Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
1 Sep

Dear Mark: Unschooling and Letting Your Freak Flag Fly

UnschoolingToday’s edition of Dear Mark has a theme: being a Primal freak and proud of it. First up is a question about the Primalness of unschooling, a learning method that isn’t really a method and challenges everything most people think they know about education. Since hunter-gatherers didn’t attend schools, instead learning about the world by living in and being curious about it, does it follow that modern children can also learn effectively without formal education meted out by an authority? I think so. And then I help a reader discover the joy of reveling in one’s strangeness. You’re weird, I’m weird, we’re all weird. Everyone else is going to notice it, and that’s more than okay.

Let’s go:

Hi Mark,

I read with great interest all your books, articles and periodically the blog. It is all amazing. I am from Argentina and live in Austria.

I just could not find much in your website about the concept of unschooling and homeschooling and I believe it to be very pertinent to the primal ancestral discussion, especially in relation to the notion of play, following more natural move patterns, and overall how modern schools shaped around an utilitarian factory like economical model, have only a few hundred years old, as opposed to millions of years humans learning different (such a time analysis reminds me of the notion that agriculture is very new vs what we eat through evolution).

Hope you find this theme interesting to address. Thanks in advance if you do so.


Although we didn’t do it with our kids, unschooling intrigues me. It makes sense. Kids are curious about everything. They’re frequently in awe. They like learning. They become miniature experts of pet subjects, throwing their entire being into the diligent pursuit of everything there is to know about dinosaurs or trains or archaeology or butterflies. Anyone who’s ever had one or interacted with one can tell you that. Even the kid with her head buried in an iPad is curious about something, or would be if you gave her a chance.

Unschooling capitalizes on that natural zest for learning inherent to tiny humans. Unschooling parents don’t teach their kids, not directly. They act as resources and guides to support the child’s curiosity. They provide transportation (to museums and forests and meetups and libraries) and resources (books, supplies, logistics) and answers to questions, but they’re not putting together lesson plans or following a teaching template. The kids set the agenda and the adults try to stay out of the way. There are subgenres of unschooling (like radical unschooling where kids receive absolutely zero input), but that’s the basic gist of it as I understand.

Peter Gray, one of the major experts on the role of play in human evolution and consciousness, is a huge proponent of unschooling. He echoes the very point you make, Matias: that what we call unschooling is actually the oldest system of human education. It’s an organic model arising out of the human animal’s natural curiosity about the world, not a bureaucracy; it’s the most likely way humans have learned for most of our history; and it’s how current hunter-gatherers – an admittedly rough approximation of our ancestral past – still learn today.

But I’d be careful. Unschooling isn’t “easy.” It can go wrong.

Consider the original unschooling environment: the wild world. Thousands of animal species. Tens of thousands of bug species and plant species. Dirt, sun, water, fresh air, things to climb, things to crawl under and into, places to dig, something new to see and find every single day. New challenges to face, most of them relevant to the challenges they’d see as adults. Kids of all ages, usually unsupervised.

Now consider the typical unschooling environment today: the inside of some house, maybe a park on certain days. The same furniture and climbing equipment every day. The same flat, even walking surfaces. Predictable activities and challenges. Very few real surprises, not much carryover into the outside “real” world. Scattered kids, usually protected by hovering parents.

I’m not suggesting that unschooling can’t work in the modern world, but for it to approach the effect of the ancestral unschooling environment you have to leave the house and expose the unschooled child to new, varied stimuli and challenges. Since we no longer live in close-knit tribes or large extended families, the unschooled child also needs a community of peers.

If Carrie and I could go back and do it all over again with our kids, we might incorporate some unschooling in the mix. But you know what? Unschooling isn’t the only way to produce a healthy, happy, engaged human, and a traditional school education won’t necessarily create a hard-working clock-punching automaton. Our kids, who went to fairly traditional schools, are turning out to be great adults. Lots of friends, curious about learning new things and seeking new experiences, healthy habits. We’re very proud.

Whatever style of education you settle upon, help your kid cultivate curiosity. You don’t even really have to do anything except put your kid in interesting situations and let it happen naturally. Lead interesting lives and keep interesting objects and reading material and art around. Have music on often. Play music, too. Take your kid to the forest, beach, desert, and museums. Have interesting friends over for dinner; if they have kids, even better.

