Words: Charlotte Philby

In February this year, Courtney Adamo and her husband Michael sold their house in Highgate, North London. Their decision now set in stone, they contacted their children’s school to say they would no longer be needing places for the next academic year. For as their contemporaries prepared for another chapter in formal education and at work, the Adamos and their four children – Easton, 10, Quin, 8, Ivy, 6, and Marlow, 2 – would be packing their bags for a round-the-world adventure, which would initially see the family flying from London to the US – where Courtney is originally from – to spend the summer with family.

From there the plan was to head to Peru and across South America, before New Zealand in December, Australia, onto Fiji, Japan, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and – finally – back to Europe, for an extended road-trip. Only then – after spending a year “fully engaged” as a family – would Courtney, co-founder of parenting blog Babyccino Kids, and Michael, a producer, mainly of TV commercials, decide where to settle next.

Like a growing number of parents faced with the prospect of an increasingly fast-paced, disconnected world governed by technology, timetables, exams and the daily commute, Courtney and Michael have chosen to step off the treadmill and “reconnect” with themselves and their children, while exploring a more adventurous – and introspective – path. “When you have jobs, kids in good schools, a house, a mortgage, furniture – things that make you feel settled – it’s hard to imagine walking into school, giving up your children’s places, quitting your job and mixing things up, bringing uncertainty into your life…” she reflects. “But this is something I’ve always something wanted to do”.

Zoe Solomans' parents moved from London to rural Bolivia for three years, with three kids under five. Image: Gareth Lovett Jones

Having grown up one of five in on a tulip farm in a small town an hour north of Seattle, as a child Courtney, now 34, remembers her neighbours going off on a round-the-world trip with their three children. “When they went away, leaving small town America, I was so confused as to why they would. But they grew up so much. When they came back they were so happy as a family, and the girls had all these amazing stories and photos. For the next 10 years, that time away seemed to constantly shape their lives.” Ever since, Courtney has wanted to do something similar once she had a family of her own. With their eldest son, Easton, turning 10 and secondary school looming, she and Michael – who took some convincing of the plan to abandon everything concrete in their lives – felt a pressure that now was the best time to up-sticks. “It’s about making memories, discovering cultures, eating different food, but mostly,” she says, “it’s about being together, just slowing down and being more present in our time with our kids”.

Slow parenting is a movement that has gathered pace in recent years, in response to an increasingly hyped-up world. Rebutting the trend for almost constant, structured activity, this lifestyle – fathered by Scottish-born Canadian journalist Carl Honoré, author of the bestselling 2004 title In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed – is fundamentally about allowing children to explore the world at their own pace, and derive a sense of achievement away from the structure, pressure and hierarchy of prescribed systems. In short, it’s about stepping back and taking a breath, rather than trying to force productivity into every waking moment.

After making the decision to sell their house and head off on the trip of a lifetime, Courtney started noticing a trend for other parents abandoning more rigid social structures in search of another way

After making the decision to sell their house and head off on the trip of a lifetime, Courtney says they started noticing a trend for other parents abandoning more rigid social structures in search of another way: “People are embracing a slower, more mindful way of doing things in response to how busy we are as parents, and the against trend for filling children’s schedules with everything – learning mandarin, tutors after class… I’ve never been the super busy busy go-go-go type mother, but when you live in a city and have four kids and add in piano lessons, school, friends, your job, all these things, it is busy no matter how hard you try to make it not so.” Indeed, some of the frenziedly competitive mood that set the rhythm for Amy Chua’s bestselling Hymn of the Tiger Mother seems to have mellowed, in favour of a gentler approach.

