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Image: McFerrin family on bikes in Mexico
Photo by Tanya McFerrin
Pictured from front to back, Markos McFerrin, dad Rick McFerrin, Sampson McFerrin and Tarn McFerrin rest after a steep ascent south of El Rosario in Baja California, Mexico. Thanks to home schooling, the family was able to spend a year cycling nearly 9,000 miles through three countries.
By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 9/30/2010 7:23:15 AM ET 2010-09-30T11:23:15

Evidence suggests that home-schooling in America is a growing trend. In a weeklong web-only series, TODAYshow.com reports on the challenges and creative opportunities presented by this approach to education.

Niall Gifford, 11, attends school on a sailboat in the South Pacific. Markos McFerrin, 7, has done countless math and spelling lessons on the back of a tandem bicycle. Jen and Maddie Farmer, 12-year-old twin sisters, have completed curricula in Greece and England.

These typical American kids are having exotic educational experiences for the same reason: Their parents have chosen to home-school them so they can travel.

For such families, “travel” doesn’t mean frantic vacations to Disneyland. These moms and dads want their children to see the world, experience other cultures and learn, learn, learn.

Of course, pulling it off can entail major lifestyle upheavals. Jobs need to be left behind (or sabbaticals requested), houses need to be rented out, modes of travel need to be selected, budgets need to be carefully crafted. For many parents who home-school away from home, wrenching themselves so completely from their regular lives has not been simple.

But has it been worth it? Oh yeah.

Image: Niall and Mairen Gifford on boom of sailboat
Courtesy of the Gifford family
Soaking in sunset from a perch on the boom: Niall Gifford, 11, hangs out with his sister Siobhan Gifford, 6, on the family's sailboat at an atoll in the Tuamotus island group in French Polynesia.

“I really like our lifestyle!” said Niall Gifford, the 11-year-old from the Seattle area who is sailing across the Pacific to Australia on a 47-foot sloop with his mom, dad and two younger sisters. “We’ll do a little bit of school in the morning, or maybe we’ll go for a snorkel and then do a science lesson ... I’d say I’m learning more than I did in school at home. I do think home- schooling is a very neat opportunity.”

More quality family time
Parents of child prodigy musicians, actors and athletes have long home-schooled their kids in order to give them enough time to pursue their rigorous crafts. Abby and Zac Sunderland, two teenagers from the same family who made headlines with their nail-biting around-the-world sailing efforts, were both home-schooled.

In recent years, though, more ordinary families who live far out of the limelight have been turning to home-schooling for a similar reason: A hunger for more time.

“With kids, life goes by very quickly,” said Jamie Gifford, 44, Niall’s dad and co-captain of S/V Totem. “We’ve spoken to empty-nesters who regretted not spending enough time with their kids. We’ve never met anyone who regretted spending too much time with their kids.”

For parents bitten by the travel bug — the kind of bug that simply isn’t satisfied with the occasional 10-day trip — home-schooling becomes the ticket to share their love of exploration with their kids. It also provides an escape from the relentless routine of daily life that can make many time-pressed parents feel like drill sergeants barking orders at their young: Get out of bed! Don’t miss your bus! Finish your homework! Clean your room! Practice piano! Eat your dinner! Do your chores! Brush your teeth! Get to bed!

Image: Maddie and Jenny Farmer
Courtesy of the Farmer family
Twins Maddie and Jenny Farmer, age 12, are being home-schooled by their mom for junior high only.

“I was looking to recapture my relationship with my two daughters,” said Toni Farmer, 41, a New Jersey mom who started home-schooling her 12-year-old twin girls last year. “I could see it slipping away as they spent eight hours a day with teachers and friends. Our time together was squeezed into a few hours in the evening. ... There was no time to just enjoy their company.”

Brian D. Ray, founder of the National Home Education Research Institute, said about 2 million children and teens are home-schooled in the United States. In 2003, 20 percent of parents said they chose to home-school their kids for “other reasons” that included “family time” and “travel.” By 2007, that percentage had jumped to 32 percent.

“It is amazingly wonderful to be able to go on vacation on Sept. 15 when no one’s on the roads, or when the leaves are hitting their peak in New England,” Ray said. “It’s one of those secrets of home-schooling.”

Since she started home-schooling her twin daughters, Farmer has been able to tag along with her husband — Jamie Farmer, executive director of Dow Jones Indexes — on international trips to Greece and England. Next stop: Switzerland. The girls, Jen and Maddie, are learning a ton on these trips because their mom painstakingly crafts curricula tied to each travel adventure.

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“Before Greece, we read ‘The Odyssey’ and learned all about the Greek gods and goddesses, and while we were there we just ran and crammed in as much as we could,” Toni Farmer said.

Farmer’s plan is to home-school her girls for middle school only, and then have them return to a classroom setting for high school.

