Unschooling: Why Kids Thrive at Primitive Skills Gatherings

We pulled into our driveway at 11:00 last night, exhausted, dirty and dazed from more than 5 hours of driving. We were returning from our favorite primitive skills gathering, just north of Spokane, WA. Besides the usual camping gear, our truck was packed full of various sticks, rocks and animal parts, some crafted into bows, atlatls (spear throwers) and other primitive weapons. Others had been hewn into tools for making matchless fires, containers, and clothing made from deer hide, and various other tools and artifacts. We had mud in our toes and smelled like unwashed livestock, and we walked into our house with a reluctant sense of disappointment. Being at the gathering is like being transported to another world where we live happily in the open with our little village, sharing meals and conversation, making tools and crafts together, playing music together around the fire. For the kids, the epiphany is playing almost endless games of tag and capture the flag with a herd of other kids, chasing each other giddily around the camp until long after dark. Returning to everyday life is something like the day after Christmas, a sense of let down that takes time to settle out.

We have been going to this gathering (called Between the Rivers) for about 5 years, and have made strong bonds with some of the others who attend regularly. There are always new faces as well, and every year we make new friends, being an environment where conversations start up easily and people have the feeling they have known each other for years even if they just met. I have been working as staff in the kid’s program for all but one of those years, which pays our tuition and allows me to play in the woods with kids, decidedly my favorite activity in life. Though fun and rewarding for my partner and I (in spite of the work that goes with it), there’s no doubt that the biggest reward from these events is the rich life experience the kids gain in this communal setting.

There is something fundamentally important about kids running free together, something every child should get to experience at least once in their life. I grew up in a suburban neighborhood, and my most potent memories are of playing capture the flag with our neighborhood friends, running up and down the streets in the evening, sneaking behind fences and trees as if we owned everything in sight. Maybe that is part of it, the feeling that we can run free in the world without worrying about being somewhere we don’t belong, that is so essential for the human spirit. It’s an experience that is probably getting harder and harder to attain for many families.

But there is also something about the autonomy of children, especially as they approach adolescence, that I believe is formative. To be left to themselves (with watchful eyes all around) to hash out which games to play, what the rules should be, how to include the younger children, etc., teaches vital communication and negotiation skills that must be practiced to really take hold. As we all know, conflicts will happen with any group of kids left to self regulate (and any group of adults for that matter), but that is precisely when they get to test out their skills in human relationships. Whether it comes to physical or verbal violence depends on how well they have been prepared and how confident they are in their own skills. In all our years at gatherings (about 10 altogether), I have never seen or heard of violent conflict among children or adults.

As fabulous as the free time is, there are also plenty of opportunities for kids to engage in structured learning at most skills gatherings. Between the Rivers kids program starts at age 4 and is broken into groups based on age (teens have their own camp). We try to provide a variety of activities to keep kids engaged and active since we have a clear policy that we will not work with kids who are unwilling or uninterested in participating. This year, for example, they learned the basics of making friction fire, carved soapstone pendants, went on ecology and edible plant walks, played games to practice stalking and camouflage in the woods, participated in a traditional trade blanket event and learned a few Scottish Highland Game sports. In other years we have made elaborate debris shelters, learned basic tracking and bird language and made leather and fiber crafts.

As if that were not enough, the communal environment of the gathering also lends itself to some wonderful mentor opportunities with the other adults and instructors. Many instructors will allow older kids to participate in their adult classes, provided the child demonstrates readiness in terms of capabilities and maturity. Some instructors will also set aside some time to allow kids to sample the activity, separate from a full class geared towards adults. In this way, my kids have created small knives and hooks at the blacksmith tent, made gourd bowls and cups, constructed quivers and knocking for arrows and done the final sanding, tillering and string making for bows they bought, traded for or were given. I have seen kids as young as 13 tans a deerskin into buckskin, make their own bow, felt vests and wide-brimmed hats, and construct log chairs and stools. Most instructors and other adults are excited to have kids participating, and the limit of what a child can accomplish is only set by their own interest and determination.

Finally, the learning atmosphere is extended by simply being surrounded by people making things with their hands in every direction. Kids can witness firsthand the persistence it takes to create a large basket because they see the same people working on their baskets in the same spot day after day. They absorb the pride and excitement felt by someone who shoots a bow they just made for the first time, or an experienced archer shooting with admirable accuracy. They overhear countless conversations and presentations about plants, animals, hunting, fishing, farming, history, music, and culture. They get to hear a variety of music performed live at all skill levels and often listen to stories told by elders and professional storytellers. They are exposed to ideas they may never come across otherwise, people with various religious and political ideas, and people living in older or less modern or sedentary lifestyles. One of our good friends in the gathering community is from Israel and presented a fascinating slide show about the creation of the first gathering in his country.

It is not each of these experiences that makes skills gathering so unique and powerful, but the fact that they are all contained- if you find a really good gathering- within a safe, supportive, and welcoming community environment. I cannot vouch for all gathering communities, of course, but I know there are plenty to choose from. There has been such an explosion of these events around the country and world, I’ve heard it said that there is a gathering happening somewhere every two weeks. You can be got to https://www.hollowtop.com/Primitive_Skills_Gatherings.htm, for example, a watershed list of events in the U.S. Just search your bio-region and find the one that’s right for your family. In fact, even if primitive skills is really not your thing, there are all kinds of camping based gatherings throughout the country that would provide similar communal experiences. Wherever you go, remember to keep an open mind and heart about new knowledge and experiences, and you and your kids will be sure to forge friendships and memories that you can draw from all your lives.