Start early. Start immediately. Those disproportionately-sized baby brains are sucking up information from the get go. The sooner they’re exposed to environments of learning and knowledge acquisition, and the more their parents and peers are curious about that world, the more they’ll want to learn. And it will stick, because it’s been there all along.

Dear Mark,

I’m really having trouble keeping to the lifestyle that you suggest. I’ve been off and on the wagon in terms of diet and exercise, and I don’t know how to keep on track. The hardest challenge has been because all of my friends or family think I’m a freak. It makes me feel kinda lonely. What can I do?

A few weeks back, another reader asked a similar question about constantly falling off the wagon. She’d be strict for a couple weeks only to end up binging on junk food. Like clockwork, this happened every other week. My advice was to change her perception of those junk food days. Since they were going to happen anyway, thinking of them as “part of the plan” eliminated the stress and psychological fallout. It wasn’t failure; it was compromise. So that might work for you, but it might not. I suspect not.

I’m sensing that your real issue with all this is feeling alone. Like a “freak,” as you say. Believe me, I get it. Being Primal can make you an outsider, especially early on when you’re the guy who suddenly stops eating grains and sugar. Much of what we do runs directly counter to the norms. That scares people:

  • Everyone’s chowing down on pizza and you’re there with your salad.
  • You’re the only guy without expensive hiking boots on the trail. You might not even be wearing any shoes at all.
  • At lunch in the break room, you self-consciously eat leftover grilled ribeye with steamed broccoli and butternut squash mash amidst a sea of Subway and frozen dinners.
  • You politely pass on the birthday cake and double up on fruit.
  • You’re at the track, running sprints and earning strange looks from joggers.
  • You’re trying to plan dinner parties while your peers are still into late nights at the bars and clubs.

Sound familiar?

First off, don’t be a jerk about being Primal. Don’t make a face when they ask for fat-free dressing. Try not to sneer when someone squats in the Smith machine. Don’t wear Vibrams to the wedding. If a person challenges your grain-free and high-fat ways, go ahead and respond with sound, measured arguments; don’t belittle them. No one is beneath you. Make sure you’re not the one making people feel left out before you go blaming them. I doubt that’s the case, but I have to rule it out.

It’s tough, especially if you’re younger. And sadly no, it’s not just “in our heads.” Either you’re making them feel bad for eating junk or not exercising and they lash out, or you’re challenging the paradigm upon which their reality rests and they can’t deal with it. Some people really do look down on us for eating, exercising, and living differently. No one likes that feeling. No one wants to be ostracized by friends and family or the general public.

There’s really only one way to beat it: you have to let your freak flag fly. You just do.

I’m proud to be a freak in my own way. But extensive life experience residing firmly outside of the mainstream on many issues has made me comfortable there. At this point, I feel weird if I’m doing what everyone else is doing. You can get here, too, and you should. It’s a wonderful state of existence – being comfortable in your own skin.

But I’m not doing it alone. Beside me are my family, my friends, and this entire community of loyal, curious readers who also happen to be freaks in their own way. That makes it easier.

Whenever someone expresses feelings of exclusion, my thoughts turn to PrimalCon. For regular attendees, it’s a tribal gathering, a family reunion. For many first timers, PrimalCon is the only time they’ve felt at home. I know this because they tell me. They come up to me, or one of the team leaders, and gush about finally feeling like a part of something bigger. And you see it happening all throughout the weekend: a tribe of freaks forming, accepting new members. It’s a beautiful thing, and it sounds like precisely what you need.

You gotta find your tribe. You can’t do this alone.

Thanks for reading, everyone, and have a great start to your week.

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Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Let your freak flag fly. Life is too short so why bother with what others think. I stopped caring about what Most OTHER people, outside of immediate family, say or think. I see it as life is tough and one must find what they are passionate about and run with it. If others stand in your way then are they truly in your corner to begin with?

    As for unschooling, that would be awesome but not entirely possible due to work schedules so we compromise. Our son & daughter are very young so we spend as much time in the woods, exploring our city, etc as possible. We give them space and come in to answer any questions. We’ve limited electronics as best as we can so they can utilize the outdoors to the max. Again I don’t care what others think b/c my kids are my gift to the world an dI want them to be as well rounded as possible.

    Matt wrote on September 3rd, 2014
  2. Whilst I agree on the idea of unschooling for some people, I personally think that it would be a good idea to work on changing the schooling system. The socialisation in large groups can be difficult to replicate in home school environments but not impossible. Improving the school system is completely achievable with the right steps over the years.

