Why You Should Enroll Your Child in an Outdoor School Program

It’s no secret that our children are becoming increasingly distant from the natural world. With a greater dependence on technology, virtual relationships, and indoor activities, many children rarely experience the outdoors.

Even in school, time spent outdoors on field trips and during recess is shrinking across the country. But children are meant to explore, learn, and discover in the natural world. 

That’s why an outdoor school might be the best option for your middle school-aged children. Not only will your children receive a quality education, but they will spend time outdoors daily. They will build a lasting connection with the natural world.

There are many reasons why an outdoor school program may be one of the best opportunities for your kids. Keep reading to discover what outdoor learning looks like, as well as the most important benefits of outdoor school.

What Is Outdoor School?

Outdoor education takes on many different forms depending on what program you are considering. At Voyagers Community School, that means students in grades 6-8 spend at least 10 hours a week outdoors. The remaining time is spent in the classroom to continue the learning that began outside.

We rely on a scientific, hands-on approach to learning that boosts student motivation, active thinking, and confidence. Learning outside the classroom allows students to engage all their senses.

It also allows them to have new experiences, try new activities, and discover their true potential. Here’s how outdoor school can benefit your children. 

Develop an Appreciation for Nature

Children today are growing more and more distant from nature. In fact, many kids spend twice as much time playing video games as they do playing outside.

Today’s youth don’t know what it means to climb a tree, catch a fish, or hike through the woods. They’ve lost their connection to nature.

An outdoor school program may be the perfect solution to the indoor epidemic. When your child spends time outdoors during school hours, they will be free to explore, discover the natural world, and fall in love with nature.

As a result, they may be less inclined to play inside after school and more motivated to get back outdoors. This is known as the “follow-up” effect that is commonly associated with outdoor recreation or education programs. 

Encourage a Healthy Lifestyle

Spending time outside encourages a healthy lifestyle. When children play and learn outdoors, they will naturally get more exercise, reducing the risk of childhood obesity.

On top of that, the fresh air, sunshine, and interaction with the elements boost mental and physical health. Studies have shown that those who spend more time outside in green spaces experience less stress. They also experience a reduced risk of type II diabetes, along with other conditions.

Time outdoors also exposes us to natural light. This is crucial to developing a healthy circadian rhythm. More time outside correlates with longer, higher quality sleep at night. Better sleep leads to healthier kids, emotionally and physically.

Learning and playing outdoors throughout the week is vital. This is especially true for teenagers, who are experiencing more stress and anxiety disorders than ever before. Nature helps children and adults alike feel calmer. This leads to clear thinking and healthy interactions with others. 

Improve Academic Performance 

Many parents wonder if time outside distracts students from learning. Actually, it’s the opposite. Spending time in nature, whether playing by the creek or conducting a formal lesson outdoors, boosts academic performance

For one, test scores improve for students who learn outdoors. But self-esteem, conflict resolution, and motivation in the classroom all improve over those students who learn exclusively indoors.

Exposure to natural, green areas daily also improves children’s ability to focus. This leads to less restlessness inside the classroom, improving the learning experience as well as behavior.

Discover New Interests

Much of our student’s time in the woods revolves around learning traditional content, such as mathematics, history, science, and other subjects. But they also devote plenty of time to trying new things, such as fishing, boating, orienteering, and hiking.

They engage with nature in a way that most kids are no longer doing. This leads to children discovering new hobbies and passions that will instill a lifetime of outdoor exploration inside each of them.

Learn New Skills

When children spend time outside each day, playing and learning, they quickly gain new skills, both practical and behavioral.

One day, children might learn how to use a compass. Another day, they might be planting a garden, learning how to grow fruits and vegetables, or distinguishing between different plant species.

When allowed to explore outdoors, children develop a sense of independence. They learn how to problem solve, how to think critically, and how to collaborate with others towards a common goal. 

All of these skills work together to provide education for the whole child, not just the academic aspect. 

Fosters Environmental Stewardship

At Voyagers Community School, we are aware that everything we do has an environmental impact. As a result, we strive to operate as sustainably as possible. Our goal is to take care of the environment and limit our footprint. We do this by choosing eco-friendly products and supplies. We also participate in green energy programs to power our facilities.

And as our students spend time each day in nature, they learn that everything they do affects the environment as well. As they become participants with nature, they discover how our environment is changing every day.