“I mean, who really likes junior high school? It’s awful,” Farmer said. “Those are the most awkward years of life, when your lifetime scars are formed....

“I also found out that a lot of the curriculum from sixth, seventh and eighth grade repeats. I asked why, and teachers told me that ‘the kids are so distracted, so we repeat information and hope it sticks.’ ”

Image: Farmer family in Greece
Toni Farmer
Maddie and Jenny Farmer visit the Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Greece with their mom, Toni Farmer.

After doing some research, Farmer discovered that she could cover the entire seventh-grade curriculum at home with her daughters in about two to two and a half hours a day. She thought it over, closed her interior-design firm, and embraced the home-schooling lifestyle. She takes advantage of free ski lessons for home-schoolers near the Poconos, great art classes for them at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the opportunity to introduce her daughters to faraway places.

But while travel has been hugely broadening for her young girls, reconnecting as a family has been even bigger, Farmer said.

“Being snuggled up with them with a book and blanket — that’s what I wouldn’t trade,” she said. “That’s what I had been missing. That’s not something that could be accomplished at 8 o’clock at night in the same way before....

“We read all our history out loud — they love that and beg for more of that — and we read great works of literature too. We read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ and I can’t believe how much parenting came out of that. Within the first 20 pages, we had discussions about the dangers of gossiping, the role of women, courting versus marriage, the appropriate age for dating, the appropriate way for a boy to treat you. If they had read that in the classroom, we would have missed all of that follow-up discussion ... That was really a surprise to me, an unexpected gift.”

Seeking a life less ordinary
Laureen Hudson kicks off the “about” section of her blog site The Excellent Adventure like this:

“In July of 2006, Laureen and Jason were startled to discover that despite all the various hopes, dreams, and aspirations of their youth, they’d somehow found themselves being garden-variety desk-driving SUV-owning suburbanites. And they were slightly ill. So late one evening, after the boys were tucked in and the lights were low, they dared to start dreaming again.”

Image: Jamie Gifford with daughter on sailboat
Courtesy of the Gifford family
Dad Jamie Gifford holds his daughter, Siobhan, 6, on his lap while watching the sun rise on the last day of the Gifford family's passage to Tonga.

Their dream? To buy a 47-foot catamaran, sail down the coast of California and spend some serious time in Mexico and beyond. They plan to depart next March or April. They’re hoping to expose their children to other cultures and help them become fluent in Spanish at a young age — and, as an added bonus, help mom and dad stop feeling so claustrophobic.

“You have kids, and WHA-BAM! The cultural box just slams!” said Hudson, 41, of Emeryville, Calif. “First we get a house, right? Then a great job fell in my lap doing technical writing for Sun Microsystems. So there we were, we had the whole classic thing....

“Our entire lives began to focus on things that were urgent but not important. There’s some meeting at work, or the car needs to [have its emissions checked], or one of the kids has an appointment — all of it seems urgent, but none of it is important. And then you realize it and you say, ‘AAAAAAAHHH!!’ ”

Hudson lost her job in the economic downturn, and that was the final impetus she and her husband needed to make their dream become a reality. She’s now busy home-schooling her kids, gearing up for their big journey, writing a book about her experiences and gaining inspiration from people like the Giffords — the Seattle-area family enjoying daily adventures in the South Pacific.

Related story: Dad lost his job, so family lives on the road

The Giffords’ journey across the vast Pacific Ocean with three young children may sound extreme on a variety of levels, but the parents swear it wasn’t that hard to pull off. They like to cite a popular adage among sailors who say that the cruising life basically involves “routine maintenance in exotic locations.”

“Really, truly, anyone can do this,” said mom Behan Gifford. “Mostly there are just mental hurdles to overcome.”

To make their trip possible, Behan Gifford, 40, left her job as a director at a digital-media company, and her husband Jamie left his business behind. The couple found renters for their Bainbridge Island house, and — poof! — set sail in August 2008.

Image: Mairen Gifford snorkeling
Courtesy of the Gifford family
Mairen Gifford, 8, has a strong interest in marine biology because of her family's sailing adventure. "I love science!" she said.

They made their way down the Pacific Coast and crossed into Mexico that November. About a year and a half later, they left Mexico and started their journey across the Pacific toward French Polynesia. The family lives off about $20,000 a year, and in recent months they’ve been island-hopping in paradise. They plan to arrive in Australia by the end of this year.

The Giffords are experienced sailors, but until they left their careers and house behind, they had no experience with home-schooling. They were astonished to learn about the abundance of educational materials and curricula available. Once that really sank in, they realized their travel plans could work for them and their children, who are ages 6, 8 and 11.

