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Dr. Grauer's Column - Six Ways to Get Out of Mud

Six Ways to Get Out of Mud

People now spend just around 5% of their time out of doors. It is time to label what this really is: it is tragedy. It is “nature deficit disorder” and there are six ways out.

Who remembers the 1970's school-building movement? Legislators and big-time researchers, worried about distraction in the American schoolhouse, influenced hundreds of public-school districts to build schools with no windows. In any classroom. A friend of mine from Arkansas works in such a classroom to this day. I’d rather teach in mud.

Grauer 7th grade students learning about tracking animals in their natural habitats from Dr. Grauer - April 12, 2019

At our school, with our big “Great Outdoors!” Gala celebration in one week, and at every faculty meeting all year, we are taking a stand against horrendous emerging data on isolation, depression, anxiety, suicide, and unhappiness, along with massive physical symptoms: low testosterone among men, cardiac problems, diabetes and obesity. You thought windowless classrooms were bad? I worry more about the complete neglect of peripheral and far-sighted vision and, yes, that’s a metaphor. You may have replaced the great outdoors with the screen in your home, or your spirit, and not even know it.

Kids are free range not because they are wild, but because we all learn best that way. We grow best in nature, connect best that way, express best that way. We inspire that way. Imagine a school where the field, the quad, the natural ecosystem, the classroom, the kitchen, the gardens, and even the open road are all a part of the daily learning—and where the limbic system is a playa’. Let’s call it: The Grauer School

Grauer's Sailing Team out on the water during a practice sailing sesson in Mission Bay - April 22, 2019

We are free range teachers. Six things we know and cherish at Grauer:

1. Our bodies and minds work best when they get plenty of sunshine. 

2. Active play is a great prerequisite and precursor for brain stimulation, especially in children. (Check the breaking research on BDNF for a squirt of endorphins.)

3. Creativity is learned and developed in unstructured time: when we use our imagination to problem-solve and entertain ourselves. (This is called “executive function” and many kids develop it running, moving, and creating in the out of doors.)

4. …But you could break an arm climbing a tree. Or you could also go through life and never climb trees. The fearful life poses the gravest risks of all—and I’d call this the real education epidemic today. Risk taking is the key to entrepreneurship and the adventuresome life.

5. And we believe in the power of belonging: Social connectedness does not occur all that well in rows!  If our children primarily interact in very structured and top-down settings, such as school rows or closely regulated sports teams, they won’t — they can’t — learn what they need to know. Ask Socrates.

6. A Harvard Health editor notes: “So much of our world is changing, and not for the better. If a child grows up never walking in the woods, digging in soil, tracking animals in their habitat, climbing a mountain, playing in a stream, or staring at the endless horizon of an ocean, they may never really understand what there is to be lost. If we are never lost in nature, we lose everything. The future of our planet depends on our children; they need to learn to appreciate it.” [1]

Grauer junior Tyler T. shooting photos on a Photography Class field trip in the Anza Borrego desert - April 9, 2019

We understand: the natural world is vanishing before our children’s eyes if they’re even looking and empowering them to study it is our duty. Standardized learning that has become severed from the human body, from its spirit and purpose, that puts the moon in a jar, is not just unhealthy tragedy, it’s not much fun. Still, teachers in most schools are disincentivized if not forbidden from taking kids outside by myriad hassles with forms, permissions, transportation, and logistics that administrators just frown on and find inefficient. 

We know: the smart money’s in normed testing materials, controlled teaching systems, and standardized curricula. Pearson Education and The College Board, the NRA of education, have a lock on our school funding and grant formulas, as I and a great many others have documented richly in many past columns and articles. 

At Grauer, we are imagining a school where the inside is out. Imagine a school where teachers are encouraged to get students outdoors or into “the real world” where the indoors and the out are a flow. A revolving door school. “Who wants to go and check out an earthquake gorge?” or demo exercise physiology on the beach? And we jump in a van.  

…where the outside is in: Great educators and parents imagine their children creating new worlds in their imaginations, where their minds and hearts speak freely. As great parents and educators, we are creating new worlds, too: robust, hugging, active, embodied schools. Free and open spaces where learning is a farm to table feast and, if we get a little muddy going from one space to another, that’s the art of teaching.

[1] Claire McCarthy, MD, "6 reasons children need to play outside", Harvard Health Publishing, May 22, 2018.


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Grauer 7th grade students Zander B. and Dylan I. exploring the San Elijo Lagoon on a nature hike - April 12, 2019

Grauer's Sailing Team out on the water during a practice sailing sesson - April 22, 2019

Grauer junior Tyler T. shooting photos on a Photography Class field trip in the Anza Borrego desert - April 9, 2019

Grauer 7th grade students learning about tracking animals in their natural habitats from Dr. Grauer - April 12, 2019

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