Worldschooling Spotlight – The Ricks/Varnes Family

June 8, 2018 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ Worldschooling Spotlight

Here we get to know our Members and learn about how they got started, how life has changed and other interesting facts.

Today we are introducing the Ricks/Varnes Family, a family of 3 who founded their own Montessori school in Japan. They transitioned to Worldschooling in early 2017, and haven’t looked back!


Introduce your family!

We are a merry traveling band of three: Dave, Karen, and Christopher (7). Dave is a deeply disciplined man who loves weightlifting, writing and exploring world cultures off the beaten path. Karen is a social butterfly, who enjoys making new friends, music, and great food. Christopher is a wild and energetic little boy with a fondness for strategy games, pasta, and seat-back entertainment on long flights!


Playing tourists in Tuscany.


What was life like before Worldschooling?

Before we sold it all to travel the world and educate ourselves on-the-move, we owned and operated an international Montessori school in central Japan for 6 years. It was the educational environment we wanted to create for our son, and it was all he’d ever known. Our days and weeks were largely spent in the classrooms, kitchens, offices, and gym that we’d established inside two floors of a downtown commercial building.

Weekends, holidays, and vacation periods were spent hopscotching around the entire prefecture, hosting classes and workshops and special events designed to promote our business. We were engaged in stimulating activities that we loved, but we were constantly facing exhaustion and burn-out as we pushed the boundaries of an unsustainable schedule.


When and how did you first hear about Worldschooling?

As Montessorians, we’d been exposed to the ideas of Worldschooling long before we ever actually heard or began using the term ourselves. We’ve had numerous friends over the years who have educated their children at home, as well as in and around their communities, with the support and encouragement of their tribe. Heritage schooling, independent education, unschooling, and child-centered learning are constant topics of conversation in our household. We were first introduced to the vast community of like-minded parents online around the end of 2016, just before beginning our adventures in full-time travel. It was amazing to learn that we were not alone in the desire to give our child an education customized to meet his needs and satisfy his curiosity *while* globe-trotting. We happened upon Worldschooling Central at the beginning of 2017, and it has been a valuable resource for our family!


Participating in a Bean-to-Bar workshop at ChocoMuseo in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.


Before you started, what worried you about Worldschooling? And how has that turned out?

As parents of a very social and outgoing child, I think our biggest fear was that he would have a difficult time making new friends. Our son was born in Japan and spent his first six years in the international Montessori school that we founded when he was just four months old. So many people around us compounded those fears by telling us how abnormal our son’s life would be if he didn’t attend a regular school. Coupled with the fact that our first destination was a small Sicilian town in which not many people spoke English, and we worried that we could be damaging our child’s self-confidence and stunting his communicative skills by removing him from his friends, his community, and the life to which he’d grown accustomed.

To someone else with those same fears, I would say that we literally laugh out loud at our worrying selves, and shake our heads at how ridiculous it was for us to waste our energy on such anxiety and apprehension. Just as we work to find new and exciting places to live and to learn, we also work equally as hard on creating and cultivating new relationships, for ourselves as adults and for our child. We engage with our neighbors and shopkeepers and restaurant owners, we participate in community events and activities, and our child makes friends EVERYWHERE we travel despite differences in age, cultural background, and language. It’s been one of the most incredible learning experiences for all of us, and a crucial practice in our Worldschooling journey!


Playing with our homemade scented play dough in Queensland, Australia.


How has life changed since you began Worldschooling?

Now, we are much calmer and laid-back, as our schedules are truly our own. We sleep when we’re ready, and wake when we want, rarely using alarm clocks or calendars. Our days are spent focused on what lights us up, what energizes and empowers us, and we spend our time creating the things we want to contribute to the world. We are finally able to give the best of ourselves to each other and to truly make family time a priority, not just in quality, but also in quantity. We are living a life from which we don’t feel the need for a vacation, and that is a really rewarding thing that we enjoy sharing with one another.


What have been some unexpected benefits of Worldschooling?

So many people we have encountered around the world are incredibly curious about our non-traditional lifestyle. Initially, we were met with quite a bit of shock and negativity for making the decision to close our school and travel full-time. The response we get now is mostly positive. It affirms our beliefs that we are not so isolated in our desires for a peaceful, globalized education that is customized for our way of life!

This curiosity about who we are and what we do has opened doors to places we never imagined exploring before we began our travels, too. We have been invited to speak with parents and staff at public and private schools. We have been invited into the homes of educators, politicians, and ambassadors to share our perspectives on travel and education. We have engaged in stimulating conversation with people from all walks of life all over the globe that we would never have met, were it not for embarking on this unbelievable adventure!


Christopher celebrates catching a fish off the northern coast of New Zealand!



Could you share your monthly travel budget?

