I bound up the steps outside the farmhouse in search of a morning cup of tea, relishing the feeling of the sun on my back after several days of rain. I throw open the door and discover a strange scene. Tape criss-crosses the floor, blue painter’s tape forming a large, perfectly spaced 8×8 grid. A small band of teenagers and a few adults mill around, examining the grid, taking measurements, and completing the final squares. A young teenager, about 13 years old, directs the action. Outside the farmhouse, another faction of teens dons elaborate but homemade costumes: many wear the garb of soldiers, while a few dress as horses or royalty.
Rustic, three walled cabins and outhouse style composting toilets surround the farmhouse. Walk several hundred yards down a twisty path and you’ll find yourself on the dock of a frigid lake. We’re somewhere in rural Vermont in the middle of a session of Not Back To School Camp, a summer camp for home schooled and unschooled teenagers.
The costumed group streams inside, taking their places on the squares. Signs around their necks detail their positions; glancing around, I spot “Knight,” “Pawn,” and “White Queen.”
Shortly, the bustling teenagers complete their taped grid, and one of the campers rings a massive chime outside the farmhouse. The costumed group streams inside, taking their places on the squares. Signs around their necks detail their positions; glancing around, I spot “Knight,” “Pawn,” and “White Queen.” In a spacious balcony overlooking the floor of the farmhouse, a camper and a staffer take seats opposite one another. A chessboard sits on the table between them.
“Pawn to F4,” the camper announces loudly. A camper dressed as a soldier in the second row strides forward two squares.
The action starts slowly. Pawns advance, followed by knights, bishops, and rooks. Eventually, a clash occurs.
“Rook to A4!” The knight already positioned in the A4 space looks expectantly to the sidelines. A camper darts forward with a silver mixing bowl undoubtedly borrowed from the kitchen staff.
“Choose your death!” the camper demands. The knight sticks her hand into the mixing bowl, fishes around for a moment, and extracts a slip of paper. The camper reads the words on the paper aloud in a dramatic voice.
“Covered in honey and eaten alive by ants!” The knight screams, dropping to the floor and writhing around as if she is indeed being eaten alive. Two campers playing “angels” take the fallen knight by the hand and gently guide her up the stairs to “chess piece heaven,” where an entire band of angels begins to fan her and feed her grapes. The angels have creatively decorated the area with at least eight rolls of toilet paper.
I observe from the sidelines, contemplating how a magical event like a camp-wide game of human chess occurs. The structure and culture of Not Back To School Camp surely plays a large role: campers are encouraged to organize workshops, discussions and other events, but apart from a small number of required activities like a twice daily check-in, they choose which events they want to attend. The result of this principle? Everyone participating in this event genuinely wants to be here.
Additionally, very little age hierarchy exists in the camp culture, and the staff works to treat the campers as equals. The camper organizing Human Chess is new this year; he’s also one of the youngest campers at the session. No one seems to notice or mind this: during the setup process, other campers and staff approach him to ask what they should do next, and he responds confidently. The staff carefully avoids micromanaging campers’ events, working instead to provide support and allow the campers to shine.
If you’re accustomed from childhood to following your passions, self-directing your learning, and acquiring skills based on intrinsic motivation, then starting your own business, joining the circus, doing international travel, or releasing a jazz album is simply the natural continuation of those skills.
Finally, we don’t possess an agenda for what the campers “should” be doing or learning. We don’t worry that we might spend too much time playing chess and miss out on the chance to teach grammatical principles, or that we’re spending too much time in a captivating economics workshop while we could be swimming in the lake. We stay where the passion is, recognizing that learning and growth occur best during engaged play.
But camp is only one piece of the puzzle. Most of the campers that attend NBTSC come from home environments in which their parents encourage them to follow their passions and curiosity, exercise their autonomy, cultivate a healthy skepticism for authority, and seek out the knowledge and skills they crave. They’re accustomed to evaluating the merits of their own work and striving to improve it for their own edification- not for a letter grade from an outside authority.
