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Dr. Grauer's Column - Grauer Forest School

One of the founding principles of The Grauer School is the importance of expeditionary learning, where our students learn important lessons from the natural world. More parents and educators who are now recognizing the value of outdoor education and the essential intelligence it imparts upon our children.

Grauer Forest School

Forest schools have been proliferating in Scandinavia, Britain, United States, Australia, and Canada. These schools hold some or all classes outside. As the website for Wild Roots Forest School in Santa Barbara, California, describes it: “The sky is our ceiling, the trees are our walls, and our floor is the living Earth.” But forest schools are not only about hanging around trees.

Dr. Sugata Mitra, computer scientist and educational theorist, urges us to “Let children wander aimlessly around ideas.” Can we? Forest schooling is an educational movement that tends to the open space of its students in all respects, physically, mentally, spiritually.

California tidepool - January 29, 2023 - Photo by Dr. Stuart Grauer

It takes little time to transform a wild place into man-developed, artificial terrain. It takes something like forever to get it back. Most of the East County of San Diego has been wild forever, with woodland and riparian ecosystems, and indigenous species. Population pressure is threatening that wild open space. The nearby Cleveland National Forest is now about 20% of the size it was when Teddy Roosevelt first gave it federal “protection.” Forest and backcountry lands are disappearing in our region and forest schools are less feasible around here.

Does the loss of backcountry land have any impact on education? Are back-country kids a threatened species? Debate over development of Cleveland National Forest rages on. Parallel to that debate is the debate about the loss of quiet (and the constancy of “noise,” that being unwanted sound), the loss of peace of mind in schools, and the loss of freedom that fills student days with pressure instead of exploration, time for discovery, and time for real, Socratic discussion.

The Grauer School’s main campus has five acres. Three acres were taken for development of hardscapes and landscapes, while two acres were held back for a permanent wildlife/native species preserve consisting of coastal sage and maritime chapparal. I’m pretty sure many people viewed those two acres as “unused” if not wasted campus space. We are currently working with naturalists Mike Wilken-Roberston, author of "Kumeyaay Ethnobotany," our master gardener Stephanie Murphy, and Environmental Science teacher Nick Scacco, as well as native Kumeyaay growers, to increase instruction to our students taking place in our nature preserve.

Of course, you are not a forest school just because you have a forest handy. A real forest school uses the forest as a part of a long-term program that supports play, exploration and supported risk taking.

Grauer Surf students warming themselves on a cold day during their surfing competition - January 28, 2023 - Photo by Dr. Stuart Grauer

Dan Huttenlocher, Dean and Vice Provost at Cornell Tech noted, “Being in bigger interactive spaces encourages expansive thinking, while being in a box of a room encourages box thinking.” And a box thinker has no problem transforming open space into a box, and then justifying that transformation. It’s the way box thinkers think. As evidence, have a look at the modern, comprehensive high school, devoid (for the average kid) of opportunity for natural learning in a natural environment.

Teachers are not generally our school designers or financiers, and the natural learning environments real teachers might be seeking out for some of their instruction, it turns out, don’t make short-term financial sense anyway. This is too bad, since ideally the main purpose of a great teacher is to create the conditions for learning. Even though it does not seem like the job of today’s teachers to be responsible for learning environments, this becomes a primary goal in a forest school.

Teachers and financiers each ask different kinds of questions about school design. Teachers might ask, if ever prompted, though they won’t be: “Will this environment free us up or box us in?”

The job of Grauer teachers and forest teachers is to seek out open questions such as that one, and to embrace them. We, as teachers, seek [intellectual] open space, and we bring our students into that space. Just as nature has always offered us open space to tend, or to fence, so the mind of any youth is open space that we must tend carefully, lest we box it in. Forest schools provide learning experiences in a woodland or natural environments with trees, but equally important is the metaphor they offer us.

Forest schools follow in the tradition of some of our most revered educators such as Jean Piaget, Rudolph Steiner, Marie Montessori[1], and Lev Vygotsky. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and The Grauer School followen them, too. These great educational visionaries, though long gone, are supported by a thickening branch of educational research focused on the effects of the natural world on human well-being—just being in nature enough to study it and to study our own minds as we connect with nature.

Richard Louv’s 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods” struck a national nerve and was a best-seller. Louv studied decreased exposure to nature in American children as they grow up and coined the term “nature deficit disorder.” A forest schooler, David, aged 14, noted,

“I don’t have ADHD when I`m out in the woods.”

