animals in the classroom

Can schools reverse the "indoor migration"?

Suddenly, kids are spending nearly all of their time indoors — a wrenching historical change. In the last generation, Scott D. Sampson writes in How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature, our society has witnessed an "indoor migration":

One study found that the average American boy or girl spends four to seven minutes a day outdoors....

By comparison, those same average American kids devote more than seven hours daily to staring at screens, replacing reality with virtual alternatives. Most boys rack up more than 10,000 gaming hours before age twenty-one....

The net result of these staggering statistics is what author Robert Michael Pyle has dubbed "the extinction of experience," highlighted by the gaping chasm between children and nature.

Ho boy.

I struggle not to be anti-screen in a simplistic, knee-jerk sort of way, but when I mull over the rising rates of depression among young adults, and the simultaneous lowering rates of outdoor play, it makes me nervous.

(I'm open, by the way, to any evidence suggesting that the two are not linked. Correlation ain't causation, and all that.)

Sampson suggests that this flight from nature isn't something that parents want. Quite the opposite, actually:

In the United States, 65 percent of respondents regarded this issue either as "very serious" or "extremely serious." Parents believe that developing a connection with nature is critical to a child's development. Among American parents, 82 percent regard time in nature to be "very important" to their children's development, second in priority only to reading.

What I take from this is the realization that there's a huge desire for ways to give kids real experiences in nature. There are other organizations who do this, of course — the Scouts come to mind! But because schools engage with childen five days a week, they seem to offer an even greater possibilities for reordering childhood to something more healthy.

So, our big question o' the week: how could a new kind of school regularly connect children with nature?

That's one of the riddles we're trying to unravel.

So far, our answers include bringing animals and plants into the classroom and cooking lunch together. We're also considering some manner of adventure playground. Though I haven't yet written about it here, we're also planning to engage in what Kieran Egan has dubbed "whole school projects" with a local natural site: a riverbed, for example, that we can regularly experience and intensively study for a number of years.

But let me raise this explicitly: how else can we do it?

How can a new kind of school lead the charge in re-connecting kids with nature?

What does a school for humans ACTUALLY LOOK LIKE?


For years, we've been talking about schools for humans in the "subjunctive mood":If a school did this, then... We suggest that schools do this, because...

But as of three weeks ago, we're in business! We've helped launch the Island Academy of Hilton Head, a K–8 school off the coast of South Carolina. It's headed by Lee Rottweilor, the brave, daring, and bold onetime contributor to this blog.

So what can a school for humans actually look like? Now we get to find out!

Lee's been sending out regular e-mails to students' families to keep them abreast of the wonderful things their kids are up to. The letters give a taste of what life can be like in a school for humans.

Wednesday's e-mail, I think, is worth quoting here in its entirety!

From Lee Rottweilor 8 September 2015

Hi, all!

Today was filled with writing life stories and analytical book reviews; math explorations; discovery, collection, and release into our aquarium of some tadpoles; Greek Gods!, and dis-assembly of a vacuum.
A moment of reflection and explanation about the vacuum dis-assembly:
First, we posed a simple question: how does a vacuum suck dirt off the floor? Then, we discussed what a hypothesis is, and the kids wrote their own hypotheses explaining how vacuums suck.
I shared my hypothesis: there is a small gerbil inside the vacuum, and that small gerbil inhales air REALLY hard through a straw... his inhaling pulls dirt from the floor.
We then discussed something very critical about hypotheses... that they must be testable and that we must be able to describe test results that would, if present, disprove our hypothesis.
Then, the kids shared their ideas, and with their powers combined, decided that vacuums have motors that turn a fan that does the "opposite of pushing" air.
We decided that if we did not find a tiny gerbil inside the vacuum, Lee's hypothesis would not hold water. We also decided that we would need to find a motor and a fan inside the vacuum for the kids' hypothesis to survive our test.
We talked a bit about why none of them believed they would find a gerbil and why all of them believed they would find a motor...
Then, the kids went to work taking the vacuum apart!
First, the kids found their fan. Then, after more tinkering, they found what they think is the motor. They did not find a tiny gerbil :(
So, naturally, we asked more questions... how does the motor work? What powers it? Oh, electricity.... does electricity from the wall turn this copper and metal and plastic?
Perhaps that mystery will be uncovered next!

And that's just what they did on Wednesday.
Regular readers may note the presence here of a few curriculum elements first proposed on this blog: dissecting technology, personal math puzzles, animals in the classroom, and Big Spiral History. And woven throughout is serious question-posing and answer-hunting.
And this is just where they are, three weeks in!
Stay tuned for the sweet delights — and inevitable challenges — in store!