click above to browse
through the current issue

Want to see your child's
work in print? The winner
will receive a �25 book voucher. Email: [email protected]


Hannah Watkins talks to the Potter family who embarked on a gap year and asks them whether the riches of the adventure that saw them travelling around the world outweighed the downfalls of missing out on school

In the summer of 2006, James and Clare Potter decided to fulfil their dream of travelling the world again but this time with their children.

With 2 daughters, Ella and Rosie, aged 8 and 5, they knew that this could be a once in a lifetime experience but could also be a risk taking them out of school at a potentially crucial stage in their educational and social development.

Having met whilst working in Uganda and travelled through Africa together, the couple always had in the back of their minds that they would head off travelling again.

Real life took over with the arrival of their children and James found himself working his way up through the rungs of the corporate ladder.

Travelling by moonlight across Argentina on the Trans–Patagonia sleeper train whilst watching Happy Feet was a surreal experience

Then, for Christmas, Clare bought James a book on an American family upping sticks and travelling the world with three children – and thought it would likely be left on the bookshelf. But by New Year, both had read the book and both were hooked on the idea.

Egged on by friends, they broached the subject with Ella’s headmistress. The response was unexpected – “Go for it!”. With no excuse to back out, they set in motion the grand plan, renting out their house, asking a neighbour to look after the dog and James leaving his job.

One of the most difficult decisions was where to go. They were each allowed to choose one country and experience.

Ella opted for swimming with dolphins and visiting Greece after studying Greek civilisation at school. Rosie was keen to meet a “friendly” elephant and a kangaroo in Australia. James chose New Zealand and Clare Argentina. The trip also took in Chile, Costa Rica, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, China and Europe.

It seemed a sensible option to start with easy travelling visiting friends in Canada and heading South down the West Coast through to San Francisco before flying to South America. There, they rented an apartment in Buenos Aires for a month before travelling by train through Patagonia, by “refurbished” cargo ship up the coast of Chile and onwards to Australia and beyond, staying in hostels, hotels, holiday lets and with friends and family.

Did the riches outweigh the downfalls?

An amazing trip – but a substitute for learning amongst their peers in a settled daily routine? The Potters believe that the girls have seen a life that they could never possibly understand in a classroom environment:

Seeing Angkor Wat, the Great Wall of China, visiting museums, attending school in Bangkok, getting up close with New Zealand farm animals, dolphins and elephants, travelling by moonlight across Argentina on the Trans–Patagonia sleeper train involving a surreal screening of Happy Feet on the onboard cinema with the train engine chugging away in the background!

It was important not to say – do you know how lucky you are? – but instead show the girls how to empathise and understand

The girls studied when and wherever possible, through the use of workbooks. While best laid plans to keep diaries, encouraged by their school, lasted only 6 months, the girls studied and produced fact sheets on each country that they had visited. Homework was done al fresco: times tables learned during hikes through national parks, interspersed with stops for geology, geography and science lessons in the Rockies, the Argentine glaciers, the Iguaçu waterfalls, and the Mekong Delta.

There were times when it was incredibly lonely and tiring during the trip, missing friends and underestimating how hard work it is to keep everyone going. Would they do it again? Absolutely

There was also time to play: ballet in Buenos Aires, stuck in the mud with Vietnamese girls in Vietnam, swimming and surfing. The daily routine shifted depending on where they were staying. A little backpack of toys also travelled with them with Uno played when conversation dried up.

Difficult experiences

Clare notes that, in South East Asia, it was difficult to judge whether the children should be protected or exposed to the reality. They struggled with the decision of whether to visit the Cambodian Killing Fields. They found that Rosie was too young to take it in but Ella was more affected by it and still finds it uncomfortable to talk about.

Ella’s eyes were also opened to extreme poverty on visiting poor communities in Cambodia where she met young children and was given a baby to hold.

However, Clare believed it was important not to say – do you know how lucky you are? – but instead show the girls how to empathise and understand. The girls are aware of how the real world works from their own first hand experience now even as far as the simple survival techniques of dodging traffic in big cities.

Effect on the children

It has been interesting for the Potters to see how their children developed during the trip and how they have adjusted on their return. In Rosie’s case, travelling during a crucially formative stage and having previously only attended play group, they found that, for the first six months everything was just going in one ear and out of the other. Then suddenly something clicked, she started to get the hang of it and her reading progressed.

Ella, naturally a very sporty child, was able to swim, run, swing through the jungles of Costa Rica and learn to ski but also thinks that the trip developed her reading: “I love reading now.”

Claire acknowledges that “children are what they are, they aren’t going to change hugely, you just give them the experiences to draw from.”

The main issues on return seem to have been more social rather than academic with learning to reintegrate and make friends again and adjusting to the everyday routine taking a little time.


Clare and James admit that the first month was hell. The stress of extricating themselves from society and finding themselves relying on the family unit 24 hours a day was very difficult. James felt that it took three months to get out of the work mindset and fully relax.

“There were times when it was incredibly lonely and tiring during the trip, missing parents and friends and underestimating how hard work it is to keep everyone going.” Would they do it again?

“Absolutely. Though next time perhaps travel less and stay in each place for three months to integrate, learn the language, sample the real life and then move on.”


The Potters budgeted £40 a day for accommodation, £40 on food, drink and ice creams (bribery on long walks) and £25 daily allowance.

Transport was the most expensive part so hiring cars was found to be the most cost effective.

Flights came to £5,200. They planned the trip themselves – this brought down the costs and enabled them to pick and choose their destinations. The flipside of this being when things went wrong, there was no travel agent to rely on for help. They estimate that the trip cost £50,000.