Written by: Anna Sibal
09/09/2013 9:30 AM
Parents take their kids on camping and road trips for various reasons - to bond with them, to encourage them to learn more about the significance of their destination, to forge in them an independent spirit, and to help broaden their horizons. But parents usually do these road trips in the summer, when school is out. Few parents would think to pull out their children from regular school so they could go on a cross-country trip that will last months. It's an entirely different story.
But that is exactly the story that Gretchen Breuner, author of The RoadScholarz: Lessons from the Scenic Route and the website TheRoadScholarz.com, chose to write. In 2008, she packed her three kids - son Jackson and daughters Lilly and Sammy - in an RV just as the school year was about to start and drove across 19 states in three months. The kids were homeschooled in classrooms made up not just by the four walls of their home-on-wheels but by National Parks and Monuments and historic sites - other places most students only get to read about and see in textbook pictures. It's a priceless education that every child should have, and it's an RV adventure that truly changes lives. We asked Gretchen to tell us more about this adventure.
CampingRoadTrip.com: Why did you decide to hit the road with the kids for a scenic drive across America?
Gretchen: The impetus to take such a big trip was the culmination of many things. When I was a kid, my parents drove my four siblings and me from the San Francisco Bay Area to Seattle, Washington and back in a borrowed RV. That was the one and only other time I had been in an RV, but the experience was unforgettable. I also wanted to take a break from the elementary school where all three of our kids were attending. The principal and I didn't have the same educational vision, and I felt that a road trip would be a perfect adventure for the kids, given their ages. They were all old enough to remember the trip but not old enough to not want to be with me. Lastly, I felt like I needed to make some changes for me. There was a feeling of stagnation and I wanted to shake that up a bit. Nothing like driving through 19 states to change your routine!
Can you tell us a little bit about your rig? What made you realize that it's the perfect one for you and your kids?
After researching a number of different types of RV, including a RoadTrek, a Class A and some larger Class Cs, I chose a 22ft Class C Tioga Montara with a 350 Chassis. I knew I wanted a rig that would be comfortable for the four of us, sometimes even five, but I also wanted the rig small enough to maneuver easily through more congested areas. I test drove a number of different types and sizes and felt that 22ft was the perfect size. I knew I wasn't going to tow a second vehicle and that the RV would also serve as our motor home and town car at the same time.
Not all children are willing to drop everything and go on an adventure. Did your kids show any resistance to the idea of missing regular school and going away on a long road trip? If there were any, how did you manage to overcome their resistance?
I've often said that the trip would not have been possible without the kids or my husband. They were all not only willing to go along with me, but my husband was my biggest supporter and fan. I never got resistance from the kids or my husband, but I did get it from friends, people in my community, and even strangers. Some went so far to say (and right to my husband's face), "I give her two days and she's back." At this, my husband just turned and walked away. Other comments were, "If my wife did that, I'd change the locks!", "What is she thinking? Putting those children at risk like that, she's being very dangerous!" But if I listened to all of the resistance, we wouldn't have made it out of our driveway. When we broke down on Day 2, word traveled quickly home. My husband, running into another neighborhood dad was questioned, "Heard she broke down... she coming home?" "No! She's not coming home, she's getting it fixed and moving on!"
How involved were your kids in planning this road trip?
I won't lie; I did most of the planning, but I certainly involved the kids. I wanted them to remain excited about the trip and knew having them involved would help accomplish that outcome. For example, my girls were excited to see the American Girl store, so I mapped it out while we were in Chicago. Jackson was really into baseball so Wrigley Field made the top of the list. We also added horseback riding in Kentucky and "had a catch" on the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa. As I researched places for us to see on the road, we'd all talk about it, ultimately getting more and more excited as the trip departure got closer. Planning the trip was almost as much fun as the trip itself!
How was your routine on the road? How similar was it to the routine you and your kids followed at home?
Our road routine was very different from our routine at home. That was one of my objectives. I wanted our RV life to be a far cry from our home life. That's not to say we didn't have a routine, we did, but we got to decide what we wanted to do. We were not at the mercy of other people's dictated scheduling, be that when to be at soccer practice, or what school projects to do, or when to be at music lessons. As a group we had the freedom and the luxury of doing what we wanted, when we wanted. One of our favorite aspects of the trip was our mornings. Often the kids slept in or, if inclined, just read a book until we were ready to start the day. Some mornings we were up bright and early to sightsee or catch a tour. Other mornings we made pancakes and started our own school day, when we were ready. Like home, the kids still had chores, but they were just different. For example, they helped with laundry, taking turns at the campsite Laundromat while simultaneously learning how much a load of washing costs! Hooking up the water and electric as well as pulling down the beds became as regular as brushing teeth and cleaning up a room at home.
Did you experience any special challenges in homeschooling your kids? How did you get them to sit down and do their schoolwork?
