Bruce Devereaux and his wife Tracey are roadtripping in Australia and homeschooling five of their seven children on an old converted school bus. Bruce chatted with us about what life on the road is really like, raising his family on a little more than laughs.
Interview with Bruce Devereaux from Big Family Little Income
Thanks for chatting Bruce, can you introduce your tribe, your blog and what it's all about?
There are a lot of us in our little family. Myself and my lovely wife, Tracey. Geoffrey & Mishaela, who are both adults now. In case of Mishi, she’s provided us with the first of what we assume will be a tonne of grandchildren: young Izzy. Still with us and living on the bus are Grace (14), Joshua (13), Molly (11), Sophie (8) and Emily (6).
Big Family Little Income is a blog I started on Father's Day 2010. Initially I only had a vague idea about what I was going to share online. I figured we were a larger family and people kept wondering to my face about how we could afford so many kids – we have seven – so I’d write about some of that.
But the whole thing took off when I started to share the mini-disasters and more amusing things going on under my feet as I struggled to be the best parent I could while still feeling sane. The blog is very much a diary for me and, as I see it, our descendants. That might sound dicky, but I love the idea our great great grandkids will be able to read this stuff and get an idea of what we were like beyond a photo, but also why they can’t seem to walk through a doorway without dislocating a shoulder or catch a financial break – that would all be down to genetics.
The blog has also sustained me through a trying time when the kids nearly lost their Mum to an aneurism. Because we don’t have any babies at the moment the blog has shifted ever so slightly away from posts about poo and exhaustion and, since we’re now living on an ex-school bus travelling Australia, into an occasional travel-type blog, although still focussing heavily on mini-disasters. Because that’s what we know best.
You decided to homeschool a few years ago. What led to that choice and how did you feel when you first started? How did that change as you got more experienced travel schooling?
The biggest hurdle for me regards taking the fam on a big lap was homeschooling. Before it ever looked like we one day might need to consider such a thing, I even used to make jokes about how dreadful it would be. And it is. And it isn’t.
My wife put my mind at ease when I initially raised some doubts by saying she’d be the teacher and I could focus on driving the school bus. Perfect. Also, not possible. We both get involved now to keep the kids on topic and learning.
We quickly learned to maintain the rules around electronic devices we had before we left – only on weekends – and to try be as structured as our lifestyle allows. It’s better for the kids because they got on with their work once they realised there was no chance they’d be able to talk me around, and that meant a lot less grumpiness from me. We’re flexible in other ways though. Sometimes the kids do homeschooling while we’re busing from one stop to another. Sometimes we set up our gazebos and create our own classroom.
Occasionally we visit local libraries and commandeer a few tables. We’re still anxious about if we’re doing enough and keeping up with their classmates in ‘Azkaban for children’ (as my kids call schools now).
Where have you been in the last year and what have been your favourite places? Do they differ from the kids' favourites?
In sixteen months we’ve hardly scratched the surface of this great country. Some dashing up to Port Douglas way along the coast of Queensland, zipping along the New England Hwy and as far in as Burke in NSW, we only really touched Mt Gambier in SA and a good bit more of Victoria and Tasmania than anywhere else.
But already we’ve realised everywhere we’ve been we need to re-do because there’s so much more to see. For me, my favourite experiences have been the kids overcoming their anxieties left over from their Mum nearly passing away. Things which they wouldn’t have attempted two years ago they now jump at the chance to experience. Things like zip lines and going underground into caves and flying and introducing themselves to other kids wherever we’re staying.
My guess for the kids favourite bits of the trip so far would be the cruise we just took, or feeding a giraffe, or boating out into the ocean to see a seal colony. But I just asked them and they’ve unanimously said the best thing about the trip so far has been when we visit family or family flies in to visit us. Which is lovely, but does make me wonder why we’re spending so much on zoos and stuff.
Do you have a daily learning routine? Is learning more textbook and academics based, or hands-on experience based with whatever travel experiences come your way?
Homeschooling is a lot of work with five kids in grades ranging from 1 to 9, but it’s also made easier with programs like Mathspace, Science Of Doing, ABC Reading Eggs and Studyladder.
