Walkabout — An Alternative Educational Model For the Teen Years

By Bob Sweeney


The following article presents a brief introduction to the Walkabout, an alternative educational model for the teen years. All opinions in the article are those of the author and are not necessarily the opinions of WVHEA, its Board of Directors, its members, or anyone else for that matter. For  more about this topic, visit  http://www.selfdirectedlearning.com/walkabout.html. Parts of this article have been paraphrased or lifted directly from the website.

Although many older cultures had procedures that formally prepared and introduced children into the adult world, modern American/Western culture falls short in this regard. Maurice Gibbons, inspired by the walkabout process of aboriginal Australians, proposed a new form of walkabout in 1974. Rather than trying to adapt the rituals used by traditional hunter-gatherer societies, he created an entirely new, and culture-appropriate, process called the Walkabout. During a Walkabout, a child learns and demonstrates competency in many of the skills that are expected of a fully functioning and contributing adult in our modern culture.

The Walkabout is designed by the child, within a guiding structure. Very briefly, a Walkabout comprises approximately five projects that are completed by the child. Each multiyear project is demanding and requires substantial growth of the child toward adulthood. During the Walkabout, the child is guided by a committee of adults chosen by the child (and which excludes the parents).

In our family, the Walkabout will occupy what would have been the high school years. Our son Connor began his Walkabout planning at age 11 and is now in the midst of his projects at age 13; our 11-year-old, Philip, is beginning to make his own plans. I will explain the Walkabout process in more detail, and then give examples from our own experiences with Connor.


Major Components of the Walkabout

The Challenges

Walkabout challenges span the many roles that adults play in American culture. Each is intended to push the child in new directions that promote maturity and competence. The challenges must be chosen by the child! Otherwise, the child will quickly resent the challenge, and consider it an imposed chore.

The challenge topics, defined in the sidebar, take very different forms depending on the child’s unique interests. The Adventure Challenge could be two weeks of backpacking the Appalachian Trail, three months as an exchange student in France, or a yearlong foray into hang-gliding. Creative Expression might take the form of hand-chipping arrowheads, blacksmithing, playing classical guitar, writing poetry, mural painting, or creating wedding cakes. Logical Inquiry challenges could maximize automobile efficiency, investigate the spread of invasive exotic plants, monitor the effects of wind farms on migrating birds, or explore local history and archaeology. Community Service could mean supporting community soccer leagues, construction of playgrounds, or volunteer childcare for single parents. Practical Skills are abilities like website design, log cabin construction, plumbing, and animal breeding.

Challenges must be HARD for the child to complete, stretching them in ways that foster serious (permanent) growth and probably involve (temporary) discomfort. The challenges should never be simply an extension of the child’s pre-Walkabout activities. For example, a child who is already a proficient violinist should not choose violin as a Creative Expression challenge.


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 Motivation

A young teen might resist the demands of the Walkabout process. I’d guess that at some point every child would show at least some resistance. After all, the challenges require multi-year commitment, extended effort, and not a little difficulty. What keeps the child on track?

Clearly, there needs to be a very serious and long-term motivating factor for the child. This factor will be different for every family, and perhaps even for every child. When the best intentions fade and determination wilts under the shadow of difficulty, anticipated rewards can save the day. 


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.


The Hard Stuff

OK, so the child has chosen five exciting challenges that fit his or her life’s goals and interests, and the parents and mentors are all available to help  achieve his or her goals. The rest should be smooth sailing, right?

Well… maturity doesn’t come easily and challenges quickly become challenging. The hidden challenges burst out of hiding after an initial easy period. Perhaps the child has to make a lot of phone calls, and she or he isn’t comfortable talking on the phone to strangers. Guess what? That’s part of being an adult, and it’s hard for some people. Maybe running a small business means learning about percentages and interest rates, and the child is math-phobic. Guess what? That’s part of being an adult, and it’s hard for some people. Maybe the challenge goes through some tedious or boring phases and the child wants something that will always be fun. Guess what?

Another speed bump in the Walkabout occurs when the initial challenge plan meets an unforeseen blockage. The child and the committee/parents may have to be very imaginative to get around obstacles, and it might involve a lot more work than was anticipated at first.

But even though the child chose the challenge topics, they may resent the challenge’s demands after a while. This phase can be very difficult for the parent to accept (believe me!). Persistence is an important quality of a mature adult, and this too is a valuable lesson for the child to learn.