An educational researcher or attuned teacher does not need to look far to find out the pure impacts of natural environments on our physical and mental health[2]. And yet, and yet…

Grauer students in the Climate Action Club sharing environmental knowledge and doing a craft with Preschool students at a local school - January 30, 2023

The fact that, to be taken seriously, we need to produce data on the educational value of the out-of-doors and to prove that the natural world is a right place to be, and worthy of preserving and including in any education, is the most challenging aspect of my five decades as an educator! I first addressed these thoughts in 1979 in my piece, “Canoeing on the Nissoquoque” in the New York Times, and I don’t think I will ever stop addressing them. A firm grasp of the obvious does not seem to be enough.

Even if we did provide data on the obvious value of the natural world in education, the powers that be would want to know what the standards for outdoor learning would be, what the test would look like, what the insurance liability would be. All that.

The value of being in unspoiled ecosystems free of distraction is more knowable than things you can prove. It is an intrinsic and deep-rooted truth. Forest school children develop intelligence through avoiding poison ivy, surviving in wilderness, taking worthy (developmental) risks, using proprioception, hearing and seeing farther afield, reading weather, self-administering first aid, and engaging with other species. In urban environments, a proliferation of side lot and rooftop gardens is advancing a non-threatening, safe and healthy version of forest teaching and learning that beats reading a textbook about nutrition by a mile and stimulates all senses. It works wonders on emotional intelligence and development, as well[3].

Intelligence is sensitivity to the environment—but determining what the best environment is becomes cultural, political, and economic. Therefore, ecological sensitivity to the environment, “ecological intelligence,” is declining along with our forests. Amidst all the excitement for emerging artificial intelligence, the scary reality is not making it through the noise: our schools favor the artificial over the natural. This minute, there are way more kids in headphones than outside or in nature.

Those who devalue our relationship to the natural world include: educational publishing and testing companies, educational technology and computer firms, professors, school leaders, school architects, educational grant funders and grantees, the US Department of Education, and most educational researchers. Relationship to the natural world is not taught in schools of education, and it is not on teacher job or grant applications. In the next generation, not only will there have been loss of vast, natural landholdings and millions of extinctions, there will have been a loss of natural intelligence. Normal education will mean something so different and, being educated in this way, it is easy to predict that we will abide by all these losses.

Grauer 7th grade Life Science students creating an aquatic biome in a large jar - January 20, 2023

The great news for some educators is that there is a visible movement of fearless parents and teachers who are recognizing the value of outdoor education and the essential intelligence it imparts upon our children. For instance, the Association for Experiential Education, a worldwide professional association for outdoor and adventure education, holds (as a core value): “Challenge is often achieved through activities in the outdoors …we recognize the value of nature and the outdoors.”

We can transform the minds of our children into artificial terrain, or we can cultivate the wild in them. In fact, one of our graduates, Alex Espinosa, actually reported brilliantly on this for his senior capstone “graduation defense” project presented before his peers and teachers at Grauer. Other students who petitioned in Expeditionary Learning who demonstrated a connection to the natural world throughout high school while compiling great college records include Bennet Parker, Sophia Hall, Emerson Sims, and this year Embry R. '23.

Parents and educators seem to benefit as much from the study of and engagement in natural environments as their children. “Nature deficit” impacts all sorts of things: depression, anxiety, obesity, unhappiness, narrow-minded perspective, nearsighted vision, loss of creativity, suicide, unclear thought. You can google these findings all day. Better yet—teachers, parents—take a trip out to the San Diego East county, hike around some of those vast swathes of the backcountry of San Diego County’s “Mountain Empire,” and tap into some nature IQ. Go now! Take the dog. And when did you last walk the Grauer School nature trail?

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about forest schools and that you understand why The Grauer School values that movement, even though we are not a forest school. Or maybe we are.


[1] The Many Benefits of Learning in Nature, Montessori Nature.

[2] Do Experiences With Nature Promote Learning? Converging Evidence of a Cause-and-Effect Relationship, Frontiers in Psychology, Ming Kuo, Michael Barnes, Catherine Jordan, February 2019.

[3] Let It Grow, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Leah Shafer, July 31, 2018.

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Photos for Dr. Grauer's Column

California tidepool - January 29, 2023 - Photo by Dr. Stuart Grauer

Grauer Surf students warming themselves on a cold day during their surfing competition - January 28, 2023 - Photo by Dr. Stuart Grauer

Grauer students in the Climate Action Club sharing environmental knowledge and doing a craft with Preschool students at a local school - January 30, 2023

Grauer 7th grade Life Science students creating an aquatic biome in a large jar - January 20, 2023

Fearless Teaching® Book
by Dr. Stuart Grauer

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"Grauer’s writing reminds us that Great Teaching, singular, rare, unusual, is something that should be sought after and found. Thank you.”
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