Our initial anxiety was put to rest by some wonderful teachers who assured us the kids will learn lots on the road they could never get access to in a classroom. And they were right. We make a point of going to science centres in any major city we visit, plus there have been some outstanding adventures which schools could not provide, such as discovering for themselves a hidden cave/rock hideout of Captain Thunderbolt, and fossicking for sapphires and opals.
It sounds silly and something you might dismiss but one of our greatest homeschooling moments was on a cruise ship when one of the kids club carers was discussing volcanoes with her group of kids and our six and eight-year-olds gave her a rundown on how the Blue Lake formed in Mt Gambier, including the aboriginal Dreamtime legends. We did that!
From your blog and Instagram, it looks like you have a lot of crazy fun with your kids. What's your approach or philosophy to learning at home/through life?
When I was at high school on the Gold Coast we went on an excursion to Mt Warning and another to Spring Hill. Learning outside the classroom was so exciting I still remember both trips vividly.
Our kids have had that week on week for over a year. We use documentaries and movies to teach the kids as well. We watched The Dish before visiting the centre in Parkes (it was like meeting a movie star for me), and were able to discuss things like where the movie deviated from history so it could better tell the story – a good lesson for watching any media actually.
While I don’t expect the kids to appreciate and marvel at this until they’re much older and perhaps sitting in an office wondering where it all went wrong and how they can get back on the road, I do know we’re giving them an opportunity which will enrich and perhaps shape their future.
They’ve spent weeks exploring Canberra. They’ve been on television. They’ve been interviewed on radio. They’ve watched huge turtles laying eggs and penguin flocks coming out of the ocean. They’ve been down sinkholes and stood on cliffs watching whales swim by. Any one of these would be a school excursion memory a parent would love for their kid to carry with them throughout their life.
Do your kids ever get homesick and want to go home? How do you handle that?
Always. Every single week someone brings this up. Because of the technical age we’re a part of, the kids call friends and family every single day for a chat or Skype, or even just exchanging texts or digs on Facebook. They miss their grandparents, their cousins, their older brother and sister, their nephew, their friends, their pets. We understand that and try balance things out.
We’ve been home to Gympie several times for a couple of months apiece, and are planning a larger 3-4 month stopover this coming Christmas. This has meant a lot more expense for us, because our home costs a lot to move from one place to another and retracing our footsteps isn’t the best use of fuel, but we try to drive a different route so we can see some different stuff and add a new black line to our map of Australia.
We noticed you do a lot of work supporting the micro-financing charity Kiva. Why Kiva, and how do you involve the kids in lending projects?
A friend got me interested in Kiva years ago and my enthusiasm for what it does hasn’t dwindled. We’re coming up to $6,000 we’ve loaned to people to help them make a better life for themselves.
We let the kids choose who to lend to each month and they each have their own criteria, be it gender, continent or sector. The most popular sector is agriculture. The kids love helping someone buy a cow to milk, or increase their breeding herd. They’re also very partial to single women with children.
Kiva has enabled us to teach the children about the world they’re a part of. About how lucky they are to be in a country like Australia. When they choose someone to lend US$25 to (loans are made up of these smaller amounts contributed to by people from all over the world) we look at a map and do some Wiki searches to learn about the country and its culture. The kids are a part of something wonderful while still learning. Win-win.
Oh, and because the money is a loan it comes back to our account eventually for us to lend out again - we’ve only put in $471 of our own money over the last eight years, and that includes money we’ve gifted to friends to get them started.
What's next on your bucket list?
We’re going to check out the coast of Gippsland and then have another short stay in Canberra before heading north to Queensland again. I would love to explore the dinosaurs in Winton and Stockman’s Hall of Fame in Longreach with the kids before putting the handbrake on in Gympie over Christmas, but we’ll see how it pans out.
Bucket list when we stop is to install solar panels on the roof of the bus so we can free camp, and do some more renovations to the kitchen and sitting areas. It’s all about working out what will work better for a family of seven living in each other's pockets and trying to find an economical way to make it happen.
Where can people find out more about your family travels?
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