The School Children? They Sat.

We spend hours and hours outside in nature with friends each week. The children never tire of it. Even after 5 hours playing they are never quite ready to leave.

Time in nature is important to us, and we make it a priority.

The School Children? They Sat.

“Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”
― Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods

On this particular day, a school group was having an excursion at the same place we were sitting. We sighed inwardly. Ok outwardly, let’s be honest, we’re a bunch of passionate unschoolers. We expected that things would be a bit less peaceful than usual considering we’re used to having most nature spots to ourselves.

We needn’t have worried.

Sure, they were physically there. But they didn’t make any noise. They didn’t venture from their designated area. They may as well have not been there at all.

Actually, I’m not exactly sure why they were.

They marched in, two by two, spread out a mat, and there they stayed. Seated. Practically silent. Instructed to ‘shh’ and ‘sit down’ and eat their lunch.

The School Children? They Sat.

Our children ran down to meet friends, excitedly shouting ‘hello’, sharing things they’d brought, helping themselves to food, and then running off to play together.

The stark contrast in the different ‘experiences’ of nature was apparent from the beginning.

Things didn’t get better from here.

The School Children? They Sat.

Our children collected sticks to make a pretend fire.

The school children sat.

The School Children? They Sat.

Our children ventured off into the distance to play a game of ‘families’.

The school children sat, completing worksheets.

The School Children? They Sat.

Our children ran back to collect some food to take back and share as a group.

The school children had a brief reprieve from ‘work’ where they stood, on their mat, silently doing some teacher-led stretches. And then? They sat.

Our children’s yells and laughter could be heard from quite an impressive distance.

The school children sat. Silent.

The School Children? They Sat.

Our children spotted a wallaby and followed it excitedly, observing what it was up to.

The school children sat, on their mat, eyes on their worksheets.

Our children decided on a new project and went to look for supplies.

The school children sat and listened to a guided meditation.

The School Children? They Sat.

Our children worked together to carry heavy branches for a shelter they were constructing.

The school children ran! But our excitement at their momentary freedom was short-lived. They didn’t run freely to play. They ran in a group, under the instruction of a teacher, to a tree and back three times. Thirty seconds of meaningless movement and then what? You guessed it. They sat.

The School Children? They Sat.

Our children collaborated, negotiated, and cooperated on a mutually agreed upon goal. Together lifting the branches to place them where they wanted.

The school children sat.

The School Children? They Sat.

Our children huddled together in their shelter playing with some toys they’d bought, and sharing food.

The school children were marched in line back to the bus from where they came. No time for anything outside of what had been planned for them.

The School Children? They Sat.

Our children played on for long after they were gone. They eventually walked back, hand in hand, to where the parents were sitting, sad that it was time to go home.

As I surveyed the scene, my child, full of life, calling to her friends, and in the background, a group of children all dressed the same doing their stretches, I was left dumbfounded, outraged, and sad by what we had witnessed. What had been the point of this entire exercise? Why had they come? They were surrounded by such beauty! Wide open spaces to run, trees, sticks, rocks, dirt, grass, wildlife. It was a child’s dream! And yet, they experienced none of it. Instead of letting the children run and play they literally had them stand silently and stretch for exercise. If I had of written a parody of this situation I couldn’t have done it better.

The School Children? They Sat.

Instead of being allowed to play, to learn naturally, to be creative, inspired, invigorated, autonomous, joyful, spontaneous, animated, respected, self-motivated, and free… there they sat. Silently. Not even on the grass! All they had done could have happened in a classroom, just like every other school day. An opportunity had been thoroughly missed. And unfortunately, this is not a unique incident. Whenever we see a school group out in the real world, there they are with their clipboards and worksheets, standing in line, following instructions, shoes on (even at the beach!), not interacting with the environment they are visiting.