So while they are developing an appreciation for nature, they are also learning to be stewards of our planet.

Apply For Our Outdoor School

It’s hard to argue with the benefits that outdoor school provides, particularly for young teenagers. At this age, social pressure and anxiety often distract students from learning. But spending time in nature’s classroom can motivate young learners like never before.

Are you interested in enrolling your middle school children in our outdoor school? You can inquire today about the upcoming school year to see if our program is right for you.

To Grade or Not To Grade: Sparking Intrinsic Motivation

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

Leaders in the field of education have spent lots of time addressing the question of assessment, standardized testing, and reporting grades. Why? Because they believe grades motivate. Many educators are rethinking this theory and consider it shortsighted. Teachers and even whole schools are dedicating time to discussing intrinsic motivation. What makes students want to do their very best?  Are there ways in which we stifle this? Inevitably, grades and rankings weave their way into conversations. 

In most schools across America, a student’s work boils down to one thing, a grade, which represents everything about the child’s progress in a class and, collectively, during a school year. Most people say, “So what, shouldn’t the best student be rewarded?” “How else are we going to know how a student is performing and what they learned?”  More often, educators are realizing grades are subjective, arbitrary and, often, demoralizing. Whether an “A” or a “D”, grades serve to squelch motivation, limit possibilities, and ignore a student’s learning path. Grades either open or close doors, as they become gatekeepers to colleges and careers. 

Progressive schools around the world and in our very communities are built on ideas, challenges, and reflective engagement. Among these ideas is the abandonment of grades wholly or partially. Instead, educators in these schools compose narrative reports and often, with older students’ self-reflection in mind, provide an individualized and comprehensive evaluation. They rarely assign grades and always provide a lengthy look at the whole person in the context of academic, social, and emotional learning. 

There is no limit to what can be learned when the race to the best grades is removed from the equation. When students can dig in without fear of failing or slipping in class rank anxiousness disappears and the floodgates open. Teachers are assured learning happens because interest builds and risks are taken. Students are not hampered by an impending grade. Even when grades are a part of a student’s life, as is the case at Voyagers’ Community School’s (VCS) High School in Eatontown, grading becomes a group project. Students create rubrics, grade themselves and others, and defend their position regarding grades. High schoolers are encouraged to debate assigned grades. 

So, what about teaching at a progressive school where content and student engagement rather than grades prove a teacher’s worth? This is a challenging job. Faculty members are asked to keep students’ interests at the fore and to incorporate the skills they need to learn. The conversations that are typical among teachers include constant questions, recap, and “what ifs”. Teams of teachers talk about what they heard; how they, compared to their colleagues, interpret what they heard; what it means; and where to go next. Designing and delivering a class that is flexible yet structured, deep without preconceived notions, and student-directed is not for the faint-hearted. As a humanities teacher entering a two-hour class without a sure plan, I often feel like I do when I fly a stunt kite. “Where in the world is it going and how do I keep it in flight?” It’s exhausting, energizing, and always interesting. No class is like another. Some are stupendous. This is not because I was on my game, it’s because together we, the students, and teachers, connected well beyond that which is typically evaluative. 

At VCS we invest an inordinate number of hours in narrative documentation for all of our students and students demonstrate learning through the use of digital portfolios. We skip grading for all students through eighth-grade; translate work to grades for 7th and 8th graders applying to local schools and academies; and grade high school students over stretches of time, with their help. In an hour or two, a parent can see and, in conversation with a student, understand what has been learned. This is far more informative than any single grade or collection of grades. It is far more reflective of a teacher’s ability to engage, motivate, and inspire students. Narrative reporting can be implemented in any classroom, or school-wide, with a shift of perspective. In this way, teachers and students are rewarded.

In this environment, grades become one piece of a larger narrative, as teachers keep detailed notes and students and teachers populate individual digital portfolios that show and tell the topics and ideas being explored and the work being done. Of greater importance, students and teachers openly question each other’s thinking, work, and contribution to the learning environment. This goes well beyond the competition that comes with grades. Students are motivated because they see themselves in a broader world outside of themselves and they want to be a part of the conversation. Through this interplay students become passionate learners, who know themselves deeply, direct themselves, take criticism, and push to improve. This can’t be graded and shouldn’t be undervalued.