This is all to say that the Hard Stuff really pops up after the Walkabout begins, and it’s the real meat of the matter. The parents do not solve these problems for the child, but rather support them through the process of meeting them head-on and coming out victoriously at the other side.

For more on this matter, I recommend http://www.selfdirectedlearning.com/article2.html.


An Example

Our oldest son, Connor, turns 14 this summer (2004) and began his Walkabout planning near his twelfth birthday.


The Challenges

Connor’s Adventure challenge went through many changes in the planning process. His initial plan of backpacking in the Grand Canyon morphed through hiking the Appalachian Trail to the current proposal of canoeing and camping along Florida’s rivers with one of his committee members during February 2005.

Creative Expression began as a scheme to make an authentic Jango Fett armor costume (any Star Wars fans?) and ended up as learning guitar. The goal of the challenge is public performance at a local venue.

Community Service has become a two-pronged challenge. Connor became certified to referee youth soccer and has volunteered his time for the local county recreational league for two years. He has only accepted enough pay from the league to cover his expenses (uniform, equipment, testing fees) but may referee for profit after his two years’ Walkabout commitment is ended. The second part of the challenge is to develop a free website for a local nonprofit organization that collates and advertises educational events in our area. Of course, he has to learn website design to accomplish this challenge.

The Logical Inquiry challenge is just now being defined, almost two years after first starting his Walkabout process. It looks likely that the topic of inquiry will be whether the mass media really shapes its audience’s opinions, even when the media’s messages are untrue.

The Practical Skill category is yet undefined. Connor is still in the “explore a utilitarian activity” phase here. However, one committee member has been working with Connor on citizenship skills, including an analysis of the U.S. Constitution, as an addendum to the “standard” Practical Skills challenge.

Clearly, completing all of these challenges will span at least four to five years. Some will be nearly completed before others have really begun in earnest.

Note that there are many topics missing here, including all of the typical high school curricular buzzwords (literature, algebra, chemistry, French, grammar). The Walkabout is not all of life; we require regular mathematics study (Saxon) fully outside the framework of the Walkabout. On other “academic” matters, we are unschoolers.


The Committee

Connor’s Walkabout committee consists of one uncle, two fathers of his friends, and two nonparent adults. Their ages range from mid-20s through almost 70. Three live very locally, and two live out-of-state. Although it is difficult for all of them to meet at once (indeed, this has never happened) they have communicated with each other in writing. The farthest committee member is focusing on helping Connor with his Adventure challenge. Each member contributes in his own way to Connor’s Walkabout, and their involvement changes with time.

Connor had a list of challenge ideas when he first met with his committee, and the list served as a starting point for their conversations. Some of his initial ideas became challenges; some ideas were discarded during their deliberations.

I have been more involved with the committee’s working than I had originally planned. The reality is that someone has to call meetings, and keep track of Connor’s progress on a regular basis. Unless a committee member takes on a leadership role, the parent may have to step in. However, I do keep out of the committee meetings and follow through with the committee’s decisions.


The Motivation

In our case, we gave the Walkabout as the only option to institutional high school. We wanted our boys to have a strong focus during their teen years, when many parents find parenting the most difficult. The Walkabout presented us with an alternative to high school that was child-focused and meaningful. Since our sons decided that they would definitely not consider institutional high school at this time, the Walkabout became their only option.

We also decided that our boys would be accepted as full adults within our family once they fully completed their Walkabouts. This is serious motivation for a teen! No, this doesn’t mean they get the car whenever they want (it’s still my car!), BUT I won’t tell them what to eat or what to wear or when to go to bed, … AND their opinions will hold greater weight because they have demonstrated, through the Walkabout, that they have a reasonable level of experience and maturity.


The Parents’ Role and the Hard Stuff

Nobody ever said that raising a teen is an easy job. I don’t think that a Walkabout adds any new stresses to the parent-teen relationship, and it just might make life smoother in some ways. I do have peace of mind that our boys are going to have teen years that are productive and directed toward producing men who are competent and independent.


———————————————————– WVHEA —————–


The Walkabout Challenges


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

Creative Expression: A challenge to explore, cultivate, and express the individual imagination in some aesthetically pleasing form

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

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.

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.


                                                                                     (source: http://www.selfdirectedlearning.com/walkabout.html, accessed 4/10/2004)