I do not have the details of exactly what this group were doing, but I am having trouble imagining what could be more interesting, valuable, and important than experiencing the wonderful environment around them. The only reason I can come up with that they ventured out was so that they could tick ‘nature excursion’ off the list. That the school could boast about all the wonderful ‘opportunities’ and experiences kids had. I imagine their parents, happy that they’d been taken out to have fun, unaware of what this ‘nature time’ really looked like.

This could have been so much more. But at school, play is not enough. A child’s games are not enough. A child is not to be trusted to play without constant supervision. A child is not capable of being safe and reasonable. A child does not know best how they should spend their time. After all, there was nothing tangible our children had to show for their day. You can’t measure full hearts, inspired minds, tree climbing, grubby hands, sore muscles from running and lifting, love between friends, cooperation, the feeling of bare feet connected to the earth. But a worksheet is something valuable, right? You want something that shows a child did something. Doesn’t really matter how they felt about it, or if any real learning occurred.

The School Children? They Sat.

“The great purpose of school can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places. It is to master the physical self, to transcend the beauty of nature. School should develop the power to withdraw from the external world.” – William Torrey Harris, U.S. Commissioner of Education 1889-1906

What are we honestly doing to children? I’m not sure if the work they were completing was even vaguely related to their environment, considering they were not getting up to investigate anything. It was possibly just the same old story, different location. I imagine there was a nature theme though right? So this is our idea of educating kids about the earth. You take them out of their natural environment, stop them from experiencing nature firsthand, and then expect to artificially inject them with all the required information they need. You take them on a few field trips where they barely get a whiff of the beauty that surrounds them and pat yourself on the back for this bright idea. What absolute nonsense.

“One of the great tragedies of schooling is how it has ripped people out from nature and locked them up into rooms for eight hours a day. And, I think the profound kind of damage that it’s doing to us we’ll only recognise generations from now and we’ll look back and say, “How could we have done this kind of thing to people?”, thinking that creating concrete jails and locking people up and giving them books that tell them about nature is a better way to think about life than actually spending time in nature.” -Manish Jain, Schooling the World

And I know, we’re not supposed to criticise. We’re supposed to accept that schools have children’s best interests in mind. We’re not supposed to say that our way is ‘better’. They’re doing their best. Some kids love completing worksheets in nature. But for every person that is confronted by my words, there is another who is thankful. Who tells me they feel less alone. Who feels supported when they too stand up and say this is wrong. Who feels more able to find another solution for their child. And that matters to me.

Children matter to me.

I reserve the right to have an opinion about the disrespectful treatment of children and the deep-rooted childism in our society.

Children deserve autonomy, respect, trust, and freedom. They deserve to play and run and be loud! They deserve to be taken seriously. They have a right to be themselves and make decisions about their own lives. They deserve real experiences in the world, not fake ones to satisfy a curriculum checklist. They need free play and time to connect with nature, and we do them harm by replacing this with adult controlled experiences.

This is not ok. Where did we go so wrong that this is now what environmental education looks like? What are you going to do about it?

The School Children? They Sat.

“Children are designed, by nature, to play and explore on their own, independently of adults. They need freedom in order to develop; without it they suffer. The drive to play freely is a basic, biological drive. Lack of free play may not kill the physical body, as would lack of food, air, or water, but it kills the spirit and stunts mental growth.” -Peter Gray, Free to Learn

24 thoughts on “The School Children? They Sat.

  1. Yes, whenever a teacher takes a class on a trip in the UK they are required to fill out a risk assessment form. So allowing the children to run around freely invites injuries from tripping, getting lost or abducted because there is no fence etc. You get the picture. It seems that the teacher was so fearful that she had to control their movements at all times. It could be that the school health and safety policy forbade her to let the children explore independently.
    Children are not trusted in this situation. They would probably get into more scrapes than your brood precisely because they have not been trusted to learn cause and effect and what their bodies are capable of, and how to stay safe. They have not been given those opportunities to learn in a mixed-age group of children who teach and guide each other with love.
    Unfortunately, it is likely that many of those children will grow into adults who are afraid of nature too.

