When most children were in front of computers attending online classes amid the pandemic that has shut schools around the world, 11-year-old Advait Maskeri was working towards his dream of becoming a pilot. He was reading a book on aerodynamics and watching videos on YouTube on how to create gliders using balsa wood with his parents. While the lockdown progressed and kids around the world were dealing with their ever-extending loss of freedom, Advait was buying balsa wood and carving tools online, and creating a glider. Soon, he was flying his glider over the fields of Punjab.
This happened despite 2020, thanks to his parents’ decision to roadschool him, back in 2017. Ever since, this family of three has been on the road in their SUV, travelling around the country—with 14 states and over 15,000 kms under their belt so far.
“We asked ourselves why we were learning in the first place, and whether the learning we were doing was leading to progress and development,” says Advait’s mother, Smriti Raj, who along with her husband, Siddharth Maskeri, an animation filmmaker, work with youth, parents and farmers to empower them through storytelling sessions. “Every decision we take is shared responsibility and based on mutual discussion.” Their car doubles up as their home as well, with a small library, an induction cooktop, utensils, toiletries, umbrellas, clothes and musical instruments accompanying them on their road life.
The trio is among the growing community of roadschoolers in India, a concept where the world becomes the classroom for the kids in the family. Untethered by the obligation of attending a real school, roadschooling is quite like homeschooling or unschooling—only that it involves taking it to the road. While full-time travel was once the purview of only white-collar retirees in the West whereas #vanlife was more of a social media movement rather than an attempt at a more meaningful life, roadschooling pretty much places the kid(s) in the centre of the lifestyle. This sees parents who have either realised that money does not buy them happiness or time with their kids, or who look at this as a better way of bringing up their kids than through the assembly-line model of schooling today. And now with the pandemic making remote work an acceptable way of working, even a desirable one, more parents are willing to take the plunge.
“We have been thinking about taking our six-year-old daughter whom we homeschool, and our dog, on the road, but the pandemic was the push we needed to get out of the city,” says Ahmedabad-based Viddhi Mehta, who with her husband bought a secondhand van and are currently getting it converted into a campervan equipped with a bed and a kitchen of sorts. “I work as an HR consultant and when you think about it, many of our jobs could actually happen remotely. We’re looking at the pandemic as an opportunity not just for us to make the life change but also because the other people we work with also don’t treat remote working as an alien concept now.”
For some other parents, this has also been a way for the pandemic to not bring in mental health issues or anxiety in their kids, and provide an alternative to the on-screen education that has otherwise become the template. There’s WiFi and internet in many parts of the country but when there isn’t, there’s no stress about conventional learning either.
“The kids are always happy this way,” says Gangadhar Krishnan, who has been travelling sporadically with his wife, Ramya, and his 10-year-old twins—Ananya and Amulya—since the kids were merely six months old. In July 2019 though, they became roadschoolers, taking a mammoth 13,000 kilometres road trip in their Tata Nano from Hyderabad to the North East, covering 15 states and three international borders.
When the pandemic struck, the travel continued for this family, but elements of it changed. For example, to minimise contact, they lived in tents they set up in petrol pumps and cooked in their car. One day, they even drove 725 kilometres from Hyderabad to Mysore, to experience contactless travel. Though the family usually sleeps inside their car or pitches tents in known locations or in the yards of local families, they stay at hotels and, on occasion, luxury resorts too.
While on the road, the family of four plays word games, memory games, listens to the songs, reads a book or listens to Gangadhar sharing his childhood travel stories. The twins are currently attending online classes for Bharatnatyam and Taekwondo. One of them also attends an online drawing class.
“We won’t let even one moment go without being together,” says Gangadhar, who left his full-time job as an engineer and is now in the travel business, taking people on trips to the North East and offering packages for the rest of India and the world. “There is so much to learn from each other and we learn even silently.”
Letting Go of Possessions
When the lockdown was announced in March 2020, six-year-old Khwahish and 11-year-old Hridhaan were busy playing with over a hundred chicks, bringing home farm-fresh vegetables, and helping their parents Santosh and Anchal Iyer cook in the small village of Ketti in the Nilgiris.
Though the Iyers have been roadschooling since August 2019, their story has a twist: They don’t own a car! Instead, the family only walks or uses local transportation and cabs to move around.`
“We started homeschooling the kids but two years into it, we decided that there is no point keeping a rental house while travelling,” says Anchal. “We started with selling our bed, sleeping on the floor, surrendering the gas cylinder, sofa and living on the bare minimum to adjust to a nomadic life. But as we realised that letting go is also about learning and self-purification, we decided to sell our car too. It took us some time to make this transition and come back to the basics but now, we carry only four bags, one each for induction and kitchen utensils, one for books, and two bags of clothes.” Though her husband, Santosh, gave up a job he had held for over a decade, he joined Anchal in her digital marketing business which they run together to keep their finances healthy. Together, they chronicle their journeys too.
Since August 2019, the family has been to multiple places like Dharmasala, Dalhousie, Yol, Palampur, Kasauli, Solan, and Shimla in Himachal Prdesh and later, Ketti, Coonoor and Ooty in Tamil Nadu. They usually choose a base place to stay and from there, explore the surrounding areas. By November 2020, they are moving to explore Rajasthan. Khwahish and Hridhaan continue to follow a disciplined schedule for academic study. As early risers, they begin the day with a walk, and study from around 8.30 am till around noon, learning three subjects and drawing every day. Both Anchal and Santosh dedicate time to teach children in-between work. Before hitting the bed, everyone in the family reads a book and every Thursday, they read an autobiography together.
Learning on the Move
Interestingly, all roadschoolers believe in the same theory: Learning is happening every moment. Smriti says Advait is exploring paragliding, farming, different kinds of arts and sports. As a family too, they are learning together. In Punjab, they met Shahid Bhagat Singh’s nephew. Staying with the family gave them the opportunity to understand the framework of Punjab and how the cultural, social and socio-economic degeneration happened because of the Green Revolution.
“Learning from the book is different from seeing directly. Learning this way directly awakens all senses of a child,” says Smriti.
Ananya and Amulya learnt about the water cycle in Cherrapunji (one of the wettest areas in the world) , and the Pythagoras theorem while driving around Bangladesh. They are learning these without being actively aware of “studying”, observing what is happening in front of their eyes. They also learnt to make handmade paper from the bark of a tree.
The roadschooling life takes these children through different experiences of real life. They learn to cook, sew, interact with people of all ages, handle household chores responsibly, climb a rock, identify soil and native plants, understand people, experience folk culture, learn about changing geography, pollution and environmental issues. “When young, we want our twins to focus on learning new languages, understanding different cultures, ethics, human values, kindness, self-defence and adaptability to different weather,” says Gangadhar. “This brings out the humanity in children.”
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