and our daughter is learning French right now using a Rosetta Stone app. She also attended a cool Zoom call with the Orca Network recently on whale poop!

We have made one departure from unschooling: I purchased a math curriculum that I thought might engage the kids. I don’t force them to work on it, but they actually seem to enjoy working on it.

But there are times when computer learning isn’t a good option. When we are away from the marina and on anchor, we need to be careful with how we use energy for charging up computers and running Wi-Fi.

Plus, honestly, it’s nice to have a break from screen time.

I’d love to hear from others who are homeschooling, especially if they do it in a more non-traditional place, like a boat or RV. We’re learning all the time over here, including how to make learning more fun.

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