When popular parenting blog Cup of Jo recently posted an article on slow parenting, it went viral – fast-becoming one of its most successful posts of all time. Meanwhile the trend for more ambitious family adventures has never been greater, with parents forgoing the traditionally popular beach resort-type stays in favour of more ambitious getaways, inspired by alternative travel sites including the Family Adventure Project. (Think travelling around Indonesia by bike, perhaps, or – closer to home – a stay at a ‘Bear Gryll’s Survival Academy’.) Combining these two trends to create a family gap-year away from our frenetically-paced, highly-structured lives is perhaps the natural progression. Not least when you consider the safety net offered by technology including social media, Skype, and email, which make it feasible to be anywhere in the world and still stay, on a more practical (and possibly counterintuitive) level, connected.

Jo Royle and her family with the ambulance they re-appropriated as a family home, using recycled materials

While more outlandish international trips like the Adamo’s might require serious cash to fund, there are other – more accessible – ways to forge your own path.

Jo Royle and her husband, James, have spent the past year travelling around the UK with their two children, Annie, 8, and Oscar, 5. For them, the idea of moving away from a more conventional way of living started when Jo, 40, became redundant in 2011. “I was looking for what to do next,” she says. “My husband and I sort of sat there and went ‘where is all the money going to come from to pay bills, childcare, run two cars…?” Initially they moved out of their house in Lancashire, which they rented out, and moved to North Yorkshire where they lived in a caravan. Then, last September, they went a step further. Having converted a mobile library for not much money, using recycled and reclaimed materials, they took their eldest out of school and the four of them set off, starting in Saltburn, near Whitby, down the east coast, along the south coast, then up through Wales and along, before crossing into Scotland.

Now approaching the end of what was intended to be just one year away, both kids are homeschooled. Though in reality, Jo says, they are more “unschooled” than “homeschooled”. “They do a lot of self-directed learning, and we use online programmes like Sumdog, Khan Academy and Reading Eggs, which help with maths, science, english and computer programming. They also watch TED-Ed educational films, as well as Horrible Histories DVDs.” Most of their education, though, comes from “playing out”. “We go to museums, science centres, then we do a lot of playing on the beach, going on expeditions; James and I have learnt so much by visiting historical sites with them and talking to them about their significance. We’ve just been on a bush-craft weekend in the Lake District, sleeping in hammocks in trees, learning to whittle and light fires.”

I’m constantly rushing my kids to finish the sentence they’re saying to me. I’m hoping this year to slow down, let them guide the conversation and have time to talk to them

This kind of nature-led learning is very much in keeping with the practice of forest schools, the principles of which have been incorporated into a growing number of primary and secondary schools as well as nurseries across the UK in recent years, adhering to a philosophy of “encourag[ing] and inspir[ing] individuals of any age through an innovative, long term, educational approach to outdoor play and learning in a woodland environment”. There is no way of keeping count of those implementing Forest School methods in Britain, as different organisations use the philosophy in different ways and to varying degrees alongside the formal curriculum.

But according to a spokesperson for Forest Schools Education, the oldest training organisation of its kind, which trains people who want to open their own nurseries or teachers who are already in schools as to how to apply the ideology and process, it is a fast-growing movement: “We have trained over 10,000 individuals since launching in 2001. There has been a big increase recently as lots of people are starting to realise the importance of implementing well-rounded forms of education,” she says. “Our approach is to create a wholesome, holistic educational process.” Which means learning how to use fire and tools in the forest, and different ways of utilising the environment to teach independence and other social and practical skills.

Having grown up near Saltburn in Yorkshire, Jo says this hands-on, outdoor lifestyle is more akin to the childhood she remembers, going for walks in the woods and playing out with friends. But the motivation behind their new way of life is greater than nostalgia, rooted in a sense of what feels right at each stage. While the idea of stepping away temporarily from their established routines started as an adventure before Oscar went to school, the prospect of returning to a “normal life” has naturally faded: “Every time we take another step away from what’s normal, it’s almost like the next step comes easier. To take the kids out of school for a year felt quite big, but now to think they might not go back in the short or even longterm… it is easier.”

