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Country Day Schools Redivivus?

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It's summertime, and at least in places not subject to air quality warnings, flash flood watches, and severe heat advisories (most of the U.S. this past weekend, I realize), the historical view of American society says kids should be playing outside. The reality, however, tends to be a little different. It's an indoor kind of world, mostly, and it's no wonder Richard Louv writes about "Nature-Deficit Disorder." It's no wonder some of the most urgent-sounding email I receive comes from the Children & Nature Network, dedicated to creating "world where every child
can play, learn and grow in nature."

Two of the schools I've worked in have been called "country day school"--part of a movement, at the turn of the 20th century, to get middle class kids out of their indoor lifestyles and give them, as a part of every day, plenty of exposure to fresh, unpolluted air, pure sunlight, and morally salubrious greenery. Nowadays, of course, my 90+-year-old country day schools are both embedded deep in suburbia, situated on busy four-lane streets a short walk from shopping malls; so much for "country."

Fortunately, required athletics and felicitous architecture still mean some contact with the out-of-doors and bright sunlight. But these are no longer educational goals in themselves; whatever country day schools once were, mine are no longer in the original sense. And we keep reading about all kinds of schools scrapping outdoor recess to make time for test preparation.

The word of the moment is "innovation," with all of its connotations of technological wizardry and entrepreneurialism. On the plus side, this includes social entrepreneurship, but its domestic version tends to involve doing good mainly in urban, underresourced communities. (Only in its international form does this work seem to reach much beyond cities; school service trip planners do love rural villages.)

Another new trend in education is design thinking--a kind of amped-up, project-based collaborative learning that combines creativity (good) with technical thinking (good), usually in quest of solutions to problems of social significance (good). It's all good, indeed--but in much of its application it has little to do with the Great Outdoors and the kinds of independent learning that kids can do wandering in the woods or paddling down a stream.

Even in independent schools, bastions of the liberal arts, there is an inescapable sense these days that school is about vocational or at least entrepreneurial preparation. Kids at St. Grottlesex may not be studying auto repair, but schools are happy to point out that their college prep curricula are replete with training in the 21st-century "soft skills" that employers are said to crave.

Once upon a time these soft skills--collaboration, creative problem-solving, stick-to-it-iveness (once again, as it we did a century ago, we're calling it grit), and optimism--were the province of either self-teaching (kids playing Robin Hood in the woods or the alleyways) or structured programs like scouting; at the heart of both was the idea of adventure. A hundred years ago a popular literary genre--the series book--featured small groups of like-minded youth (for example, the Motor Maids, the Radio Boys, the Banner Boy Scouts, the Girl Aviators) having really exciting adventures while busily solving all kinds of serious problems--many of them of a highly technical nature, and many of them very much to be tackled in the open air. (Time here for an acknowledgment that the "structured programs like scouting" and the determinedly bourgeois series books--in particular--were also sometimes vectors for the transmission for attitudes about class and race that in time turned the phrase "white middle class" into an epithet; the Boy Scouts famously still haven't found a way out of all their prejudices. One perhaps looks to this heritage to explain why environmentalism is viewed as elitist in some quarters.)

I'm not sure I see an answer, or even a very clear way ahead, but I wish that more educational gurus could take a real look outside the schoolhouse. This has to go beyond the "outdoor ed centers" to which we sometimes pack kids off for a week during the school year; noble as their aims may be, often their "no-this-or-that!" rules and occasionally overzealous staffmembers inadvertently present nature as a place of hardship and deprivation--not just a place for what Theodore Roosevelt called, in a very positive sense, "The Strenuous Life."

Design thinking, collaboration, problem-solving, and creativity can all be taught and take place in contexts that keep the door open between the schoolhouse, the home, and the natural world. Today's good ideas are just as applicable to learning in a world defined by the natural environment as they are to learning that happens indoors or online. We have only to turn our serious and concerted attention to the question of "nature-deficit disorder," and we could make easy strides toward erasing it.

It would be interesting to imagine what a return to the original idea of the country day school might look like: mandatory time out of doors, authentic field work. It seems to me that as social issues inequities like rural poverty, the beleaguered family farm, and environmental racism are plenty brutal enough to warrant schools' attention. And bring the laptops! Problems like these can absorb all the online research as well as all the creative thinking kids can do.

The new country day school, or the old country day school with a reinvigorated sense of its purpose as such, might just be as revolutionary in reconnecting kids with nature as their originals were in keeping kids who might otherwise have been undone by the novel luxuries of the early 20th century grounded and healthy by dint of fresh air and sunlight. The reconstituted country day could open kids' eyes to new relationships, not just with nature but with their society and themselves. It would be a satisfyingly modern sort of education, all 21st-century and deeply informed by critical issues.

This new education might even lead to an updated and righteous run of series books; I'd like to think that kids could still be inspired by really multicultural, high-tech, high-drama stories of The Nanotech Girls in the North Woods, The FabLab Rangers on the Mississippi, or The Maker Kids and Their Solar Soil Rejuvenator, wouldn't you? Kids could even read 'em on their smartphones.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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