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Dr. Grauer's Column - Loafing Aimlessly

Loafing Aimlessly

“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills”
- Wordsworth

In its 2012 exhibit “The Century of the Child: 1900–2000,” the Museum of Modern Art noted,

"The benefits of play are extensive and well documented and include improvements in executive functioning, language, early math skills (numerosity and spatial concepts), social development, peer relations, physical development and health, and enhanced sense of agency. The opposite is also likely true; play deprivation is associated with the increasing prevalence of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder."

Sugata Mitra famously said, 

“Let our children wander aimlessly around ideas.”

Einstein “spent a year loafing aimlessly,” theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli writes in Seven Brief Lessons On Physics. “You don’t get anywhere by not ‘wasting’ time.” Time disappears into meaning when we go deeply into our own thing. 

Lunchtime interactions between Grauer students - February 5, 2019

We know that deeper learning occurs when a child is not rushed or pressured, when a child can swim in the content, invent in it. The Grauer “high trust, low threat environment” is designed this way. 

For our kids, is “doing your own thing” wise or is it is a waste of time? In this life of ours, are “success” and “falling behind” really mutually exclusive? Can we fall ahead?

Chillin’. Great realizations occur when we’re chilling—staring up at the sky, out to sea, or wandering among trees, fully “there”. Rovelli believed Einstein wouldn’t have come up with his theories if he hadn’t been inclined to just hang around—seemingly without purpose. As a teenager, Einstein learned to sail, and it was out on the water that he observed the workings of the universe and came to understand that space and time were curved, findings that revolutionized science.  

Making up your own play ideas is about more than playing: it is our way of being present, overcoming fears, and finding novel inspiration from the environment. If you have not noticed your child making up his/her own play ideas at some time, stop the homework! Drop a class. Get off the treadmill. Working hard on the treadmill throughout secondary school is sure to deliver you to another treadmill when you get off this one. Even the Common Core wants us to wander aimlessly around ideas now and then.

Natural environments promote real presence of mind. For instance, the Japanese practice of forest bathing is proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, boost the immune system, and improve overall feelings of well-being.[1] What’s this miracle? Just be with trees. No hiking, no counting steps on a Fitbit. You can sit or meander, but the point is to relax rather than accomplish anything. Without an open, receptive mind, learning is just punching the clock.

Grauer 7th graders Carson, Eliana, and Lily hiking on Annie's Canyon Trail - January 30, 2019

The Grauer School’s block scheduling, weeklong expeditions, office hours and routine outdoor learning helps students and teachers expand their study with fewer transitions, so they can have lengthy discussions and explorations. But we’re never free of the clock… making way for open space is a permanent effort.

Recess, the traditional name for unstructured outdoor time, allows children to design their own games, to test their abilities, to role-play, and to mediate their own conflicts—activities that are key to developing social skills and navigating complicated situations. Studies suggest that children who are given four 15-minute recesses a day are significantly more empathetic toward their peers than are kids who don’t get recess, and they concentrate better. [2]

Parents and teachers are sabotaging our best plans to create open space for creativity and freedom: daily after school structured activity, daily homework assignments, daily appointments with specialists or coaches, bells ringing in intervals all day, regulation and refs at every athletic event. This is no way to learn! The constant, artificial change creates stress, frustration, and anxiety—and some of our kids are so used to stress, frustration and anxiety that they don’t know it’s okay to live without it in a free world. Or they don’t feel empowered to change it. 

Grauer 7th grade student Eli concentrating on his archery shot - January 8, 2019

Imagine. You walk into a class. A student is in a swivel chair moving back and forth, back and forth, trying to attend, knowing that if he does not he will hear another round of “Why can’t you sit still!” When he hears this again, he will not think to say, “Because I am a kid and it makes no sense for me to be in a chair this long!” The human mind was not designed for constant interruption in a weatherless world. But when given extended periods of time in inquiry and a natural or curated “maker” environment, students find their own ways to engage the mind, body and senses.

A set of background assumptions have taken over the lives and psyches of parents and teachers all over our country, and most of them sound something like this: “We have to play according to a preformulated set of rules.” But that’s not true.

[1] "The Japanese practice of ‘forest bathing’ is scientifically proven to improve your health", Quartz, October 12, 2016.

[2] Pellegrini and Bohn, “The Role of Recess in Children’s Cognitive Performance and School Adjustment”, Educational Researcher, Jan./Feb. 2005.

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