Cultural Understanding and Global Exploration: Family on the Loose

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

Mention family travel, and what's the first thing that comes to mind? "Are we there yet?"  But instead of being tired of travel, Are We There Yet can also be reframed as utter excitement at what's to come. One site (and family) that personifies this utter excitement at travel and exploring the world is Family on the Loose. I LOVE their site, their travel personalities, their eagerness to learn, wherever they go. And, mom Ashley Steel is our Traveling with Kids Editor, so look for her inspiring articles here on Wandering Educators. THIS is how educators love to travel - by learning as they go, digging deep into a culture, and exploring.


We were lucky enough to get the WHOLE family on the loose to answer our questions - mom and dad Ashley and Bill, and kids Logan and Zoey. I am so Very Impressed with how they learn from the world - here's what they had to say...



WE: Please tell us about Family on the Loose...

Ashley and Bill: Family on the Loose is an idea, an antidote to suburbia, soccer, schedules, and routine.  It's also a set of values that prioritizes cultural understanding and exploration.  Finally, it's a travel style that blends education and adventure.  We believe that traveling with kids is not just manageable but fun and valuable.  It takes preparation, planning, and energy.  But, by sharing ideas, we hope more families will take a break from the routine and set out … on the loose.



WE: What was the genesis of your site?

Zoey: My parents wanted to help give other parents a better shot at making a vacation with kids successful.

Ashley and Bill: In the beginning, we traveled.  Before we met each other and soon after, we visited Asia, Central America, Europe, Australia, Canada.  We lived and worked in other countries, met exciting people, and ate exotic food.  We found adventure at home: we backpacked, whitewater raft guided, backcountry skied, camped, and rock-climbed.  Then, we had kids.

A few years later, we were missing adventure badly and we planned a trip to Japan.  Our kids were just 1.5 and 4.5 years old.  We planned to visit friends, both school teachers, for a week and explore on our own for another week and a half.  Some folks thought we were nuts; we were pretty excited. You might even say we were a little over the top. We hired a Japanese college student to come over and teach us Japanese, we got books on Japanese crafts and made a maneki-neko and a koi kite.  We ate sushi and read non-fiction picture books about Japan and Japanese culture.  We read up on and discussed Shintoism and Bhuddism with our young kids.  At the end of a great 2.5 week vacation-adventure, our school teacher friends admitted that they had thought we were crazy when we told them all the preparation we were doing.  “The kid can barely talk, why are they teaching her Japanese?”, they had said to each other.  But, they now admitted, once we were visiting, they could really see how much it paid off.  And, we felt it too.  The preparation was fun, it helped us learn, and it absolutely made the trip more comfortable, educational, and exciting for all of us. 


Family on the Loose in Japan

Family on the Loose in Japan



A few years later, we were in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.  The first day our little one, three at the time, was absolutely horror struck by the bloody depictions of Jesus in the cathedral.  She cried and screamed.  Ooops.  No preparation.  We started trying to find ways to fill in the gaps on the road.  And, we began writing ideas about successful family travel on napkins and started joking about writing a book ….

A few more years and trips later and the napkins started piling up, as well as little scraps of paper, and lists scribbled on the inside covers of travel guides.  Outlines and chapter titles started showing up, too.  And, then there was a Fulbright and 6 months in Vienna, Austria with Bill not working. And, the book was born. 

But writing a book and selling a book are two very different things.  We went to a writer’s workshop and paid to have 15-min with a small publisher.  He listened to our ideas and snorted back, “Your kids must be exceptional.”  “Of course,” we answered enthusiastically, “all kids are exceptional!”  To which he replied, "My kid's not exceptional."  Well, he surely wasn’t going to understand our book, let alone publish it. An agent (who we also paid to speak with for 15 precious minutes) told us that she liked the idea.  She asked us to make a website and get back to her.  So we did and it took a lot of work and time.  But, eventually, it was a brochure on steroids.  The agent looked at it (we think) and wrote back curtly, “sorry, it just doesn’t catch me.”