When Pets Go To School

It is somewhat common to see pets in a preschool classroom although the incidence of such is diminishing with pressures rooted in liability and the emergence of corporate childcare centers. It’s far less likely to see pets in an elementary, middle, or high school classroom. This is unfortunate, as it is an opportunity missed. The American Humane Association (AHA), following an extensive study, “Pets In the Classroom, July 2015, which includes interviews and surveys of teachers, suggests that “the use of pets in classrooms may benefit children in social, behavioral, and/or academic realms.” 

According to the AHA, teachers view both the uses and benefits of classroom pets as primarily centering around six objectives. These include teaching children responsibility and leadership and compassion and empathy. Children who have pets in their classroom develop respect for all living things. Also, pets in school enhance and enrich a variety of traditional and non-traditional academic lessons, from science to language arts. Pets provide a gateway to relaxation when children are stressed or when their behavior is unstable and/or challenging to manage. Pets often help students feel comfortable and engaged in the classroom and with their peers, making the school environment more conducive to quality learning, growth, and social connections. Pets at school expose students to new experiences and opportunities, particularly for those who do not have pets of their own. This often translates to a decrease in unfounded fears and mitigates cultural biases children may possess. 

Sure, there are challenges to welcoming classroom pets; this is not for everyone. Some teachers are faced with out-of-pocket expenses to care for the pet. In addition, they must be willing and able to assume the responsibility of pet care and accommodations if all other plans fall through. Teachers must ensure safe, productive, and educational interactions between the students and the pet(s) and, sooner or later, address, cope with and help students process the death of a pet. 

At Voyagers’ Community School, and in similar schools and classrooms around the country, pets are integral to the everyday goings-on.  Guinea pigs, fish, iguanas, pairs of rabbits, geckos, and even dogs are often welcomed. A school that is mindfully and carefully managing these beloved pets has lots of discussions with students, parents, faculty, staff and visiting guests. Often, the teacher, with the aid of the students, establish classroom pet monitors, compose charts and agreements that outline the proper care of the pet, establish rules for holding or interacting with the pet, and devise directives and detailed plans for the loving care of the pet during after school hours. 

From its inception, Voyagers’ students have requested pets. Our first attempt was a rabbit who perished early due to an illness contracted prior to our adoption. From this arose a discussion about cultural traditions around death and the care of the body and spirit of once-living things. Losing a pet stirred our sense of caution but several years later we adopted turtles. To this day, two turtles, Raphael and Donatello bask in their oversized tank and react with interest to any person who approaches. Following this, and for years, we have welcomed trout eggs which hatch and grow through the school year and are released in May. No one will forget the day a preschooler overfed the trout without notice. Again we discussed thoughtful care for living things, death, respect, and our community’s traditions. The children established our pet cemetery. Included in our current menagerie are goldfish, a gecko, turtles, and our beloved Shih Tzu, Socks, who was selected by the students from a litter of three and has, for eight years, roamed our halls and played ball in our yard sporting her therapy vest. To be honest, we have turned down many potential pets including snakes, rodents, birds, and rabbits. When welcoming pets, it is important to know your limits.

For those educators who want to introduce pets but are not ready to commit to their full-time care, there are alternate ways to introduce students to pets. Consider joint custody between 2 or more classes, pets on loan from local pet shops (some requiring a small deposit), hatchlings such as chicks or pheasants, who, after about a week are placed on a farm, or visiting therapy dogs. If you are sold on the idea, explore grants to support your classroom pet. Visit petsintheclassroom.org to learn more.

Let’s Talk About “Back To School”

As parents, grandparents, students, teachers, and community leaders ready ourselves for another school year for our children, we should ask of our test and standards-driven schools around the country, “Is that all there is?” We all have the responsibility of assuring today’s children that we are providing them with the very best conditions for the ultimate outcome.  

Yes, children should learn and even master reading, writing, and thinking mathematically. They should also have a good sense of US and world history, geography, and science. Hopefully, there is time for art, music, technology, and physical education. The day should be balanced out with sufficient time for lunch and recess too. 

The three R’s are “must-haves” but it is everyday experiences that grow our children’s sense of place, identity, and talent. Will they be outgoing, gregarious, curious, generous, intuitive, studious, ingenious, and worldly or the opposite? Will school, where children spend the majority of their waking hours, bolster or squelch the greatest possibilities in each child?

