“It is also necessary for his physical development to place the soul of the child in contact with creation, in order that he may lay up for himself treasure from the directly educating forces of living nature.” -Dr. Montessori
THE IMPORTANCE OF NATURE
In the primary environment, we are focused on giving the child impressions of the natural world: a phenomenological experience, or, in other words, ‘science you can see’. When we lay on our backs outside to watch the clouds go by, the children see that the earth moves. When we listen to birds sing, the children are inspired to try to find them to see what they are doing — how they fly, how they find food, how they build their nests. The children explore how another creature lives. When we watch trees bud and leaves change colors, the children experience the progression of the seasons. When we plant seeds and watch them grow into vegetables or flowers, we observe the life cycle in action. In nature, they can turn rocks over and play with worms, watch as a spider spins a web, or pull a plant out of the ground to see its roots. Nature itself becomes the teacher, and the child is able to engage, through direct experience, with how life unfolds over time and in relationship with the elements.
When outside, children are joyful. They celebrate every sensory experience: the wind as it touches their skin when they move, splashing in puddles, digging in the dirt, and smelling the flowers they pick. They are instinctually observant, too, noticing the variety of life around them, from animals and plants to the weather, noting changes and their effects on the environment. They experience a profound wonder and satisfaction in knowing more about what holds their interest at that moment. Our outdoor spaces are intentionally designed to create this interest in the natural world and facilitate the exploration of it. The garden beds, carefully crafted and sustained, nourish an understanding of sustainable practices for life. We are lucky to have access to a small woods, a pond, and wetlands, which evoke awe in the variety, practicality, and beauty of nature. Through all these experiences, then, we are supporting the children in remembering that we, as human beings, are a part of nature ourselves. We possess the same capacity to create beauty in our lives and in the lives of those around us.
LESSONS IN THE OUTDOOR ENVIRONMENT
The outside environment, as an extension of the classroom, provides a contrasting experience for the children that is both necessary and natural. How the children access the environment is different for each primary classroom, but the experience it provides is given a thorough consideration as part of each child’s day. It can look as though the children function more freely outside, but that is, in part, due to the thoughtful organizing and planning on the part of the lead guide and classroom staff. In the morning, areas are prepared for the children to experience nature and care for the environment. Outdoor activities also have a dual focus on developing gross motor skills, eye-hand coordination, and concentration. Some of these exercises include watering and weeding the garden, raking the leaves, and sweeping. There are also bikes, a balance beam, obstacle courses, and logs for the children to build muscle strength. Sculpture, painting, and nature art are regular activities, as is singing, dancing, and making music. Children explore language by learning the names of the plants around the garden, parts of a leaf, parts of a bird, or labeling all the items in the environment. The children are able to explore the insects and may find one that is interesting and want to learn more about it. A quiet reading area can be made in the grass or under the trees. Children make rivers, lakes, mountains and other landforms in the sandbox, learning about geography and geology as they do so. In the afternoons, nature walks to the hill or a local park are regular activities.
In Montessori, a child’s need for movement is not only acknowledged, but actually utilized to fuel learning. Children are constantly on the move in a Montessori environment, propelled by the desire to initiate experiences immediately. In nature, children run, lift heavy objects, climb trees, and walk on logs or stones; they can experience walking on sand or grass or dirt. Simultaneously, they have to temper their movements when moving back inside, which deepens self-control and memory.
Just like within the classroom, staff members outside are present and willing to ask questions and guide, while observing without disturbing the children in the choices they are making for their own growth and development. We are also noting interests, so activities can be added based on what they are discovering. When we offer the same classroom guides to the children when outside, we see the same productive community, giving the children a seamless experience to grow and develop within.
Megan Schopf is the lead guide for the Oak Room. Megan has a BA in History from the University of Colorado and received her AMS Montessori certification in 2009 from the Adrian Dominican Montessori Training Institute. She interned at The Montessori School and began her Montessori teaching career at Brookview School in Benton Harbor, Michigan. She joined The Montessori School in 2017. Prior to becoming a Montessori teacher, she designed and facilitated learning experiences that supported the development of the person and of the family across Southwest Michigan. She also served as artist-in-residence for a healthcare consulting organization in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She is a life long learner who enjoys long walks in the woods, sharing meals with those she loves, and reading as much and as often as she can.