Presidents and Planes: Our Personal Experience with Self-Directed Education
The 2016 election ignites a child’s interest in American political history and prompts a family trip to the nation’s capital

It all started with the 2016 election. Being relatively civic-minded, I wanted to make sure I made informed decisions about the candidates who would possibly represent us, and I made sure to invite my boys to help research. Ian (4) wasn’t interested, but Aidan (7) thought it sounded like fun. Aidan had been noticing political ads on YouTube and had been hearing the adults around him talk about the election. He had a multitude of questions about the election process and was excited that I had offered an opportunity for him to answer them.

Aidan helped me look up the platforms for different parties and read articles about different candidates. We Googled the candidates and made a chart to organize the information we found. We talked about what we wanted from a representative and what the responsibilities of various offices are. Aidan was particularly fascinated by puzzling out which of a candidate’s campaign promises were possible and what the ramifications of those promises might be.

Aidan’s burning interest sparked us to book a trip to Washington, DC.

While we were researching, Aidan became more and more fascinated with the office of President of the United States. We took a trip to the library and ended up with a bag full of books (including Ken Burn’s outstanding, Grover Cleveland, Again?). Aidan was entranced. He was particularly interested in Abraham Lincoln and FDR, so we went back to the library for more specific books about them and about the White House. One night, as we settled in to read our next chapter about Abraham Lincoln, he asked, “Mom, can you remind me why the Whigs broke up and started the Republican Party?”

I had invited him and included him in something that interested me, and we had pursued the research because of our interest in the topic, not because of an agenda imposed from an outside authority or societal expectation. We could just as easily have been researching Pokémon (which we’ve done) or the many venomous species that live in Australia (which we’ve also done).

Part of our commitment to Self-Directed Education for our children and ourselves is a commitment to travel. Nothing we can read or watch can compare to the thrill and wonder of traveling to locations that have vicariously become dear and familiar to us. The benefit of exposure to people who look, think, eat, and live differently from us is unquantifiable but life-altering. My husband and I are just delving into this aspect of our education; we have been taking longer and longer trips as the boys get older, and we’ve been venturing farther and farther from our home each time. We are babies in the community of world-schooling, but every adventure has further galvanized our enthusiasm for life learning.

Aidan’s burning interest in all things presidential sparked us to book a long weekend in Washington, DC. He was ecstatic. We had been reading about the founding and history of the city, and his curiosity was infectious. He helped plan where we would go each day, making sure we got to visit the National Museum of Natural History because of his younger brother’s interests. He recorded tour and taste-test videos for his YouTube channel (another intense passion of his). We actually got to see the places we were reading about, and seeing the National Mall and the Lincoln Memorial through his eyes warmed my cold, dead adult heart.

Having the ability to travel to places that complement our interests and passions is an unparalleled privilege that we acknowledge and try to honor wherever we go. My husband and I are in the process of organizing our lives around our family enthusiasm for travel. It has become a large part of the framework of our continued education and the core of our family culture. We are Travelers. With this focus for our collective education, we have solidified a family ethos of wonder at the world around us that has enriched every aspect of our lives.

We have unintentionally created a cycle of developing an interest in a person, place, or thing leading to a trip, which then leads to a new fascination and a new idea for travel. After a recent trip to Mexico, where we spent a lovely afternoon wandering through the ruins at Chichén Itzá, we became eager to learn more about the people and history of the area. Down the rabbit hole we went: We are now knee deep in Mayan sacrifices and couldn’t be happier.