The best in children arises from a school environment that creates and fosters hope, acceptance, compassion, love, curiosity, strength, connectivity, empathy, unity, and intelligence. In these environments, children create defining images of themselves individually and in community with others. You might ask, “How does a school provide the optimal experience for each child?”

It begins with thoughtfully designed and appointed spaces, not just because it looks good, but because it says to a child, “You are important.” “You deserve beautiful spaces.”  Children will feel nurtured when beauty and care is expressed through the design and decor of classrooms, play yards, the school building, and common areas. Turn on the TV or search for a podcast or webinar, and you will find a home decor show every day of the week, without fail. We think about and strive to achieve warmth and aesthetically pleasing spaces at home because it expresses us and wraps us in comfort. It brings out our best selves. This is true in schools as well. 

Creating the optimal school environment requires unconstrained time for thinking, doing, and exploring all ideas, even those that seem outlandish. When this happens in a classroom or a whole school, it tells children, “What you think matters.” “Your curiosity piques my interest.” “Your contribution is significant and beneficial to our learning community.” Creating this condition leads to the expansion of ideas, the avoidance of judgment, and broader thinking for all. It results in a try, try, and try again growth-mindset. 

Letting children rule their environment, with adults providing facilitation rather than management, is also imperative. Yes, rules of safety must be handed down to children. However, the everyday code of conduct and expectations in a classroom or school can be designed and reinforced by the children. This opportunity should not be limited to a few students who serve in student government but rather to the whole community of children, so all parties have a voice for the benefit of all. Every young person is empowered and involved and called to solve scuffles and disagreements. When children are “solutionaries” they become emotionally aware of themselves and others and grow to be good problem-solvers, friends, mentors, collaborators, and leaders.

Schools should provide experiences such as tinkering, exploring the outdoors, solving community problems, working unconstrained by time, developing passions and talents, and building relationships with people and ideas. This can all be done through thoughtfully crafted schedules, curriculum, and lesson plans. This can be accomplished with an eye toward cross-curricula design and differentiation in instruction, in lively classrooms. When this approach is offered in sincerity and with the thought that, “anything is possible,” the possibilities are endless, and the learning is lifelong. 

Educators, through their words and actions, must create an environment that exudes love, respect, engagement, and acceptance. This exists when children are recognized beyond their names and viewed as whole and ever-changing beings. Often children are assigned preconceived identities that place them in categories or groups based on mannerisms, habits, accents, appearances, prior academic performance, et al. Teachers and administrators contribute to each child’s sense of identity, which they carry into adulthood. When children are valued, heard, and honored by educators they make their way in the world with confidence, joy, and love for their surroundings and people. They become empowered to manage their own future and our shared future. 

School is an essential part of each child’s life; it is, in a sense, an organism, a system, a being. How it contributes to each of its parts, particularly children, is important to all of us. We must be proactive in asking schools to love, nurture, and educate every child fully and with great thought and care. We must identify and choose schools that are best for our children now.

Karen M. Giuffre’, M.Ed. Founding Director of Voyagers’ Community School, now in its 15th year, is staunchly dedicated to constructing joyful learning spaces for children from Infancy through Grade 12. She finds kindred spirit in other passionate educators who are dedicated and work every day to ignite children’s curiosity, intellect, and self-worth.

Can Learning Be Made Real?

When exploring education options for children, parents often encounter words like progressive, experiential, and project-based. They wonder, what in the world this is about. Often the explanations are incomplete and lack tangible examples. Despite this, over coffee, at a dinner party, or while taking a spin class, someone will ask, “Can you tell me more?” of a parent who is going on about their child’s incredible transition to a new school or classroom. 

Teachers and whole schools across the country are inspired by the practices put forth by educators and theorists who believe children should have a say in their education, education driven by students’ interests is deeply meaningful, a curriculum should be built together with students, and learning should be a sensory-rich experience. 

Classrooms driven by these beliefs look, feel, and sound different. It is likely there is mixed seating at tables, on floor cushions, and in cozy corners. There is often a buzz of voices as children bat around ideas, share knowledge, and help each other through assigned work. They often push each other further while the teacher is moving about the room listening, collecting data, and providing small group instruction, encouragement, and provocations. The teacher is always assessing what students think, know, and have not yet learned. This informs the teacher of new and continuing interests, which provides inspiration for curriculum and new or deeper studies of topics that guarantee student engagement. 

