Walkabout: Building a Rite-of-Passage Program for Teen Unschoolers

Starting a school for teenagers is one of my longest-held goals. But after joining the unschooling world, I quickly realized that the word “school” was simply too loaded. What I really wanted to create was a long-term structured learning program for unschoolersLong-term for the chance to build community, and structured for the chance to offer some really deep challenges. (As I’ve learned, there’s no contradiction between unschooling and structure as long as it’s voluntarily elected.)

But what would this school-but-not-school look like, and why would unschoolers (who do very well on their own) even need such a program?

I mulled over these questions for years, littering my notebooks with sketches, secret notes, and wild brainstorms. Then recently I stumbled upon the walkabout concept, a year-long (or multi-year) series of self-elected challenges that offer a rite-of-passage event for the modern world.

The idea of a rite-of-passage was not new to me. But this time something clicked. Rite-of-passage suddenly revealed itself as the big, long-term, structured thing that might serve my start-a-school dream.

Below I share my initial research and thoughts. As I develop these ideas, I’ll appreciate your feedback and suggestions in the comments or via email.

Walkabout basics

The term “walkabout” originally refers to a six-month wilderness adventure that aboriginal Australian adolescent males undertook as a rite-of-passage. Canadian professor Maurice Gibbons popularized the term in the 70s to describe a year-long (or longer) series of challenges and trials for young men and women, typically at the high school senior age (17 or 18).

As I interpret Gibbon’s proposition, a walkabout involves:

  • Real—not simulated—trials and accomplishments
  • A demand for mastery; a major extension of one’s talent and willpower
  • Self-elected challenges within five categories
  • Trials that are important learning experiences in themselves
  • Trials that are fully relevant and appropriate to the adult life that follows
  • A final ceremony that brings together parents, mentors, teachers, and friends together to share and confirm the achievement

The five challenge/trial categories that Gibbons identifies are:

1. Adventure: a challenge to the student’s daring, endurance, and skill in an unfamiliar environment.

2. Creativity: a challenge to explore, cultivate, and express his own imagination in some aesthetically pleasing form.

3. Service: a challenge to identify a human need for assistance and provide it; to express caring without expectation of reward.

4. Practical Skill: a challenge to explore a utilitarian activity, to learn the knowledge and skills necessary to work in that field, and to produce something of use.

5. Logical Inquiry: a challenge to explore one’s curiosity, to formulate a question or problem of personal importance, and to pursue an answer or solution systematically and, wherever appropriate, by investigation.

(Read the section in Gibbons’ article that begins with “The time is September” for concrete examples of what these look like in action.)

The walkabout committee and the parents relation to walkabout are significant; to explain them, I directly quote from this explanation:

The Committee

The Walkabout committee is three to five adults who are respected, trusted, and chosen by the child to guide his or her progress in the program. The committee takes the role of supervisor, which leaves the parents free to assist the child in achieving his/her goals. Participation in a Walkabout committee is a serious obligation, and there can be substantial costs involved (time and responsibility).

The committee should communicate with the child regularly to set realistic goals, and appraise the progress toward those goals. Members of the committee are usually of the same sex as the child. Thus, the child has periodic contact and guidance with at least three adults (other than the parents) who can serve as valuable role models.

The Parents’ Role

The parents’ roles in the Walkabout are familiar to any parent: emotional support, financial support, and physical support. The child and the parents share the day-to-day work of completing the challenges, because the committee is not around on a daily basis. Equipment must be purchased, transportation arranged, frustrations soothed, options explained, etc…. It’s nothing new to a parent, but within the Walkabout it is all focused on a concrete set of goals.

Perhaps the hardest part of the parent’s role is to stay out of the way. (Remember, it’s a learning period for us, too.) Parents can’t make the child’s choices about whom they want on the committee or what they want the challenges to be. Of course there is a veto power, but it must be balanced by a respect for the emerging, self-directed adult. This is a hard line to walk, but it’s not particular to the Walkabout.

So a walkabout works like this, essentially:

  • The teen chooses the committee;
  • the committee helps the teen decide upon and accomplish a significant challenge within the five categories;
  • the parents provide support and resources but also give the teen space to learn, struggle, and grow on her own;
  • when the challenges are complete, the teen’s community gathers to formally recognize his/her transition into adulthood.

If you know me, then you’ll know what I love about the walkabout idea: the combination of structure paired with self-direction, the demand for authentic and relevant challenges, the wide scope of challenges, the flexible timing, and the committee of mentors.

I’m sold on the theory, but where’s the application? Gibbons helped found a number of “walkabout schools” (typically a school-within-a-school or senior year program) back in the 70s and 80s, but very few seem to have survived. I began searching for other programs that do something similar to a walkabout, and I found a lot of short wilderness programs (including Outward Bound, at-risk wilderness therapy programs, and eco-crunchy programs). But I didn’t find any long-term, diverse, committee-supported programs like Gibbons’.