    Daniel Freeman wrote on September 4th, 2014
  3. Sorry, I accidentally double posted :-/ see, not so brilliant!

    Farah wrote on September 4th, 2014
  4. I did well in school and unschooled myself I guess you might say with constant preoccupation with the outside world and looking things up in the encyclopedia and having a notebook of questions. (Yes, I am in my late 40’s.) But it’s been really troubling to me to see now how much schools demand one learning style while in the work world it’s not completely like that — you have this whole world to pick from and the people I know have landed where their learning style fits a job. I have watched really smart kids fail and then disconnect within a system that only supports one way.

    I thought there was one way when I “won” in it. I was wrong. I look back and an incredible amount of what I know I learned myself as a little kid and by doing in the wilds of life (mostly by volunteering: learning by doing). Although I did have some awesome teachers here and there in my school system.

    And totally changing the subject, I just wrapped a wedding gift in a Vibram box. I guess if you can’t wear them to the wedding, use the box.

    Juli wrote on September 5th, 2014
  5. Embrace the counterculture! Seem out the freak in you and love it. I do pretty much what I want to do every day. My girlfriend says I am weird. Her dad says that I am a FREAK! Another buddy says I am a crack pot. In high school I was the “health nut.” I’ve been called crazy many times. As long as you aren’t hurting another person, just be happy about the fact that you are not boring haha

    I disagree about the suggestion of not wearing Vibrams at a wedding though. Unless you were going barefoot!

    Join a Meetup if you can’t find like-minded individuals.

    zach rusk wrote on September 5th, 2014
  6. So happy to see so many freaks here! <3

    I unschool my 17 year old son. I originally took him out of traditional school like someone said above, "to heal from middle school", with plans to send him back a year or 2 later. BUT, the break went so well, I decided that he'd never attend traditional school again unless it was HIS choice.

    My son has had a specific passion since he was a toddler. I have facilitated and encouraged his passion, even though I thought it would go away. It has not, and he can turn it into a great career. Along the way, he has self-studied and learned all sorts of things (including math and writing skills) both directly related to his passion and not. We have been extremely lucky to have had (and still have!) a number of fabulous mentors in this journey, many of whom have also taught him invaluable life skills. Many of those are now encouraging him to go to college. He would have likely never even met these people had he been housed inside the walls of a school.

    Gone are the daily battles over school and homework, daily bullying at school (sometimes even from teachers!), and for me, almost weekly visits to the principal or counselor who did nothing but tell me negative things about my son (the final straw was their recommendation that I put him on Ritalin). He and I don't battle AT ALL any more; he's a respectful, decent, responsible young gentleman. His curiosity and creativity is alive and well. And his self-confidence simply blows me away. Is he perfect? Of course not. But I don't need a "show-pony". I wanted a child who enjoys life and who has a life-long love of learning.

    My only regret is that I didn't do the same thing with my other 2 children.

    I find that most people who unschool (including me and my son) just tell people that we homeschool to avoid the "you're a complete freak!" looks, comments and lectures about how I'm depriving my son of _____________ (usually LOTS of things).

    For those who are considering the homeschool/unschool path, there are countless FREE resources for learning (in addition to Real Life) on the web such as Khan Academy and MIT's curriculum.

    Terri wrote on September 10th, 2014
  7. I unschool my twin 6 year olds. They get to dive into so many interests and play all day long. While in that play they learn a lot about STEM and we incorporate that knowledge into everyday activities. We read about 6-10 books a day. The kids have unlimited access to the TV-which they choose to use for watching how-to and learning videos like Bill Nye and Minecraft tutorials, gardening how-to, play-dough sculpting, dance, science experiments, nature documentaries, etc. They just turned 6 and now how to work well together, be peaceful and respectful, and love learning. Some days they watch no tv and some days they watch several hours. Most days they watch less than most kids. They are active for about 6-7 hours each day. They are creative, love problem solving, doing thoughtful things for others, and so far for them, learning is a pleasure not a task. I am there with them all day to guide them, ask questions to get them thinking about things (questions that I asked them prompted them to brush their teeth without being told, eat their broccoli, and wash their hands before eating and after coming home from some place). Dad comes home and it’s time for another perspective and personality. They learn from cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, too. I love it. I understand concerns about unschooling in the modern world. But even having a child in public school carries concerns if parents aren’t present, observant, and supportive of their child’s interests.

    sysy wrote on June 26th, 2015

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