When entering a progressive school like Voyagers’ Community School, in Eatontown, a visitor will find this happening every day. The array of teachers and students are much like what one would find in any school, they are typical. The difference is their brilliance shines and the energy for learning is obvious at every turn. 

All academic subjects are taught. Daily schedules include literacy, math, science, STEAM, global studies, music, and foreign language. Also evident might be an all-school meeting, a student judiciary hearing, a capstone advisory period, a committee jobs slot, and a quiet lunch focused on math games. More importantly, smiles, furrowed brows, one child helping another navigate a big idea, or high schoolers debating relativity and cultural myths will be prominent.

This environment, and approach to teaching, is driven by three pillars: the child is powerful, resourceful and competent, community drives intellectual and life skills learning, and democracy, voice and agency, is imperative to intellectual growth. At progressive schools, there is little interest in measuring learning through a test that examines finite facts predetermined by a committee in a room far away from where learning happens. Teachers are interested in immeasurable possibilities and the way children think, question, access, and examine information. They understand, “What children learn does not follow as an automatic result from what is taught, rather, it is in large part due to the children’s own doing, as a consequence of their activities and our resources.” Loris Malaguzzi, The Hundred Languages of Children.

When peeking into a Progressive preschool classroom, like that found at Voyagers’, during lunch or snack, little ones are likely to be gathered at the table in “conversation” in the form of gestures, laughter, facial expressions, and words. This is a moment every progressive teacher cherishes, as their children’s strong bonds to each other become apparent. Progressive schools often offer aesthetically beautiful environments filled with materials and people, and therefore possibilities. Students are brought together in classrooms, nature, public spaces, and professional environments. Often mentoring artists, musicians, lawyers, business owners, and the likes are invited into these classrooms. Out-of-the-box thinking leads to digital meetings with people around the world including writers, aerospace engineers, and community leaders. These schools rely on authentic materials and books. It is typical to see children building 3D printers, animating original art, and, reading a New York Times bestseller, such as Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari rather than an outdated and expensive textbook. 

Progressive educators believe it is important to understand children do not develop and grow themselves but rather they develop by interacting and learning with others in vibrant schools and classrooms. Children have the right and the need to learn in joyful and innovative places. There are schools and teachers who provide just that. 

Karen Giuffre’, M.Ed is the Founding Director of Voyagers’ Community School, soon celebrating its 15th year. She is staunchly dedicated to constructing joyful learning spaces with children from 12 months through 12th Grade. She finds kindred spirits among other innovative educators who are dedicated and work every day to ignite students’ curiosity. In the coming months, she will introduce Journal readers to Innovation In Education.

Exploration and Wondering

“Though we often see ourselves as separate from nature, humans are also part of that wildness.” Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods. Few people have spent time thinking about our disconnect from nature. In the field of education, this topic surfaces at professional development conferences, during local school board meetings, and among teachers who wonder aloud, “What’s happening to our children?”

In 2016, I was given the opportunity to take middle school students into the woods nine hours each week through an entire school year. No one had to sell me on the idea. Thanks to Eatontown Township’s commitment to open spaces and natural environments my classroom became acre upon acre of woods. Three mornings a week, 20 degrees or above, barring lightning, my students are in nature with their waterproof notebooks, microscopes, specimen jars, fishing nets, and warm boots. They are learning with all their senses, receiving immediate feedback from their surroundings.

I’ve been asked, “Why go outside with students?” Simply: It’s good for them. “Aren’t you worried they won’t learn?” No. I am certain they are learning more than they would at a desk with the limited information from a textbook and an Internet search. The outdoors provides education across varied academic subjects through multisensory, hands-on, intellectual work. Being in natural spaces challenges children to take responsibility, regulate their behavior, understand their body in space, and build a teamwork mentality.  From this experience, I see the shifting of student leaders, as they share what they know, wonder, and want to try. There’s a balance in leadership, which allows each student to shine.

I incorporate risk-taking in nature, as children climb trees, scale trunks across the water, and track wild animals, currently an albino deer. Children need to be engaged emotionally to best retain information. “Emotionally charged events are better remembered—for longer, and with more accuracy—than neutral events,” John Medina, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School.  When I tie the emotional to the social experience, I create a perfect harmony for deep learning, that involves peer to peer communication, stick-to-it-ness, and responsibility for themselves, their work, and the environment.