A few years later still, we have accepted the idea of self-publishing our book.  We started our blog with the idea of writing the last sections of the book, sharing ideas, and getting feedback from like-minded travelers and parents.  And, here it is ...



WE: How can families with kids make travel more fun?

Logan: To make it more fun, go exploring in the wilderness like we did in Alaska.  And to make it not fun, you shouldn't just hang around in one place for a long time because it gets boring. The funnest thing we've ever done is go hiking in the tundra in Denali National Park.

Zoey: Do research beforehand so they [the kids] can show off their knowledge when they see something that they know and so it doesn't feel so foreign.  And, ask the kids what they want to do.  The funnest thing I've ever done is live in Vienna, Austria, for six months.


Family on the Loose in Vienna

Family on the Loose in Vienna



WE:  Travel is so important, especially to kids! What do you say to parents that are just thinking about traveling and learning with kids?

Logan: Don't go to the tourist attractions because sometimes they are cheesy and not very good and everyone’s at them and they’re really crowded.  You go to the places where the locals go 'cause usually they're funner because the locals go there a lot ... probably.

Zoey: Treat your kids like they are another adult who gets to make just the same decisions as you and let them pick out some of the stuff that you're going to do.



WE: What do you say to parents who think traveling with kids doesn't sound fun or who assume that their kids won't like traveling?

Bill and Ashley:  I guess it really starts with wanting to spend time as a family.  It takes a sense of adventure and a healthy respect for other people and cultures.  But most of all, it takes preparation.  Preparation is the key, and we’re not talking about plane and hotel reservations, although that can be part of it.  It’s preparing the kids so that they have realistic expectations and can be true partners in the travel experience.  It’s an infectious attitude of finding pleasure in discovery – discovery of the big world out there that is different than at home.  It does take some work, but it is well worth it, both during the trip and afterward.  What your kids learn “on the loose” may well influence who they become in the future. 



WE: How can families best dig deeply into a culture/new place?

Logan: You get a history book while you're there and you read it while you're there and you go to museums.

Zoey: Talk to people.  Don't try to push people away if they try to be friendly and don't go into the touristy part of town.  Go to the local part of the town where the locals hang out and stuff.  [Note to readers:  She did not hear her sister’s earlier reply.  They were pseudo-quarantined during the “interviews.”  I would never have expected that they had such an aversion to other tourists but I’m sure proud of it.  To be fair, though our kids sound quite purist, they do love a good over-priced trinket shop as much as the next kid.]


Family on the Loose in Japan

Family on the Loose in Japan



WE: What are your top travel tips/tricks?

Logan: When you go travelling you should collect something from each place so that you have a collection when you're older of the places you've gone.

Zoey: Act politely because you're representing your country.  For having fun?  I know how to get through the long plane rides .... plane presents!

Ashley: Enjoy jetlag.  Stay up late in Spain and see the nightlife.  Wander the early morning markets in Japan. But, whatever you do, stay on the same schedule as your kids.  If you go to sleep an hour after they do at home, go to sleep an hour after they do on the road - no matter when they fall asleep.  “Sleep when the baby sleeps” is still a wise adage with a 10-yr-old on the road.

Bill: See the sights, enjoy the culture, but be realistic about your expectations.  Ultimately, the success of any given day hinges on the pleasant attitude of your kids.  Make sure they know what to expect and don’t fill the day too full of stuff to do.



WE: Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

Ashley and Bill: We're open and excited to hearing the reactions of visitors to our site.  Both the reaction of folks who already share our philosophy (which probably includes most WE readers) and also folks who are looking for a “survival guide" to be with their own kids, or folks who say things like "No reason to travel with kids until they're at least 12 so they can remember it,” or “the best way to travel with kids is to leave them with the grandparents.”  We're also interested in negative reactions ... what's corny, silly, not explained well.  Thanks for welcoming us to WE.



WE: Thanks so very much, all of you! I loved hearing all the ideas and excitement for travel. We highly recommend Family on the Loose to our Wandering Educators!

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Feature photo: Santiago cathedral from a kid's perspective

All photos courtesy and copyright Family on the Loose