I admit I was a bit of an idealist regarding the homeschooling portion of the trip. I had envisioned the kids happily (and peacefully!) doing their schoolwork while I drove the RV. This was proven a gross miscalculation on my part early into the trip. While underway, the kids enjoyed looking out the window, playing card games or singing along with the chosen music for the day. I couldn't give them my full attention on schoolwork while driving so I changed things up with our school schedule. If we had a driving day, we'd do school work that afternoon. If we were in camp for a few days, mornings were often our school time. History, Geography, Social Science and Science (even some math!) all naturally became part of our learning because that's what the trip was all about: Our country became our classroom. Math was really the only subject that I had to "teach". We journaled every night, read every night, and with all the sightseeing and touring, all the experts we met became my team-teachers. School was easy and fun, so much so, the kids often didn't really know they were learning. That's a kind of schooling every child hopes to have.
What effect did homeschooling have on your kids' academic performance?
I was nervous with my children's re-entry into school after our return. Where would they be academically? Would they be ahead or behind? To my great relief, we found our kids to be a great position at school. Each of them had a wonderful new (broad) perspective from all our traveling. What they learned in their textbooks at school, they saw in person on our trip. I can't tell you how many times one of the kids has come home and said, "Mom! You wouldn't believe what we learned today...! But we saw where Dr. King was shot!" There has been no doubt that the traveling we did has only enhanced each child's perspective and academic abilities and performance in regular school.
In your book, you mentioned developing a system of code words with your husband to use as signals with your kids at any sign of trouble. Was there an instance when you needed to use those code words? How did you deal with it?
I learned on the road, especially in the RV world, there are nice people everywhere. Only twice did I feel we were either not with a safe person or in a safe campsite. Both times I left quickly, not needing to use our code word, "Dad". As a single Mom, traveling alone, my antennae were on constant alert, always attentive to any possible signs of danger. Thankfully we had no real danger. Aside from safety signals, the book also has many other parenting and life lessons, which can be applied to anyone, on an RV trip or not. Nonetheless, traveling or remaining at home or walking to the park, every family uses signals to help during times of trouble. We were no different while on the road.
After your experience getting lost in Craig, Colorado, what safety tips would you recommend to RVers with small kids in tow?
I should have followed my own safety rules, which are ones I coach other parents on when I'm hired to do consulting. It's important that each family come up with their own "code of conduct" and safety rules. That said, I find the three most important ones to be are: 1) Stay your course (or alert someone of a course change); 2) Don't drive after dark; and 3) Have a check-in person. Additionally, when traveling with small children, give them a special job that keeps them engaged and part of the team. For example, I gave Sammy, my 5-year-old daughter, our flip camera. Her job was to videotape the trip. Often she'd hold the camera at the window and yell from the back, "Mom! Where are we again?", "Utah, honey", "So, we are at U-tah...!" and the camera would pan at 65mph.
I am assuming that Craig was one of the worst, if not the worst, of your stops on your road trip. What do you consider to be the best, most special or most memorable of your stops?
By no means was Craig our worst stop. It just happened to be the place where I learned some very valuable lessons. No stop was bad, just different. And it's cliché, but there really isn't one best stop. However, if you ask the kids they'd universally say that all the National Parks we visited rated on their Top Ten list. We loved Moab, the Grand Tetons, the Grand Canyon, White Sands and Yellowstone. It was incredible to stand where Martin Luther King, Jr. and JFK were both shot. Sitting on the walls of The Alamo, listening to an audiotape of the events that took place there were unforgettable. Splashing on the riverbank and looking up at the grandness of Zion's red rocks was stunning. And none of us will forget how Mt. Rushmore was gloriously illuminated for the night, following a very touching ceremony explaining how the monument was carved. But my favorite memory was seeing the kids relish in their new-found freedom, watching them embrace and take pride in the adventure of the trip, and how they each gained a new sense of independence and courage. That was the icing on the cake, the filling being the sites themselves.
What is the most important thing you have discovered about your kids and about yourself at the end of your road trip?
When we left on the trip, I thought I was going on this grand adventure with my kids, and I did. It was an adventure, a trip of a lifetime. But what I was surprised to discover was how the trip reconnected me to me. It brought me home to a part of me I had unknowingly buried deep during years of caring for three small children. I learned that you don't have to travel alone in an RV for three months and drive over 10,000 miles to have adventure, connection and freedom. You can have all that while at home, taking a cooking class or a tennis lesson. You just have to try something new, push yourself outside your comfort zone and be willing to be a little nervous once in a while. That challenge, be that at home or on the road, will help you to grow, connect and lead. And when that happens, you become a hero to your children and ultimately give them someone to follow. I'm now lucky enough to be able to pass advice along to my clients. I tell them connect with what you love to do, and everything else falls into place.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently on your road trip?
Despite some of the mishaps we had on the trip, I wouldn't change a thing. Those lessons helped me to learn and grow. Honestly, I wouldn't change a thing, except I would have put on those small, magnifying mirrors on my rearview mirrors to help with my lane changes.
What advice would you give women, especially mothers, who wish they could embark on an RV adventure just like you did?
Most of my clients are women, and this question comes up a lot. It's one of my favorites. This is what I tell them: Just. Do. It. It will change your life and the lives of your children. I guarantee it.
Learn more about Gretchen Breuner and her RoadScholarz at their site. Also, check out her book on Amazon.
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