Biological development is addressed in my work with children. Think of movement as brain exercise. The more challenging, the better! Outdoor learning provides stress-reduction through aerobic exercise, which mitigates anxiety and depression. Moving through the woods strengthens the vestibular system, which improves balance as the brain is forced to create neurological connections across hemispheres. Experiences in nature contribute to executive function, as students predict, plan, and self-regulate behaviors and emotions. Outdoor education fosters entrepreneurial skills: independence, innovation, and critical thinking.

I use the woods for long-term Global Studies (History) role-plays; think of Settlers of Catan coming to life. Students adopt identities; embed themselves in the landscape, create ownership; learn about culture; exchange information; and problem-solve together. I provide dramatic play for middle schoolers, who still love to pretend. Role-play requires self-control, empathy, cooperation, collaboration, ownership, and emotional expression. All important life skills.

Recently, over many months, my students faced serious crises as they role-played a turbulent period in the life of the Lenape Indians. While in the woods, they encountered discussion and event cards I displayed in the trees. These sparked learning activities as I asked, “How did we get here?” and called on the students to take on roles. They examined maps of our region and recreated the world before Henry Hudson and following European explorers. As they engaged in re-creations they were asked, “What are you learning?” and “What are you practicing?” They built shelters, identified and classified plants, and traded goods. They encountered invaders with Dutch flags and trinkets and negotiated and traded. 

This study in the woods required reading comprehension, reflective writing, memorization, research, assessment of conditions and resources, understanding ownership and systems of government, and art. It also called on my students to negotiate, cooperate, collaborate, problem-solve, express empathy, and resolve conflicts. Students reviewed what happened and felt deep emotional connections. Since 2013, middle school students in this outdoor school have connected with nature, while joyfully studying watershed ecology, biology, American history, geology, geography, anthropology, animal science, etc. Don’t miss the opportunity to learn alongside your children and students in nature. It’s good for life.

Lesley Martin, MA, is an Outdoor Specialist and Teacher/Researcher to 6-8-Graders, and students studying French at Voyagers’ Community School in Eatontown, NJ. Lesley joined the team in 2016, bringing with her a variety of teaching techniques collected through her experience instructing French at Rutgers University and English at three middle schools in Paris. Her focus on immersive constructivist activities helps students acquire a wider and more innate understanding of all subjects.

Teaching the Hard Stuff

Having read the title, you are most likely expecting an article about calculus, physics or the analysis of poetry. For some, these were the more challenging school subjects. However, the everyday issues at the core of American society spark the questions on the minds of our elementary school children.

These children, at a very early age, through their surroundings and the free flow of information bombarding them, become increasingly aware of the privilege and power that comes with whiteness, maleness, gender, religion, wealth, and physical ability. Our inclination, when we hear this, is to proclaim that we should shelter, whitewash, and deflect when children ask questions about these matters rather than address them head-on. Tradition states that children should be children for as long as possible. The simple answer is yes, and no. 

With so many intersecting and overlapping identities regarding race, color, class, gender, sexuality, ability, religion/belief status, and more, virtually all children have aspects of their identity that give them privilege, and others that place them at a disadvantage. Wouldn’t it be better to answer their questions honestly and even to initiate these conversations in safe and developmentally appropriate ways so they can move through life aware of how these issues play out all around them?

In our 21st-century Global Studies curricula, lessons about history and society always raise the question of privilege. Whether talking about state’s rights, the rights of people, or the effects of conflict, there are two sides, those with power and those without, as defined by identity and status. Addressing this helps children to become better listeners, to think before acting, and to consider the impact of their actions on others. These are crucial lessons all children need to learn.

In our high school humanities class, students are encouraged to speak freely while studying the Antebellum Period, Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement. Questions emerge about the “N” word, blackness and national origin, and who “We the people” in the Declaration of Independence was referring to. When considering homelessness and poverty in our elementary class, grades 3-5, or incarceration and the prison system in our middle school, grades 6-8, children puzzle over imbalanced statistics. African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites and 20% of blacks and 16% of Hispanics, compared to 8% of whites, are living in poverty. When we introduce American heroes, inventors, and thought leaders, children learn the names of marginalized and forgotten people who were left out of lessons at prior schools.

When children encounter the truth about discrimination they realize many people see and experience the world very differently from the way they do; this enables them to “walk in another person’s shoes”. This heightened awareness and the ability to look at situations through a different lens is essential to developing empathy, open-mindedness, and solutionary attitudes.

