What can you learn from a card game?

One of the most common questions we received when planning this trip was, “What about the kids’ education??”

Some people were curious – they just didn’t know.

Others figured the trade off of family adventure would be substandard education.

Still more wondered how we could possibly carry all the textbooks and workbooks necessary to follow the standard curriculum for four children of different ages.

For a while we didn’t have a great answer to that question.  We do care about the kids’ education – a lot – and figured traveling the world must be pretty educational in and of itself.  But this vague pie-in-the-sky idea needed substantiation. Online research ensued.

At the same time that we were reading online accounts of “world-schooled” kids turning out even better than fine, we also received enthusiastic reassurance from pretty much every single teacher we knew that taking our kids out of “the system” and following through with our plans was not just okay – it was a GREAT idea.  That was interesting.

Finally, we also learned from other traveling families that we shouldn’t worry too much about following a curriculum.  Not that there’s anything wrong with doing that, but it’s equally valid to allow your location and experiences to guide the learning.  

Kids are wired to learn.  They seek out experience and information.  In fact, you would have to try hard to stop them from learning.  It is a question of exposure, not motivation.

So, part of the giant leap of faith in taking this trip was the vaguely calculated risk that the kids’ brains would not shrivel up into well-traveled but otherwise mushy grey bags of stunted neurons.

This morning we received some encouragement on that front from an unexpected source.  A family game of Crazy 8’s.

You remember the game . . . get out of cards first by matching suit or number, eights are wild . . . As we played, I watched.  It was fun, sure, but also the gears were turning.  There was effort, attention, and – yes – learning was happening.  A lot more than I had expected.

Here’s a list of just some of the things the kids were learning using the ‘playing card curriculum’:

  1. Addition (you know, the kind you have to do in your head)
  2. Pattern recognition
  3. Rule-following
  4. Short term memory
  5. Turn taking – an under-rated skill that involves both patience and attention
  6. Strategy
  7. Fine motor skills
  8. You will lose more often than win (so learn how to lose well)
  9. Whether you’re caught or not, cheating will eventually hurt you more than help you
  10. Get over your mistakes and move on
  11. Share the joy of others’ successes
  12. Be a humble winner
  13. The difference between luck and skill (i.e. what you can’t control and what you can)
  14. Doing the best you can with the cards you’re played

Here’s what I learned from our game of Crazy 8’s:  

  • The most important parts of a child’s education are not specific facts or skills
  • The most important “education” is whatever contributes to making them capable and kind human beings
  • Kids don’t require a classroom to learn – they will learn wherever they are
  • As parents, we have an opportunity to informally design a bespoke education based on our kids’ specific needs and personalities rather than trying to fit them into a curriculum designed to satisfy the broad educational requirements of an entire population
  • Almost any activity can be used as an opportunity to teach and learn
  • It’s not so much the subject matter but the intention, patience and attention that we bring to it that will determine the educational value

Over and over again this trip is illuminating our assumptions about what is normal and how arbitrary those assumptions are.  School is just one way to educate children. To assume it is the only way or even the best way would be a mistake. We are fortunate that our new traveling lifestyle will open up myriad alternative learning opportunities.  

Yesterday we played Crazy 8’s.  Today we are touring a 700 year old castle in Krakow.  I honestly can’t say which will be a more valuable learning experience.



  1. You’re absolutely right! A classroom is not the only place to learn…..when I was a teacher, I loved using cards in my math classroom.Box Cars and one eyed jacks amazing games!

    1. I just googled Box cars and one eyed jacks and found dozens of games that I have never heard of. If you have a resource/game you like, please pass it on!

  2. This is awesome! One is my favorite parts of travel is having my assumptions challenging and learning in unexpected ways. Some of my best memories growing up are playing cards with my siblings and together as a family. It was always such a huge win whenever someone beat my dad at hearts! So great to see your family thriving and enjoying!

    1. I agree – something about card games . . . Then today as I was producing the next video and Linds was planning the next destination the boys were (of their own volition) on Kahn Academy teaching themselves about negative integers (Owen), angles (Jake), programming (Ben), and more addition (Eli). Just amazing where their own curiosity takes them.

  3. Have no doubt Matt…your kids are learning all the time and it could be argued getting an even better education then one the “system” can provide. The truth is that in education we are constantly trying to create “real life experiences” for kids in the classroom. What you are doing is actually GIVING them that. The key process skills we try and teach students are critical thinking and problem solving skills. From what I have read of your blog so far there is no lack of opportunity to provide that to your kids. This is the best experiential learning I know of. You have done your kids a great educational service. Have no doubt!

    1. Coming from a Principal with years of experience, your words carry a lot of weight – thank you. I hadn’t thought about the fact that teachers are trying to recreate real-life in the classroom, but that makes perfect sense. Critical thinking and problem solving – that is an excellent framework for us to think about the kids’ education while traveling. Add some opportunity for creativity and inter-personal skills (which I know you value highly) and you likely have a pretty well-rounded education!

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