Related story: Curriculum or not? Plenty of options for home-schooling

Now, in addition to using formal curricula for subjects such as math, the parents devise learning opportunities based around the history, geography and culture they’re seeing and experiencing every day. While in Mexico, they read John Steinbeck’s “The Log from the Sea of Cortez” and studied local history at missions and museums.

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As they approached the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific, they read Herman Melville’s “Typee.” In Tahiti, they crafted a lesson — part science, part history — around how Lt. James Cook and naturalist Joseph Banks created an astronomical observatory there where they studied the transit of Venus across the face of the sun in 1769.

And, as the hundreds of photos on the family’s blog and Flickr site reveal, the Giffords have been exposed to so much sea life while snorkeling and diving in crystal blue waters that it’s no wonder the kids have a burgeoning interest in marine biology.

“Being in the middle of things like this helps give that joy of learning,” Behan Gifford said. “School just isn’t drudgery at all. We’ll see some really neat stuff in the water and then pull out the biology textbooks and look at them from a scientific point of view.”

“I love science!” confirmed Mairen Gifford, 8. “A LOT!”

Sharing an overwhelming love of travel
Rick McFerrin’s love affair with travel began at a young age. At 14, he left Kansas and spent a year as an exchange student in Norway, and he was hooked. Today the 43-year-old is fluent in five languages, and he’s spent a lifetime crisscrossing the globe.

Remarkably, McFerrin met his future wife years before that fateful trip to Norway. He attended summer camp in Minnesota each year with a cute girl named Tanya, and over the years they became close friends.

Image: McFerrin family reading and studying in monastery in Mexico
Photo by Rick McFerrin
Tarn, Tanya, Markos and Sampson McFerrin spend time reading and journaling while sitting out a rainstorm under the shelter of a centuries-old monastery north of Mexico City.

They started dating in their early 20s, and got married in 1998. The pair spent their first two years together as husband and wife traveling the world on bicycles.

“We learned that bike travel is something that opens a lot of doors,” said Tanya McFerrin, 41. “Everyone you meet wants to help you. No one is intimidated by you. You get to meet a wide array of people — the poorest of the poor and the wealthiest of the wealthy have invited us into their homes.”

By the end of their two-year, round-the-world trip, Tanya McFerrin was pregnant with their first son. The McFerrins went on to have two more sons — and all three of their boys have been riding around on bikes with their parents since they were 2 weeks old.

Last year, the bicycle-loving mom and dad decided to do something really big to pass their love of travel onto their kids: They took the boys out of school for one year and carefully planned a massive cycling trip for the whole family through the United States, Mexico and Canada. Home- schooling made the trip possible.

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The family covered almost 9,000 miles on two tandem bicycles, with a tag-along cycle attached to the back of one of the tandems for the youngest McFerrin boy, Tarn, who is now 6. They camped in tents and rode their bikes on all kinds of terrain and in all kinds of weather. The oldest boys — Sampson, 9, and Markos, 7 — read oodles of books and kept journals. While on the backs of the tandem bikes, they did math and spelling drills on “slates” made from cut-off sides of milk cartons. Another big milestone during the trip: Mom and Dad got to teach Tarn how to read at age 5.

“We have a routine when we travel,” Tanya McFerrin, a former teacher, said during a phone interview while they were still on the road. “They do their math in the morning when we’re packing up the tent and making breakfast. They love that routine — they just get up and do it ... And education has basically guided our bike trip. We stop anywhere that might be educational, and we love it because we get to learn too.”

Image: The McFerrin boys in a bike shop
Photo by Rick McFerrin
Pictured from left to right, Sampson, Tarn and Markos McFerrin check out a rim at Velocity USA's store in Grand Rapids, Mich., during their big bike trip.

The family is now back home in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where dad Rick McFerrin helps run a charity that exposes young people to cycling and travel. The McFerrin boys are back in public school. They got credit for an entire year's worth of school because of all the educational ground they covered, and they re-entered the classroom right on track with the rest of their fellow students.

Related story: From home-school to classroom: Kids face transition

The McFerrins said the experiences they had thanks to home-schooling were so unforgettable that they're planning to do it again in 2015 and cycle through South America together.

“Something I really enjoyed [last year] was the spontaneity of each day for social studies, science and geography content while we had the continuity of a math program, daily journaling and reading,” Tanya McFerrin said. “How special it was to have my husband and I share the fun of teaching our kids their basics....

“And we got to teach them some of the best lessons of traveling: How wonderful people are, and how things always work out.”

Need a Coffey Break? Friend TODAYshow.com writer Laura T. Coffey on Facebook or follow her on Twitter.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Gallery: Home-school away from home

Growing numbers of parents are taking charge of their kids’ education so they can travel as a family. Here are images from three families’ journeys.

  1. Courtesy of the Gifford family
    Above: Gallery Home-school away from home
  2. Data State-by-state look at home-schooling data

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