Each person’s history matters and children shift from knowing their insular world to knowing the broader world and its people. Recently, during a visit from Yves Mathieu, an international activist, model, dancer, musician, and advocate for marginalized groups, he and students spoke honestly about activism, discovering a passion, trans rights, proper representation, respecting blackness, and making a difference in one’s community.  

When social justice drives curriculum, children speak their minds, ask lots of questions, express varying points of view and consider the ideas of others. Teachers ignite a spark for learning, foster individual creativity, and instill a deep, intrinsic desire in students to be change-makers, innovators and confident visionaries by remaining open to children’s questions and honestly delivering information from many angles.

When adults tell kids the truth about hard things in the world, they say, “I can be trusted and I believe you can deal with hard things, and play a role in making the world a better place.” When children feel emboldened to do the right thing they lead fuller and happier lives and help others to do so too. This creates a better world for all of us. Then we can all get on with the shared experience of play, rest and relaxation.

Try taking your children to the new exhibit titled AFROFUTURISM that is open at the T. Thomas Fortune Cultural Center in Red Bank until November 8th. Your children will learn about the African American physicist, Dr. Walter McAfee, who worked at Fort Monmouth for many years and taught at Monmouth University. He was the first person to successfully bounce a signal off the moon which has led to all the technology we enjoy and use today

Building Resilience in Children

At our school, during tours, professional development meetings, and day-to-day conversations, it is common to hear adults, when talking about children, to state with certainty, “Anything is possible.” “Children are nimble.” “They can do it.” and “Encourage them to try and they will.”  You also hear bemoaning about the constructs of fear, self-doubt, and anxiety, which hold children back. This leads to thoughts about building resilience in children. We know, as the author, Karen Young states in the article, “Building Resilience in Children – 20 Practical, Powerful Strategies (Backed By Science)” which appeared in Hey Sigmund, “All children are capable of extraordinary things.”

Among the things we help children learn, the ability to handle life’s more challenging moments – failure, disappointment, loss, tragedy, adversity… – should be the ability to breathe, assess, put into perspective, problem solve, regroup, and find resolve. The result is confidence, trust in intuition, courage, and greater satisfaction and joy. Resilience leads to a fuller and more adventurous life. 

We begin by explaining and demonstrating, through our actions and reactions, that stress, sometimes, given its clinical definition, mislabel as anxiety, is a normal feeling connected to everyday experiences. When children understand the feelings that come with stress, increased heart rate and energy and a desire to run or fight, are common and driven by their body chemistry and brain function they want to know more and are more likely to take control. They are more readily resourceful and resilient. At Voyagers’ children will play competitive games, climb to the peak of an Appalachian trail, walk to town for lunch, take a train to the city to see a play, work side by side with new people who serve as mentors, and speak to 100 or more people with confidence and joie de vivre.

Visit Young’s article to consider practical tips for building resilience in your child through careful thought, intentional actions, and love. We do all of these crucial steps at Voyagers’, are you ready for your child to experience the extraordinary?

Privacy Comes with Agency

I recently read Danah Boyd’s book, It’s Complicated and was sparked to write about privacy, a topic I speak to faculty and students about regularly. For most of my life, invoking privacy meant keeping some ideas and information to myself and limiting the sharing of these thoughts with the people I chose. Ask a “technology native”, a term coined by Marc Prensky in 2001 and defined as a person who has grown up with technology as commonplace, and privacy has a very different meaning. 

Boyd frames the concept of privacy not around keeping aspects of our lives a secret but having agency to decide who sees what we share about our lives. This is an idea I keep in mind when advising faculty and students about privacy and the use of technology. It is our responsibility to let children know of the options they have for sharing their work, ideas, images, and life events. They can negotiate privacy if given the right tools and opportunities to practice. 

According to Susan McLean, author of “Sexts, Texts & Selfies: How to Keep your Children Safe in the Digital Space.” “Parents and children need to be reminded that they are never anonymous online and everyone has a digital footprint. Postings and comments can be found years later.” The more we can educate ourselves and our children about privacy options, the more they and we will respect and support each other’s privacy. Privacy will come to be understood and valued as a sort of commodity and a right.  