Our monthly travel budget has varied drastically, depending on where in the world we reside and what we choose to do while we are there. In general, we have averaged approximately $2,000 USD per month, including transportation costs. It’s important to note that each family’s personal priorities and habits will mean that their budget is likely to be different from ours. While we prefer to stay in private homes with at least two bedrooms, our accommodations have been as unique and interesting as the many places we’ve lived. We have stayed in an Italian nunnery, an 800-year-old castle, a converted garage, private bedrooms in shared family homes, hotels, and exclusive condos on the beach. Some living arrangements have been free and others cost hundreds of dollars per day.

Making friends with people who live in the local area and getting recommendations from others who also travel frequently can be absolutely invaluable when securing living arrangements in a new location. Food costs also fluctuate wildly depending on where we are, for what length of time, and how we choose to eat. We ALWAYS seek out accommodations with a kitchen so that we can prepare our own meals, should we choose to do so. The costs of stocking a refrigerator and pantry were unbelievable low during our time in a Mexican beach town, especially when compared to our time in Tokyo and London. Likewise, eating out could be surprisingly inexpensive in Sicily or Florence, particular if you set the bill side-by-side with another from Brisbane or Los Angeles. Ultimately, we’ve found that shopping and eating like locals tends to be the most cost-effective way to feed our family.

We make the biggest adjustments to our entertainment budget as we travel, spending more when we pay less for room and board, and vice versa. We have enjoyed horseback riding, music lessons, water sports, and boat trips to private islands just as much as free trips to local museums, galleries, libraries, and parks. We have fun tossing a boomerang in an open field or playing soccer in the streets, swimming in the ocean, and simply going for an exploratory walk around the neighborhood. Obviously, the greater a family’s disposable income, the more extravagant their travels may look. We just want to be sure to point out that finances need not limit the excitement or the learning that can happen when you exercise your *creativity* as traveling Worldschoolers!


How do you fund your travels?

Dave and I (Karen) are both teachers and authors. We started as a way to share our global culinary adventures with friends and family all over the world. It’s essentially a continuation of the multilingual and multicultural education we were already providing at our international Montessori school in Japan, before we set off on our worldwide wandering.

Karen is a certified Montessorian with 22 years of experience teaching learners of all ages around the world. She has also been cooking professionally for 10 years, preparing food in private homes, restaurants, and commercial kitchens on four different continents. She continues to earn money as a private chef and restaurant consultant during the family’s travels. She teaches cooking workshops in person as well as online. You can find her first book, ‘The Ultimate Guide to Cooking with Children,’ on Our Kitchen Classroom, with more to follow shortly!

Dave has almost three decades of experience as a weightlifter, gym manager, and personal trainer. He has fought competitively in Mixed Martial Arts, won medals in weightlifting and strength competitions, and has twice earned his 2nd-degree black belt in Judo (both in the U.S. and again in Japan). He conducts private consultations for gym layouts, fitness program design, and personal training. His writing on that, and other subjects is available on Amazon.


How do you choose your destinations?

We began our travels in Italy in order for Karen to participate in an exclusive program for food professionals at a cooking school in Sicily. Since then, we have simply kept our minds and hearts open to the places and opportunities that have presented themselves. We have ventured outside of the normal tourist areas to follow the recommendations of fellow Worldschooling Families. We have diverted intended flight plans and schedules to spend time with family and friends. After a year and a half, we are even more excited about exploring the growing list of places that are now popping up on our radar that we had never even considered before we began!


How long do you stay in one location and why?

We prefer slow travel over moving quickly. To date, our shortest scheduled stay was one month, and the longest, six months. We like to stay in one place for as long as possible, giving us the opportunity to make friends, learn the local language, and contribute to the community in ways that are meaningful to each of us. Not only do we find that this helps us to relax and take our time learning more about the history and the culture of a location, we also find it the most cost-effective way to travel.


What does a typical Worldschooling day or week look like for you?

I don’t think we can really categorize our days or weeks as typical, as the activities on which we spend our time are largely dependent on our location, mood, and current projects of interest. We tend to be night owls so, when left to our own devices, we prefer to start our days later rather than earlier. We share meals together each day and, as people who love food, the sourcing of ingredients and the preparation of a meal could potentially take up half the day. Cooking is also a highly social activity in our family, so that could also include all three of us in addition to other members of the community!

We enjoy spending large quantities of time together, including playing games, going for walks, or just sitting around reading or watching a movie together. Christopher *loves* to ask a million and one questions, and has grown up with us sharing videos on demand almost exclusively. For that reason, a two-hour movie could easily take us three hours to watch. We always include numerous breaks to pause and discuss everything from theories of space travel and aeronautical engineering to sustainable agriculture and human physiology.

