Unplugged: Academy strives to keep kids outside, offline

OFFLINE: Jaydee Azavari, left, and Jay Azavari founded Appalachian Academy of Therapeutic Arts to keep children grounded in nature. Photo courtesy of the Azavaris

When schools shut down at the start of COVID-19 and online learning became the norm, Jay and Jaydee Azavari experienced a logistical nightmare. Their six children spanned elementary to high school. 

The virtual classroom setting “became unworkable for our family for a number of reasons,” Jay says. 

The arrangement also began to impact some of their children’s mental health.

In response, the couple turned to the 100 acres surrounding their Asheville home and launched a nature-based educational program, going back to something they had done before: home-schooling.

Just a few years later, that initial idea has grown into the Appalachian Academy of Therapeutic Arts. The home-school enrichment cooperative now enrolls 30 students from ages 2 1/2 to 13 to learn through nature. 

Electricity is scarce, and there are no screens to be found. The classroom is the outdoors. Oh, and some of the instructors are horses. 

Xpress recently caught up with Jay and Jaydee as they prepared for an open house.

Xpress: Do either of you have an educational background?

Jaydee: I have an educational background as a midwifery instructor. That was my work before founding this school. I also worked to found a Waldorf-based cooperative in Hawaii, a Sudbury school in Washington state and several other cooperatives over the course of my parenting the last 20 years.

Jay: I have an education background primarily in music. I’ve taught in a variety of different settings over the years, anywhere from elementary to high school and adults as well.

The school seems to have been born of necessity. Is it something that you think you would have chosen to do otherwise?

Jaydee: We’ve definitely spent a lot of time …  thinking about it. … We did a lot of home-schooling, and on our land, we ran small home-school groups. The time period was a bit of an impetus for us. It was like, “OK, do we want to take the gift of land further into a bigger endeavor or not?” And we’re like, “All right, I guess let’s do this.”

Is that one of the reasons that you’ve home-schooled your kids at different points? 

Jaydee: Yes. It was always a part of how you return more to our family, how to return more to our close-knit community as we grow ourselves as adults and as we raise our children.

Last year, for example, probably 50% of the people who [enrolled their children] here had relocated with our program being one of the main reasons why they came to the area. It wasn’t what we expected. It wasn’t our intention to create something that would bring people who weren’t already in Asheville to Asheville. 

What were some difficulties that you’ve overcome?

Jaydee: The technological or digital world versus the natural world is a big thing that I feel like all humanity is facing right now. And bringing education and resources to parents who are more interested in having their children be in nature or not being raised in a digital world continues to bring a big challenge. But it’s really difficult to move through the day without them. It’s not necessarily a challenge around our school but a challenge in relation to what we stand for that feels in such deep contrast to the majority of other educational opportunities.

How have you solved the balance between nature and technology?

Jay: One of our biggest founding principles is immersion in the natural world. All of our settings are in the wilderness. We have shelters — we have the ability to protect ourselves from the elements to a certain extent — but we don’t have things like climate control or electricity. And we’re not anti-technology necessarily. It’s more about continuing to cultivate our natural relationship with wilderness and our human biology and how it is connected to the natural world and all of the various benefits that come from those prolonged exposures to nature.

Tell me how therapeutic arts come in.

Jay: From our perspective, the concept of the therapeutic arts is essentially building skills and utilizing tools in order to deepen our sense of embodiment and self-knowing. I’m a follower of a lot of the Dallas [breathing] practices. So I will guide the children through breath and body movement, connective exercises through qigong and starting to learn about how our vessels — our human body —  works. When we stand in the natural environment, we stand on the soil, on the ground, out in the air, in the woods. We are faced with a greater variety of input as far as what we have to navigate to just be present and be in our body. 

That’s a jumping-off point of what we would start a day with, for instance. And then we would go from there into a little bit more of a contemplative discussion and study. We work with writing things by hand, in cursive. I do a lot of diagrams and sharing on a chalkboard. And we do interactive activities, like using an actual dictionary to look things up. 

Jaydee: We have hard-copy books that the children read from. There is still a wide variety of ways to learn and to gather information and knowledge that isn’t technologically based. … One of our lead teachers — she’s also our equine program director — is trained in what we call horse-powered learning. So it’s horse-powered math and horse-powered reading. And it’s using horses to integrate both hemispheres of the brain while learning foundational math and English, reading and writing. In that pedagogical model, there is no technology needed. 

Did you pattern your program after an existing program, or did you come up with this yourself?

Jaydee: We really came up with this ourselves. If I could find something that integrated all of this, I would love to hear it and know about it and learn from it. But up until this point, we’ve mostly been relying on the resources that both Jay and I brought to the table from parenting and working in the natural-health world. [We’ve learned] from the staff that have joined us to build this and the parents. 

What if someone else wanted to set up a program like this?

Jaydee: We also help other people who want to develop a program like ours in their areas. In our codifiable model, you can do this wherever you are. You don’t just have to have horses, you don’t have to have 100 acres of land. You can use a park, you can use goats and chickens, you could use dogs if you wanted to integrate therapeutic aspects that animals bring to us. 

Jay: We have these fundamental guiding principles such as the cultivation of this mind-body awareness and using nature, the natural world. On top of that, there’s a bit of a patchwork component to this. Through regular conversations with students, families and then whatever the individual skills that each of the facilitators bring to the table as they come in and out of this collective, it has a change on how it’s presenting at the moment. So it does have a bit of ebb and flow built into it. It is scalable or reproducible to some other collective of individuals.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of starting this educational community?

Jay: I would say it’s seeing these children just thrive, seeing the brightness and the brilliance of their minds and bodies and the sort of the transformation that has happened in quite a number of the children that I’ve seen over these past few years.

Jaydee: We had a child who joined us midyear this year whose mother came to me a couple of weeks after he’d been here and she was in tears. “I see my child again,” she said. The child had been to a couple of different private school settings. I don’t know their direct history. But she was like, “I felt like I lost my child. And after being here, he’s woken back up. I can see him. He’s regulating better. He’s happy. He’s shining again.” 

And I started crying. That was incredible. … The biggest undercurrent is the natural world. When we look at the things that we’re facing — the increases in depression, anxiety in young people and, in all of us, physical health problems — nature is our only constant. If humans are going to be here, it seems like the natural world will also have to be here. What humans do will ebb and flow, but if we all have this resilience, this inherent connection to the natural world, no matter where these children go, they can return to that. If they’re in a city, they can find a tree, and they will know if they go sit by that tree, they can find themselves again. 

To learn more, visit avl.mx/djp.


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.