To enable children to control their privacy we might encourage them to use a pseudonym while online, support their choice to opt-out of sharing their academic work or creative property on a public site, or spend time discussing the potential consequences of a tweet or Instagram post that goes viral.  For teens who are active on social media sites, like Facebook, Instagram, and others, we can suggest tools of manipulation to protect the information they post. Students can learn how to determine and control who will see their posts, even when the given system of conveyance, for instance Facebook, is not designed for this. 

For educators, privacy is worth navigating with students, given the powerful and motivating effect of connecting children with authentic audiences for their academic and creative work. Creating something meant to be viewed by more than one person or persons who reflect back differing points of view can turn the results of effort into something transformative. Collaboration and feedback can be of great value to the artist, writer, philosopher, and innovator that exists in every child. 

Boyd states and I concur privacy is “a practice and a process, an idealized state of being, to be actively negotiated in an effort to have agency. Once we realize this, we can reimagine how to negotiate privacy in a networked world.” Let’s help our children better understand the worth and value of taking control of their privacy.

Let’s Pursue New and Broad Possibilities

Columnist Andreas Schleicher, in TeacherMagazine.com, frets, “It’s so much easier to educate students for our past, than for their future. The biggest risk to schooling today isn’t its inefficiency; our way of schooling is losing its purpose and relevance.”

These days, people, cities, countries, and continents are connecting digitally in ways that vastly increase human potential. Any one person can shift the trajectory of most anything for better or worse. Collectively, people can address big problems and find ample solutions. The speed and power of digital technology, with all its complexity, introduces once unthinkable and still unfathomable possibilities.

Today, success comes to those who have ideas long before they have the financing. Ideas are not rooted in textbook knowledge. Recognizing a problem and conceiving of a solution involves the ability to see beyond what is obvious, formulate questions, conceive of concepts, apply practical skills and intuitions, and integrate what one comes to think and know. Through trial and error, flexibility, ingenuity, and perseverance people find an answer to a big problem or simple nuisance. 

In a structurally imbalanced world, the imperative of reconciling diverse ideas and interests requires people to become adept in handling tensions and dilemmas. Progress requires people to strike a balance between competing needs for equity and freedom, autonomy and community, and innovation and continuity. Can this be taught in an education system that is inherently resistant and reluctant to change?

Undeniably, schools teach important and necessary skills. Society greatly benefits from a citizenry that can read, write, manipulate numbers, understand various fields of science, possess knowledge of global, social and political issues, and articulate thoughts, beliefs, and facts. However, this alone is quickly becoming woefully and obviously inadequate. Why are we complacent and complicit? What holds us back from expecting more for our students?

Some point their fingers at teachers who are comfortable in the status quo, teaching as they were taught. Others blame parents, who are resistant to their children learning skills they don’t know and studying subjects and concepts they were never taught. But at the heart of the problem is a large and cumbersome ecosystem called public schooling, that is driven by political and economic interests, antiquated beliefs, corporate motivations, and fear of failure. It’s a system that requires compliance and blind commitment to a teach-and-test approach. 

Today, people are no longer celebrated for what they know, unless they appear on Jeopardy; Google seems to know everything.  We marvel at people who have the capacity to theorize, search and sort through information, and deeply understand and make sense of content. Those who think, work collaboratively, develop new ideas, and contribute to society are leagues ahead of others. Knowledge is only as valuable as our capacity to act on it.

For education to be of service to its students and society it needs to emphasize the integration of subjects, of students and of learning conditions, be connected with real-world contexts, and cognizant of the resources in the community. Instruction needs to be project-based and co-created by students and teachers. This requires adults to see their students as resourceful and competent with ideas of value and worth. 

Educators need to model characteristics of collaboration and mentorship and tap into their own passions and those held by their students in order to create curricula that are responsive and innovative. The future is also about creating partnerships that unlock limitless potential. Schools should provide for, and educators should welcome, synergies that find new ways to enhance professional, social and cultural capital with others.

In the face of fast and furious advancement will our children be offered an education that inspires them to be nimble and curious inventors and social and cultural contributors? We can allow technology and globalization to lead or we can realize these are the tools to a new cultural, social, and economic landscape where original ideas grow and our children emerge as vital participants and contributors. Let’s imagine and pursue new and broad possibilities. Let us demand and help create schools where children and teachers collectively and vibrantly play with words and numbers, explore ideas and inventions, experiment and innovate, and step into the realm of risk, failure and success.