Courtney Adamo, founder of Babyccino Kids, sold her London home and set off for an around-the-word adventure with her husband and four children, earlier this year

Zoë Solomons has memories of growing up – at least for a part of her childhood – in a very different world to the one her five-year-old son now inhabits. Born in London, she moved to rural Bolivia for three years with her parents and two siblings – all under five at the time – as her father, a GP, was involved in a medical aid project. She says growing up without TV, advertising, electricity, surrounded by wild natural beauty, has informed her outlook on life, which has seen her prioritising the non-materialistic and seeking out time spent in nature. Today, it is the more visceral memories of childhood which remain the clearest: “The smell of eucalyptus, the hot dusty earth, the sound of cockerels everywhere and playing dams with my brother and sister, making and washing dolls clothes in the stream because there weren’t any playgrounds.”

For three years, Zoe and her family lived in an adobe hut, their main transportation a donkey, which made for something of a culture shock when they returned to London (“apparently I spent the first six months just turning taps and lights on and off and saying ‘mum, look!’”). So much so that the family soon relocated to rural Oxfordshire as city life was too stark a shift. Now aged 30 and living in the distinctly urban environs of Holloway, north London with her five-year-old son, Felix, while training to be an osteopath, Zoe says she feels the draw towards another adventure: “We just got back from two weeks camping in the forest in rural Massachusetts, and I do as much wild learning and forest schooling with my son as possible. There is so much to be learned from being in and observing nature.”

For the Royles, too, the lure of the wild remains strong. While they had planned to have a firm idea by now of where and what might be next, things have become less clear-cut. Instead, they have decided not to put the children back in school this year, but rather to carry on with a loose plan of heading to the Scottish islands, ending up in the Outer Hebrides, and then seeing where the wind takes them. “The children are gaining confidence in meeting new people as we’re staying in new places,” says Jo. “My daughter, who was at school before, now doesn’t wait for us to organise anything for her; they decide what they are going to do and they get on with it. Every so often we sit down and do a review of their homeschooling, seeing where it’s going, what they’re finding most interesting, what resources might be needed and what to do next.”

Kids are pragmatic, they don’t ask, they just go along with it. They are much more in the moment

To a degree, Jo’s work will dictate their path. Both she and James have been working as they move around. Jo teaches meditation while doing associate work running staff training programmes for a couple of companies which work in organisational development, meaning she has to jump on a train or take a hire-car to whichever part of the country she is needed, every so often, while James – an engineer by trade – has been doing skills swaps, as part of work exchange programmes HelpX and Wwoof, swapping his joinery in return for somewhere for the family to pitch up and plug into electricity and food.” Day to day, though, they don’t spend much, with no mortgage, no childcare, no bills…

For the Adamo family, too, the plan is to homeschool the kids, “loosely speaking”. “We’re not going to be regimented or follow any set curriculum but we will encourage them to read for 20 mins a day, and ask them to write in a journal every day to record what they’ve learnt, tasted, discovered…” Courtney explains. “And they’ll be learning geography by talking about the cities and countries we’re visiting. It’s about learning by doing… I think kids learn so much when they’re engaged and interested, without knowing they’re learning. Because we’ll have time to spend with them we can talk about what they’re doing, and hopefully that will lead to new discussions.” As things stands, she adds, she and her partner, like most parents, have little time to discuss ideas with their kids and be proactive in their education: “I’m constantly rushing my kids to finish the sentence they’re saying to me. I’m hoping this year to slow down, let them guide the conversation and have time to talk to them. To switch on with the kids and have them switch on as well.”

There is a price to pay, however, in stepping away from a permanent community life, as the Royles have discovered. For the most part, the family now depends on an online world for company, though they make sure to go to places where there will be children for the kids to play with or alongside, and to check in with friends who live nearby as they make their way across the country. “Annie certainly misses friends and spending more time with friends,” Jo says. “She emails them and we try to see them as much as we can but it’s not as much as we would like. If we were homeschooling them in one place they would be more connected in with the community.” But ultimately, she says, kids are pragmatic: “In terms of what’s going to happen tomorrow and the day after, I don’t think they really need to know. They don’t ask, they just go along with it. They are much more in the moment.”

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