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Free Range Kids

Dr. Grauer on track at the San Elijo Lagoon, The Grauer School's local partner
"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." —John Stuart Mill, one of the creators of modern democracy

The world is not all that safe, as we keep learning, but living in fear is no way to live.

Ten years ago, in 2008, back when I penned the whole newsletter myself, before I could even blog, I made up a motto for The Grauer School Newsletter, printed right on the banner: "Free Range Kids." It turned out a few other people had the same idea, and now the idea has begun to prevail on the large scale.

Imagine a safe world. Does it look like students in flak jackets, teachers with revolvers, barricades surrounding schools and playgrounds, guards on every corner and under the stairwell? Could there ever be safety with this approach, the "under siege" approach?

The U.S. Supreme Court spent an hour debating whether public middle school students are apt to hide drugs in their underwear, and what should be done about it. Is there anything that might not be dangerous?

Fearless parents and educators are pushing back.

Grauer students hiking on an Expedition in Idyllwild, California - September 2017

In 2009, Lenore Skenazy, a former New York Daily News columnist was called "America's worst mom" [1] after writing a column about why she let her 9-year-old son ride the New York City subway by himself. [2]

She and her husband were charged with "child neglect." Now, Utah has passed the nation's first "free range kids" law with broard, cross-aisle appeal: "It appeals to conservatives who value the sanctity of family and keeping the government out of their lives, and for liberals, it means giving their children freedom to be kids," Ms. Skenazy said. Forces are at work for similar laws in Maryland, New York, and other states.

The movement is supported by ongoing movements pressing schools for more time to "play," to be outdoors, and to study the vanishing natural world.

Who remembers the 1970s, when legislators and big-time researchers worried about distraction in the American schoolhouse influenced hundreds of public school districts to be build schools with no windows in any classroom? A friend of mine from Arkansas works in such a classroom to this day. Am I safe in assuming that all my readers will need no prompt in being stunned that insensitivity like this existed not long ago? That was the '70s, before we had a country where a lot of people thought it was merely an obvious expression of Constitutional freedom to have a nation of 350 million privately held weapons. To no surprise, this is no longer an inviting country to be a free-range kid in. But at least it is still your right.

Obviously, there are real risks and distractions out there and I can't imagine a "free range" advocate who thinks it's okay to ignore them. As a young teacher, I was mugged once on my way to school in Washington Square Park and once again in Penn Station, but understood that I needed to make some small changes regarding eye contact and body language. Thankfully, it would not have occurred to me to be packing heat or hiring bodyguards to get to work, much less to be safe in the classroom.

Living fearlessly is not the same as living stupidly or carelessly. I know dangerous places. I know teachers who work in neighborhoods I would not let my kid out in—and I even know some teachers who work in schools I would not let my own kid in. We take it case by case, never losing sight of the ultimate terror: the loss of individuality, connection to the natural world, and freedom.

Grauer 7th graders Sean F. and Devon O. observing nature for Life Science class, in the Habitat Corridor adjacent to the school - April 11, 2018

Now, as an administrator, my teachers at The Grauer School are encouraged to get students outdoors or in into "the real world" regularly, and our classes routinely take our vans to anywhere they find good educational resources or settings. One teacher sets up hunting trips for his students. Another gives one class a full week in the class to complete an experiment of their own devising. In our middle school, grades are optional. The education we practice is the study of academic disciplines balanced by the most liberating experiences life has to offer, in equal parts. We are free range teachers.

[1] Parenting Advice From 'America's Worst Mom', The New York Times, Jane E. Brody - January 19, 2015

[2] Utah Passes 'Free-Range' Parenting Law, The New York Times, Donna De La Cruz - March 29, 2018

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Lindsay S. at
This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Rachel Carson (from "The Sense of Wonder"): “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” I read this quote daily to remind me of my goal as a parent: To encourage Kiara's Sense of Wonder about the world around her.