“When children come into contact with nature, they reveal their strength.” - Maria Montessori
We all know spending time outdoors is good for our kids, but what did Maria Montessori have to say about it? What can we do as parents to support our children’s development in the natural world, and what responsibilities do our schools have in regards to this critical work?
Traditional Methods that Fall Short
What do we think of when we imagine educating our children about nature? Perhaps a small collection of shells on a windowsill, planting flowers in the spring, or pushing a toddler in a stroller through a park come to mind. While all of these activities have a place and can be enriching in their own way, they fall short of giving children authentic natural experiences. As adults, we have developed habits that keep our interactions with the natural world at a distance. We don’t appreciate being stuck out in the rain, or even the sun for that matter. We find ways to carefully shelter ourselves away from the elements so that we may be safe and comfortable. We likely developed this perspective while we were still children ourselves, at the urging of adults who didn’t want us to jump in puddles or ruin our best clothes. Might we step back and reevaluate our own relationship with the natural world?
A collection of shells is lovely, but a child will have internal context if they have actually visited the seashore and collected the shells themselves. As adults, we love flowers, but children react more strongly to plants they can interact with: think a vegetable garden or even just a tomato plant in a pot. Taking our children for a stroll in the park is important but let us give them a bit of freedom so they may move at their own pace and on their own feet. Let them explore and stop to notice the things we so quickly pass by.
Have you ever had a moment - it might have been somewhere on a lake or at the ocean, in the mountains or in the middle of a desert - when an intense, almost indescribable, feeling settled over you? You noticed that something deep within yourself felt connected to the earth and everything on it. You probably felt alive and at peace at the same time. Some of us are lucky enough to have had many of these moments, others, only a few times. Children have the ability to feel this so much more than we do. The world is still so fresh and new to them, and natural experiences can have a lasting impact.
As Dr. Montessori so eloquently stated, “Only poets and little children can feel the fascination of a tiny rivulet of water flowing over pebbles.” Even when we make efforts to take our children on a walk in the woods, it’s easy for us as adults to focus on the walk or the destination. Children are fortunate in that they live in the moment. They see a caterpillar and it calls to their desire to observe. A small fragment of a fallen leaf is a tiny window into a world they are still discovering. Children’s wonder and curiosity has much to teach us, if only we can remember to slow down and follow their lead.
A Burgeoning Movement
While many people have always valued a strong connection to nature, it’s likely fair to say that most of us have experienced at least some level of disconnect. In recent years, however, more and more people seem to be looking for ways to rebuild those connections. We participate in community supported agriculture, hobby farms, and keep chickens in our backyards. We vacation in national parks, participate in hiking challenges, and take up kayaking.
We know that something is missing, and while we don’t always articulate it, we are searching for our way back to nature.
Could it be that our children have the ability to both inspire and teach us the way? If we let them slow down and notice the little things - the insects, the toads, the way the sunlight reflects off a shiny rock - maybe we can learn to slow down and notice them, too. If we start by considering how we would like our children to eat as healthy as possible, maybe it might lead us to visiting farms or growing our own food (with our kids, of course!)
Montessori suggests that it is not the act of going out into a garden that leaves an impression upon a child, but the whole approach of ‘living naturally’. From Japanese ‘forest bathing’ to Norwegian ‘friluftsliv’, cultures around the world have known the importance of our connection to nature for centuries. Scientists echo these ideas, reaffirming the notion that spending time outdoors and surrounded by elements of the natural world is good for us.
So what can we do to apply this knowledge?
Montessori classrooms work to apply natural living on a daily basis. Nature is frequently brought into the classroom in the form of live plants and animals that the children help care for. Even the materials themselves are made of natural materials; plastic is avoided whenever possible. Ideally, a classroom has access to the outdoors so that children may come and go as the space calls to them (and as is appropriate).
As parents, the easiest way to let our children live more natural lives is to lead by example. We can find ways to enjoy the outdoors on a regular basis, in all seasons. Explore the parks, trails, nature preserves, and bodies of water near your home. It can be fun to take up new hobbies together as a family, or to find other like-minded families that you can team up with. Whether you like adventure, taking it easy, or something in between, there are outdoor activities that will put you back in touch with the world around you.
Already love the outdoors? Find ways to make what you love accessible to your kids. Ready to head out for the first time (or the first time in a long time)? Here’s one great resource to get you started: https://www.alltrails.com
Enjoy, and let us know about your adventures!