  2. I was a high school teacher, and I used to push the boundaries of the classroom, I would take kids outside and sit them on the oval, instead of being in the classroom, I would teach computer programming outside using all of us a live avatars in a pretend computer game (so we would play with forcing ourselves not to use our human common sense and try to grasp the simplicity of computer logic).

    It never worked. I so desperately wanted it to. The other teachers thought I was a ninny, and the pressure to conform was immense. The students had no idea how to behave (outside was for wild and big behaviour) and so didn’t know how to be the ‘perfect outdoor student’for me… One that would spread out comfortably in their assigned spot and quietly contemplate how great it was that we weren’t in a classroom…. While being aware that my entire teaching abilities were now in full view of half the faculty (peering out of their windows and judging, or worse – laughing).

    I was only a few years out of my teacher training, and trying to figure out how to bring my wonderful beliefs into the realities of a classroom, and a school. So much just didn’t work, and the things that did required so much prep and planning on my part that they were unsustainable…. The only sustainable method was the same as everyone else… Stick to the curriculum and keep everyone in check.

    I kept all my juniors classes operating perfectly and after a few years I found myself about to take a few more liberties, my senior IT class (The basic IT class) could be allowed to bum around in the classroom doing whatever they wanted, because I had earned the right to argue on their behalf, only because all my other classes were so exemplary, I still couldn’t let them leave the classroom even a minute early (Because I would be judged badly by the faculty and earn a lecture from my boss about safety).

    tl;dr Teachers don’t have what an unschool parent has – it is a job and they must do as they are instructed too, primarily complete the curriculum in the limited time acquire with maximum student success.

    • I know how little freedom teachers have, especially in the U.S. But I really applaud you for trying to do things differently! Even if it was unsustainable, you did try to innovate education for more kids, and I think that’s wonderful.

    • Thank you. I am currently a teacher disappointed by these same things. My students are so drilled by the system that even pointing them onto tables of four for group work throws them and makes me the subject of criticsm. I still struggle with this…but I haven’t given up hope yet.

    • Your situation highlights that the change needs to occur at POLICY level. The administrators supporting teachers with research-backed best practice. Find solidarity with like-minded educators and never give up.

  3. Children in these circumstances probably would get hurt if they ventured out to pick up sticks and rocks, because they don’t know how to handle themselves in that situation. When we see a field trip of kids at a playground or anywhere, they act like wild animals released from a cage! The teachers are constantly around shouting to be careful and stay in line. There are many times I ask school friends if they get out into nature and go on excursions on the weekend as a family, the answer is most always no.

  4. It’s all wrong and heartbreaking too.
    I’m about to start unschooling my little ones but I live on a small island with so few home educators, let alone unschoolers.
    Would love for my kids to have a tribe to hang out with frequently but I can’t see how that will happen. I love island life but this is one drawback that I didn’t foresee! We’ll see how we go…

    • Mossy.mermaid (on instagram) and her family lead a unique (& very cool sounding) homeschool life off Vancouver Island on a floating house that might inspire/encourage you in your path☺
      We’re an undefined family of 5 (almost 6!) homelearners/unschoolers/(?) & have tried a few different paths but the current one we’re on has been the best for each family member, as well as our family dynamic. Having other homeschool families in our lives has been great, but your situation reminded me of mossy & I think it’s worth checking out!
      bewildandfree.org is another cool site worth checking out too.

      • Thank you Julia! I will look those links up.
        And thank you also, Sara, for writing such an thought provoking and inspiring blog – I’m always interested to hear your perspectives and how your family do life together! Wonderful to read.

