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Sunday Favorites: The Out-Of-Door School


School children "track down" a sand crab for their nature study course circa 1947.

Photo: Florida Memory Project

SARASOTA —Imagine spending your school days sipping lemonade under a blue sky. The sound of breaking waves accompanies your teacher’s voice as she delivers the lesson of the day and study hall consists of light reading while lying in white sand with your feet submerged in the cool, blue Gulf. 

Sound like the subject of a dream? 

Well, the vision above is not that far off from the idealism of two Sarasota teachers who created one of Sarasota’s most progressive and highly regarded schools in the country in 1924. They referred to their creation as an “out-of-door school.”

Fanneal Harrison and Catherine Gavin had spent time in Europe during WWI organizing health camps for undernourished children in France. They also worked with the Red Cross and Herbert Hoover’s Mission of Peace to Europe. The governments of Belgium, Czechoslovakia and France recognized their efforts. 

Amid a epidemic of homelessness, hunger and disease, the teachers had come across a method of teaching devised by Belgium physician Dr. Ovide Decroly and promoted “helping children find out what they themselves want to know,” according to Jeff Lehurd in his book Hidden History of Sarasota

Located on Siesta Key, the school was meant to stimulate the physical, mental and spiritual development of children based on Decroly’s teachings. 

As one child put it, “Going to school under blue skies makes children happy, healthy and wise.” 

The out-of-door school, when it opened, enrolled ten children and consisted of three open-air buildings on three acres of property.

Teachers supposedly catered to what individual children wanted to know, not what society thought they should know. 

As far as grades were concerned, they were tailored to each child individually. A progress report might consist of a list of accomplishments ranging from sports, to crafts to biology. 

But what did they do if it rained? 

It is not known whether children could go home if the weather did not permit learning in an open-air setting. Perhaps children received incidental instruction, such as how to dance in the rain, or how to avoid lightning. 

Despite what some folk regarded as an absurd learning environment, the out of door school still exists today! 

Now called Out-of-Door Academy, the school is described as an independent, college preparatory school that provides an environment in which students strive to achieve “their highest academic goals and to build character through a balanced program of academics, the arts, and athletics.”

While classes are no longer held primarily out doors, the programs are grounded in the liberal arts and supposedly prepare students for colleges and universities well suited to their abilities and aspirations. 

Harrison and Gavin lived long and fruitful lives. They would probably be pleased to know that their vision to establish a uniquely progressive school committed to nourishing the minds, bodies, and spirits of children more than 90 years later there is a place dedicated to learning that remains inspired by their vision. 


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