Ultimately I found two long-term international travel programs that piqued my interest.

Travel as rite-of-passage

Traveling internationally, sometimes with a group but especially by oneself, seems like a clear rite-of-passage. Can you care for yourself in a totally foreign environment? If so, then you’re (at least somewhat) an adult.  My independently planned 3-month trip to South America at age 24 served this purpose.

LEAPNOW and Carpe Diem Education are two international travel companies with philosophies that I deeply admire. Ethan, the director of Carpe Diem, helped me get Unschool Adventures off the ground back in 2008. And each company offers a sort of rite-of-passage for 17-24+ year-olds: LEAPYEAR and Latitudes, respectively.

The ingredients in the LEAPYEAR and Latitudes programs are very similar. Each is 7- to 9-months long, focuses on a 10-member group (plus trip leaders and mentors), and moves through the following stages beginning each September:

  • Group retreat and program orientation (in the U.S.)
  • Multi-month international travel program with a group (like an Unschool Adventures trip) with heavy elements of community service and personal discovery
  • December holiday break at home
  • Multi-month solo internship in a foreign country
  • Ongoing academic coursework (relevant to destination countries and personal development)
  • Ongoing journaling
  • College credit provided (equivalent to one or two semesters)
  • (The LEAPYEAR program also includes more group retreats and a formal rite-of-passage ceremony with family present.)

My favorite features of these programs include the guided transition from group travel to individual travel, the focus on service and internship, the long period spent away from home while allowing a significant break in the middle.

The biggest downside is the price: $19-33,000 plus a few thousand more for international airfare. Even if you receive a 50% grant, that would be a prohibitively high price tag for most families. (Compared to a year of college, of course, the price seems more acceptable. But that’s more of a comment on how expensive college is today!)

Putting it all together: an affordable walkabout program for teen unschoolers

After stewing for a while, I wrote my girlfriend an e-mail describing a proposition for an inexpensive 9-month walkabout program for unschoolers ages 17-20. This would be offered as an annual repeating Unschool Adventures program. I share this idea with you today in its raw, messy state.

Group Size: 10 self-directed teens, ages 17-20

Application & Costs:

Teens may pre-apply at any time (up to two years prior to program). Then, to join the program, the teen must raise half of the $6000 program fee on their own via employment, fundraising, or other creative means. (There will be an additional ~$1500 for flight/transport costs + ~$500 for spending money which families may help pay.)

By requiring that teens raise at least half of the program fee on their own, we ensure that (1) they really want to do the program, (2) they have a basic capacity for self-directed learning and achievement, and (3) they feel that they’ve already accomplished something huge upon starting the program. Unschool Adventures will provide literature and advice regarding fund-raising.

(The bold teen may wish to raise the entire fee!)

Committee: Each teen will elect a three-person walkabout committee, including one program staff member, but not including parents.

Program Schedule:

  • September: 3-week orientation,training, and backpacking trip at a wilderness retreat center.
  • Oct-Nov: 2-month group program in Latin America doing homestays, volunteer work, language, group activities, and introspective challenges.
  • December: 5-week holiday break at home, with light reading & computer-based assignments (such as typing your Latin America journal into a blog)
  • Jan-Feb: 2-month practical skill internship, either solo or in pairs, within U.S.  The teen lives and work with a family or individual who can help them intensively learn a practical skill. Room & board will be provided in exchange for labor. (Program staff arranges this in conjunction with teen + parents. I’ve already started collecting such opportunities with the grown unschooler opportunity network.)
  • Mar-Apr: 2-month solo international trip with emphasis on internship or service work. (Program staff arranges this in conjunction with teen + parents. Teen must be age 18 by this time, for liability reasons.) Possible additional costs based upon specific destination.
  • May: 5-day graduation and rite-of-passage ceremony at wilderness retreat center. A small group of each teen’s family (and close friends and mentors who wish to make the journey) attends to acknowledge the his or her passage into adulthood.

Activities Ongoing Through the Program:

  • Support and check-ins with committee.
  • Journaling (excerpts occasionally posted onto a public blog).
  • Light book reading + discussion with program leaders.
  • Documentation of various activities in an online portfolio, applicable to future adult endeavors such as college, work, or business startup.

Total Cost to Family for a 9-Month Transformational Program: ~$5000 if teen raises half the program fee (or ~$2000 if the teen raises the full fee) + possible costs for the international solo portion.

That’s where I am right now. What do you think? Tell me via e-mail or in the comments. I’ll get back to you after I return from my annual High Sierra backpacking trip.

Want to find out if & when I start offering a program like this? Join the Unschool Adventures notification list.




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