  5. Education is only limited by the imagination of the educator. How much time and energy, one can spend planning and connecting experiences to educational outcomes the better.
    I believe you are blaming the wrong people. The educators and their administration would not need to worry about risk assessments and retribution if parents did not force them to. This has been generations in the making through a society that is too large and people no longer connecting through community groups, losing trust and faith in common beliefs and goals for raising children. The saying, a village raises a child, does not apply to a majority I fear.
    Time constraints when multiple families are involved in an activity will also effect time spent outdoors.
    If all parents took time to educate their children out of school hours on how to interact with nature, then their childs’ experiences in school could be challenged further perhaps.
    I believe in education for all, whatever form that shall be. Restricting opportunity to learn in any curriculum areas is of serious concern for future generations.

  6. We’re fortunate enough to live a block from an urban forest. On the way home from the Farmers’ Market yesterday our 6 y.o. went up a redwood like she was climbing a ladder. It’s incredibly nice to have a place where the kids can let loose, and where they can absorb the sights and sounds of nature. We also practice a form of urban free play. The kids are always in front of us where we can see them, but anywhere up to the other end of the block away. They’re learning how to be comfortable in their environment, and independent. We frequently get genuinely concerned onlookers trying to figure out where the parents are. Once I wave to make myself obvious, they smile and move on. Compared to what I might have expected, it’s been a really nice experience so far.

  7. You have just described the precise reason why I took my children out of school. With any excursion they grew excited about, disappointment followed… “it looked like a fun place but we didn’t get to do much”. Much the same in the classroom (minus the fun place bit). All of the potential collaboration, use of materials, even potentially open ended materials, was either not allowed or so over directed that no play or therefore learning was given freedom to take place. Heart breaking. No wonder the adult experience in our society is often dulled down and depleted of free thinking.

  8. Hi Sara! I love your blog and find your articles really inspiring. I have a question that is not really related to this article but I wasn’t sure exactly where to post it…which is – how do you (if you do) find time to exercise (or another alternative activity that would be just for you)? My son is 5 and attends a lovely school 9am-1pm – the school gives the kids a lot of freedom (obviously not as much as unschooling but a lot more than the average school), has some mixed-age classes, prioritizes independent thought, creativity, process over result, doesn’t give homework etc While he is there, I get to do an exercise class, and then in the afternoon we get to do lots of fun things together. So I’m happy with our situation for now. But as he gets older, I don’t know whether we will have the same options – I don’t want him to end up in a traditional school. My concern is – if I have to take him out of school to homeschool, how will I ever do any exercise!? My husband works long hours so having him babysit isn’t an option. Any thoughts? I know this seems like a petty concern, but it’s important to me.

  9. I’ve spent the last five minutes trying to decide whether or not to comment here , tears escaping as my nine month old sleeps in my lap. The thought of my child and his as yet unconceived siblings being a part of that school group one day when they could be running freely in nature makes me feel quite devastated. I suspect my husband would think I’m being silly, after all, we both went to school and turned out ok. Didn’t we? Not entirely sure where to go from here but wanted to let you know that I don’t think I’ve been affected so strongly by a post since I became a mum. Food for thought at least I guess.

    • Start planting seeds with your husband. Your baby is so little, you have lots of time left to convince him. We started talking about it before we had kids and now my husband’s fully on board!

  10. I am hooked on your blog. I was directed here by an unschooler I connected with in a facebook group. We have made the move to Unschool our children 5, 3 and 8 months. I have been really very nervous about the ‘unknown’; but reading your words and seeing how passionate you are about it all, gives me confidence in our decision. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

  11. I cannot get my sixth grader to do anything on an iPad. She is too busy writing poetry in a spiral notebook. We have to restrict her reading time if she starts her homework late.

    I would be ok with writing poetry on an electronic medium. But it does not feel good like a pencil, or so she says. Her tactile nature is cultivated by years of playing with rocks and stuffed animals.

  12. I love every one of the quotes you have written, they absolutely resonate with me. I have just stated homeschooling my 3 kids after being in the school system for a number of years now.

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