This mom travels solo with her young son, 'road schooling' him as they explore India
Any holiday can be a learning experience
When you spot ads for family vacations with young kids, they’re full of smiling parents lounging on beach chairs as their giggling kids make sand castles and chase each other around. The sound of ocean waves fills the air. There’s no screaming because someone’s ear is still hurting from the airplane pressure. No one is puking because of motion sickness, and you aren’t battling a meltdown because there’s a huge dal stain on the hotel’s fancy bedsheet. Going on a trip with children can make you question your reproductive choices. So you’d need the inner peace of Buddha himself to attempt travelling solo with a child.
Aneekah Ssonawane has had wheels on her feet for as long as she can remember. She made her love for travel clear to her husband before they married, lest he try and hold her back. On the contrary, she got all the support she could ever need. She’s been travelling on her own for some time now. During the pandemic, of all things, she also planned her first trip with her young son.
“My son saw the pictures of my travels and complained that I go everywhere without him. I thought that since he’d turned 5, maybe I could take him on a trip and see how it went. But travelling solo with a child… I was unsure if I could handle it or not, but I wanted to give it a try,” says Ssonawane.
In April 2021, she planned their first trip together to Spiti. But life took a turn and another lockdown with the second wave held them back in Shimla. They stayed there for a month. “I was stuck, but it was a blessing in disguise. We stayed at a lovely homestay, surrounded by wonderful orchards and great people. My son took to it immediately, befriending people, and connecting with nature. He was so happy there.”
They decided as a family for Ssonawane and her son to stay where they were as cases in Pune were at their peak. Two months had gone by at this point and as things calmed down, her Spiti plan seemed to be back on the table. However, she did make one change. The destination now was Ladakh.
“I was sceptical, but I spoke with the locals, a few guides and people I knew in the area or who had travelled there before. Would it be safe travelling solo with a child to such a high altitude? But they told me that given we’d been in Himachal Pradesh for two months now, it would be doable. Thankfully, the altitude didn’t affect him at all. I’m the one who got altitude sickness.” Those 15 days in Ladakh changed everything for Ssonawane and her son.
In 2020, she’d already taken her son out of school. She didn’t think her then 5-year-old was gaining anything from online schooling. “Initially I thought we’d do homeschooling. But in those 3 months travelling with him, I realised that he is learning so much while on the go. Being exposed to so much more and learning, through real-life experiences, the things he’d never get in the classroom, virtual or in real life at this point,” adds Ssonawane. She then decided to do road schooling. It involves teaching your children while on the road. We’re not talking about any board syllabus here. Ssonawane says she vehemently supports education but is sceptical of the traditional schooling system. Road schooling ditches that conformity, incorporates travelling where kids get to learn traditional skills through their interactions with people, places and the cultures they immerse themselves into.
“He’s still very young. People ask me, ‘What about his board exams?’ What will you do when he’s older?’ He’s only 6 years old right now. We have 10-12 years to worry about that. I don’t know whether we will continue with this or not. Right now he is happy and doing well, and that’s what is important for me,” she says.
She incorporates the basic reading and writing skills he’d be practising in school through grammar lessons in their travels by getting him to journal and make his own travelogue. He practices writing emergency letters, loves researching and reading about geography (his favourite subject) and practices mathematics and some financial literacy by managing his pocket money while travelling to buy souvenirs and snacks. Ssonawane incorporated puzzles, collages, watching educational videos and reading articles about the places and things he enjoys into his learning experience.
It’s all still relatively new, but Ssonawane and her family have been making the most of their travels and loving every minute of it. Sometimes it’s together for a coastal Konkan adventure or a road trip across four states – through Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan to Delhi – or being the sole parent in charge during trips to Mumbai, Spiti (it finally happened) and Aurangabad, with many more travel plans on their calendar.
Travelling solo with a child sounds like an oxymoron (are you really ‘solo’ if you’re with your kid?) but it’s when it comes to matters of responsibilities through your journey, it hits you how intimidating it can be without a co-pilot. But Ssonawane says that it’s the same kind of preparedness you’d undertake while going on a vacation as a family. It’s just a matter of getting over that initial fear. She says that you need to enjoy this experience together, but as with any trip involving a child, prepare for the worst and prioritise what is important – medicines, researching where you’re staying, having an emergency contact list and more (read this if you’re planning on catching a flight with your kids).
There will be times when you feel like you’re a parenting intern, but with a little planning, you can turn any vacation into a learning experience for your children. You can’t force learning, says Ssonawane by making a list “and saying we’re going to do this and then that. It will become boring for the kid and overwhelming for you.” With a little mindfulness and foresight, you can make it an enriching and fun experience for everyone.
How to make any vacation a learning experience for kids
Book homestays, not hotel rooms
Ssonawane says that opting for homestays instead of hotels will completely change your trip, whether travelling solo with a child or looking to make your holiday more educational.
She says that not only do the hosts end up making a great local connection for the region, but interacting with them, the neighbours, their home cooking, and their stories and experiences are also what enrich your vacation. “We always opt for homestays. I want to show him more of real life across India and he responds very well to that and learns a lot (I do too). In our travels across Spiti and Ladakh, we learnt that even in today’s growing cashless society and digital money, there are places where people still exchange grains and barter.”
The real essence of travel comes from homestays. It helps break the ice with locals too, she adds. “People thought that pulling him out of school would isolate him, but he’s very social now. In Kee Gompa (Kee Monastery) near Spiti, he was just running around with the monks, having dinner with them and making friends. They couldn’t understand each other’s language, yet they still connected.”
Involve them in planning the trip
Bring kids on board from the planning stage as well. Instead of just telling them where they’re going, you can show them pictures of the place you’re going to visit, read up about it, the local attractions and let their curiosity run with the ‘whys’.
For example, Ssonawane says that when they were hopping over to Mumbai for some work, her son’s line of questioning began pretty instantly. ‘Why Mumbai?’ ‘Where is it?’ “I showed him a few pictures. He saw those and said, oh, there are so many old, nice buildings in Mumbai, I want to see them. So when we were there, I took him to those buildings. We did a walk around with a heritage tour guide. So, if they ask you questions — the ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘when’ — they’re automatically learning.”
Let their questions be your guide
As much as the itch may scratch and the pen calls your name to make an hour-by-hour itinerary full of activities, when travelling solo with a child, Aneekah says there’s no point in creating anything too set or rigid. .
It means that for your trip, keeping the return date flexible, says Ssonawane, so you can fully explore and get to the root of their curiosities – which will also motivate them further. Her plan was for them to stay in Spiti for 10 days. They ended up being there for 25.
“Use their questions as learning opportunities rather than trying to manufacture a learning experience. My son loves geography and he was asking about a river once and I told him about how there was a civilisation that existed where the river now ran. He said, ‘What’s a civilisation?’ You can use such questions as jumping points for learning. Look up the meaning online (Google is everyone’s best friend), read things together, pore over photos. Maybe you can visit a museum to see the artefacts you read about,” advises Ssonawane. If you truly want them to make the most of it, you can’t always put a date deadline on it.
A 10-day delay, such as Ssonawane’s, may not be feasible for you, but add a 1-2 day buffer. You also never know what could go wrong while you’re there, so it’s better to be prepared to stay for a day or two more if the need arises.
Whether you’re travelling solo with a child simply as a commute or as a leisurely holiday to take a break from the real world, any holiday can turn into a learning experience. And it doesn’t have to be a total bore.