My involvement in the camp community stretches back over ten years, (I started as a wide-eyed 15 year old camper) so I’ve seen firsthand the results of this kind of upbringing. These kids grow up to be acrobats, singer-songwriters, chefs, ballerinas, therapists, potters, small business owners, welders, sign language interpreters, bakers, personal trainers, pilots, game designers, artists, executive assistants, copyeditors, DJs, speech therapists, ski instructors, political organizers, carpenters, and world travelers. They’ve ridden their bicycles across the country and founded free schools and designed board games and created their own line of sauerkraut. Many of them work for themselves, and many of them grow up to embrace the principles of Millenimalism.
This makes perfect sense to me. Many of the principles of unschooling, when carried forward into adulthood, make up the axiomatic backbone of Millenimalism. If you’re accustomed from childhood to following your passions, self-directing your learning, and acquiring skills based on intrinsic motivation, then starting your own business, joining the circus, doing international travel, or releasing a jazz album is simply the natural continuation of those skills. Arranging your lifestyle so you have time and money to pursue those goals instinctively follows.
Contrast this with the principles insidiously imparted in traditional school, in the midst of all the geometry, grammar, and US history: that you must complete hard and boring tasks in order to succeed, that your value is based on your performance and the external approval of an authority figure, that activities that feel like “play” carry no value in the “real world,” that you possess no autonomy, that obedience is more important that creativity, that performance is more important than mental health, and that collaboration is “cheating,” and competition is required instead.
Is it any wonder that children who grow up learning these principles reach adulthood without knowing what interests them, neglecting their physical and mental health for the sake of their jobs, enduring micromanagement by an authority figure, equating long hours doing boring tasks with important work, desperate to acquire status and external approval? Is it really surprising that deviating from the norm proves challenging to these people, when doing so defies everything the school system drilled into them during the most formative years of their lives?
Often, these early lessons breed adults who either don’t know what they’re passionate about, or even worse, believe that they aren’t passionate about anything at all. If you find yourself in this group, don’t despair. Building self-knowledge and unearthing your passions and interests as an adult is a process, but it can be done.
In the unschooling community, we talk extensively about the “deschooling” process. We tell parents who have just pulled their children out of traditional school to pretend like they’re on summer vacation for a while- several months at least, or sometimes a year. We advise them to think of what they see during this time period as a sort of “cocooning.” Many children, freed from the restrictive atmosphere of public school, go through a phase of doing nothing much at all; they might watch television, sleep a lot, chat with their friends, eat too much ice cream, and not much else. Some parents experience alarm while observing this stage; we advise them to relax, avoid nagging their children, and let it play out. In most cases, the child in question will emerge from her room soon enough, requesting violin lessons, or books about architecture, or the ingredients to bake a cake.
This same process is imperative for many adults who made it all the way through the school system, but it proves difficult to achieve if you’re working full time. I recommend doing it on evenings and weekends for a designated time period. (6 weeks? 3 months? You choose.) Allow yourself to do exactly what you want want during this period, whether that means reading trashy magazines in the bath or going hiking with friends or making ten different popsicle varieties or sleeping in and ordering Thai food. Avoid anything that feels like work, within reason. (Occasionally you’ll need to take out the trash or clean the toilet, of course.) I recommend keeping a journal throughout this process. When your chosen time period is up, re-evaluate. You may find that you need to extend your time frame at first, but I predict that you’ll eventually get bored with yourself.
Once you find yourself wondering in the back of your mind what it would take to earn a pilot’s license or learn German or start a gelato business, you’re there. Start writing down the inklings of interests that you feel, and explore them in tiny baby steps or dive in headfirst. If you’re interested in making gelato, start a pinterest board of recipes and spend $20 on ingredients. If you want to learn a language, create a duolingo account and try the first lesson. If you want to travel to Prague, go to the library and find a guidebook. Once you decide that you’ve discovered a project or an interest that you want to pursue in depth, read Barbara Sher’s Wishcraft for practical advice about turning your schemes and plans into reality. Before you know it, you’ll be building furniture or perfecting your linguine-making technique or starting that science fiction screenplay- or maybe even directing thirty-two of your closest friends in a game of human chess.