As much as we enjoy spending time together, we also have our own activities that we love doing alone or in pairs. Dave and Christopher might spend an afternoon together at a local gym, whereas I might go off on my own to practice yoga. Christopher and I might spend a morning strolling through the farmers market while Dave stays home to write. Dave and I will disappear for a date while Christopher plays at a friend’s house. Schedules vary with the different community activities in which we participate. It also changes depending on the availability of friends we make in a particular location.

One thing that hasn’t changed since we left our home in Japan is the way we often wind down at the end of a day. We can all curl up in bed with a good book after bath time, reading and discussing a variety of topics. Then we all cuddle together for some quiet hugs (or raucous laughter and tickles) before we drift off into dreamland.


Tossing a boomerang in Queensland, Australia.


What has been the hardest part of Worldschooling & Traveling? How did you handle it?

I think one of the things that has been most difficult for us as we move from place to place has been to find a balance between the activities we most want to do as a family together or as individuals, and the pursuit of interests and activities that are specific to a particular setting. For example, after almost a year away from Japan, we returned to our son’s hometown for a little over a week. Fortunately, my work afforded us the opportunity to stay in three different prefectures around the country, singing in concerts and cooking in restaurants as a Special Guest Chef. Unfortunately, that also meant that we had less time than we would have liked to simply visit with friends or write about our experiences. This tends to create a backlog of photographs and blog posts or articles to sort through as we transition from one country to the next. The longer we do this, though, the more we’ve come to accept that a balanced life will look different for us depending on the location or the season or the project on which we’re currently focused.

We continue to encourage and support each other in taking restful breaks and self-care rituals. We communicate with one another about how well we are meeting our physical, emotional, and spiritual needs on a regular basis. And we practice flexibility in our scheduling and make regular adjustments to our expectations, as we know this is an aspect of our lives that is constantly in flux.



What are your Top 5 Travel Products?

We don’t really use things marketed as travel products, but we do each have things we wouldn’t want to be without. Dave carries a selection of resistance bands, in order to facilitate his weight training exercises should we find ourselves in a location that might not have the latest in gym equipment. Christopher keeps a box of several hundred Yu-gi-oh cards in his carry-on bag. It’s a trading card dueling game based on a Japanese animated series. He loves teaching the game to new friends. Karen’s never without her yoga mat, which she’s ready to unroll indoors or out.


What Tech Gear do you travel with?

We travel relatively light as digital nomads when it comes to tech. We have an HP Stream and two Chromebooks to help us work and stay connected. Karen carries a Nikon camera to capture photos, mostly of food. We also have a 2TB external hard drive to back up our digital memories, and a few universal outlet adapters to plug in wherever we go.


What are your favorite booking sites and why?

We stayed in our very first AirBnB when we began our travels in Sicily, Italy. It’s been nice to continue to use the site throughout our travels, as the reviews/feedback that we leave/receive provide a very public reference for future accommodations anywhere in the world. This is especially important because we are traveling with a young child. Hosts who might otherwise be wary of renting to a family with a child can see that we have an excellent track record as polite and respectful guests. We also use Google Flights and Expedia for making travel arrangements. The calendars are easily customized to check for a wide range of dates, times, and locations. It also makes it easy to book flights quickly without having to constantly re-enter personal data, during which time prices may change.



As Worldschoolers, if you could step back in time, what is one thing you would do differently?

We honestly try to avoid playing the “Would have, could have, should have” game. In every single situation, positive AND negative, we have learned valuable things about each other and about ourselves. Our travels would not be what they are without the missteps and mistakes we have made along the way. There is no better teacher than self-discovery, and we are learning SO MUCH each and every day.


What would you tell someone who is considering Worldschooling?

Start *BEFORE* you’re ready! There’s no such thing as the perfect time. There’s no single right way to do this. Just like your favorite foods, each family’s journey is going to be seasoned with their own special blend of preferred locations, activities, and insights.

Ignore the naysayers and those who might project their fears and concerns on you and your family in the name of looking out for your best interests. Expect some resistance from people around you who may be uncomfortable with you doing something unexpected and unconventional. You might not currently be surrounded by like-minded families who understand the desire to live your lives a bit differently from the norm, but you can and should find those communities online. Seek out advice and counsel from parents who have been where you want to go, both geographically and experientially. The world is a big and beautiful place, and it’s waiting for you. GO! LEARN!! EXPLORE!!!


What Are You Working On At The Moment?

After spending several months in different regions of Italy during our travels, we are ready to compile some of our favorite stories and recipes for Our Kitchen Classroom’s Italian cookbook. As much as we love Italy, this could become volume one of many, so we’d love to hear from you! –What classic Italian recipes would you like to see in this first edition? –What photos or stories have we already shared on our blog or on social media that you would like to see in even greater detail?  What ingredients and techniques would you like to learn about in a live cooking workshop?


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