When Anna and Michael Roberts put their five children on a bus for the first day of school, their kids never had to leave their beds.
The term “skoolie,” a newly viral social media hashtag, describes nomadic folk who’ve opted to make their homes inside of a redesigned school bus. The lifestyle mirrors the trending “van life” movement, in which people transform full-size cargo vans into chic mobile homes. Some include fully functioning kitchens, heat and air-conditioning units and plush furnishings. Video posts tagged with the popular terms have racked up a combined 6 billion views on TikTok.
Anna and Michael, 37, ditched their 2,300-square-foot house in Kansas City, Missouri, to become skoolie teachers to kids Elise, 12, Micah, 10, Elijah, 7, Jude, 5, and infant Nora — who was born on the bus in February — as they travel the country.
They decided to live within the close confinements of their $3,500 motor home in an effort to reunite their family after Anna and Michael separated for nine months in 2019.
Their family is among the approximate 400,000 Americans who dumped stationary home life for full-time nomadic living as of 2020, according to RV Industry Association spokesperson Monika Geraci.
And as the nomadic lifestyle continues growing in popularity, more parents are introducing their kids to on-the-go home schooling, or “roam-schooling,” in order to enrich their family’s quality time and monitor what their children are learning while granting their little ones the chance to explore the country.
“Every day we’re on the road is like a field trip,” Anna, who works as a photographer part time, said. “And the beauty of home schooling on-the-go is that we get to work through each lesson plan at our own pace. We can focus on subjects that intrigue our kids.”
She and Michael — who works odd jobs in construction when they’re on the road — spend four hours a day, four days a week, guiding their children’s lesson plans from a Bible-based home-schooling curriculum.
“We do school on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, starting around 9 a.m. until the kids are ready for lunch,” said Anna, whose little ones are in kindergarten through sixth grade.
Following a reverse and shortened school schedule allows the family more time to visit national parks and landmark attractions on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays — days when fewer people are on the road and checking out the sites.
“It takes about 15 to 30 minutes to teach our kids each subject,” Anna said, noting that they’ve been to 19 national parks in more than 20 states across the Midwest and West Coast. “So that gives us more time in the afternoon to explore in whichever state we’re visiting that week. And they’re learning so much about the world, and meeting new people everywhere we go.”
But while school on-the-go suits the Roberts kids, a lack of a traditional educational structure or an inconsistent learning schedule could have a negative impact on a child’s academic development, according to experts.
“A child can certainly have unique experiences with nontraditional schooling, but the key is to have planning and consistency every day,” said pediatrician and former WebMD senior medical director Hansa Bhargava. “[On-the-road schooling] can work, but there needs to be organization and education, just like traditional school.”
She warns that home-schooled nomad kids may also have trouble cultivating lasting social relationships with other children outside of their immediate family.
“Traditional schooling has many benefits, including not only academics, but social activities where kids are surrounded by community and there are opportunities to make friends,” Bhargava added. She also noted that a child’s sense of community can be diminished if they are living and learning as a nomad. “[Going to school] not only supports structured learning but also helps with [a child’s] emotional wellness.”
But nomad mom Jessica McCorkle begs to differ.
She says her three kids have excelled academically, socially and emotionally since she and husband Dub removed them from the public school system, sold their four-bedroom, three-bathroom home in Irmo, South Carolina, and moved into a 400-square-foot fifth-wheel camper to escape the dangers of the pandemic last September.
“We’d been toying with the idea of moving into our camper since COVID-19 hit [in March 2020],” Jessica, 34, explained. “But my oldest daughter, Addison, had been previously diagnosed with Pediatric Autoimmune Neurological Syndrome [PANS or PANDAS] — a disease typically brought on by an infection like strep throat or mononucleosis, which severely effects a child’s nervous system — and she was still undergoing IV treatments at the time.”
But once Addison, 13, was in finally in remission, Jessica and Dub, 34, hit the road and enrolled the teen and her younger siblings, Grace, 10, and TJ, 8, in a faith-based digital educational program.
“My kids are learning far above their grade levels,” said Jessica, who oversees her children’s two-hour school days. “Beyond the curriculum we follow, they’re getting a unique opportunity to actually see and experience the world around them, rather than learn about it from textbooks inside of a building.”
On days the McCorkle crew isn’t following a formal lesson plan, they take part in the National Park Service’s junior ranger program. During the daylong course, kids between ages 5 and 13 learn history, nature and social responsibility from National Park rangers. The family earns money through paid promos on their social media accounts @family.of.nomads, sharing everything from RV air purifiers to dental retainers to their 107,000 Instagram followers.
And when it comes to making friends on the road, her brood is brimming with buddies.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about this lifestyle is that my kids don’t have friends or won’t know how to socialize with anyone other than their siblings,” Jessica said. “But there’s a huge community of families that travel full time, and my kids have become very close to the other kids. We’ve been coordinating our travel stops with another family since January.”
And Dub, who was initially against nomadic living and learning, now says the lifestyle has helped his children develop healthy conflict-resolution techniques.
“When we were living in our house, if the kids got upset with one another, they’d just storm off into their separate rooms and not speak,” he said, emphasizing how proud he is to be able to witness his children learn new life skills.
“Now they’ll gather themselves together, rationally discuss their issues and make peace, because they know they can’t get away from one another on the camper,” Dub said with a laugh.
But while home-schooling programs might be a bargain — most cost about $500 a year per kid — families aren’t saving a ton of dough thanks to paying for gas, repairs, eating out and going on excursions. There’s also the question of cleanliness.
“It does take us hours to all get showered because our hot-water tank is not very large, and the water runs out pretty quick when there are five people trying to take a hot shower every evening,” said McCorkle, adding that they have to refill their fresh water tank every four to five days at campsites. “We take Navy showers. So we soap up, put shampoo in our hair, turn off the water, scrub down and then turn the water back on to rinse off.”
But many skoolies believe the benefits outweigh the inconveniences. Ingrid and Eric Hildebrand call abandoning their jobs as a real estate agent and an accountant, respectively, and moving their three little ones into a 280-square-foot school bus that they purchased at auction for $4,500 the “best decision we ever made.”
“I was working over 80 hours a week most of the time,” admitted Eric, 44, who previously lived stationary in Tampa, Florida, with Ingrid and their three kids, but is originally from Queens.
“I was almost never home,” he continued. “I never spent time with my kids, and I wasn’t active in their learning and development.” He was laid off by his former employer when the company went private just months before the pandemic. “And Ingrid and I were both tired of outsourcing our parenting to the educational system.”
So in May 2021, they rented out their 1,500-square-foot abode, pulled their 4-year-old son Lendon out of preschool and began teaching him and sisters Finley, 3, and Madeline, 1, in their newly converted school bus home. They had bought the rig in September 2020, and spent the next seven converting it into their on-the-road living and learning quarters.
“Losing my job when I did ended up being a blessing in disguise,” said Eric, who relied on YouTube to teach him how to make his bus-home renovations. “Now I’m living my life by design, traveling with my family and having an active role in my children’s education.”
And the Hildebrands — who earn a living through their rental properties and ultimately want to relocate their kids and bus-home to Sweden, where Ingrid, 34, has dual citizenship — plan to continue travel-teaching Lendon when he starts kindergarten in 2022.
“Home schooling on the road really gives us and our children a chance to learn what their academic and personal strengths are,” said Ingrid. “That’s something parents can miss out on when their kids are attending traditional school or when everyone is living separately in a huge house.”