outdoors

Montessori and Nature

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“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.

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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!) 

Practical Ideas

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!

Gardening With Kids

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The warm weather is finally upon us!  As we find ourselves solidly in spring many of us shift our thoughts to the outdoors and our gardens.  Whether you are new to gardening or have cared for plants for years, why not give it a try with your children?  It’s not too late to get started now!

Planning the Space

Whether you live in a tiny city apartment or a sprawling multi-acre piece of land there are many options for planning and executing a garden.  The first step is to decide what will work best for you and your family.  Consider how much time and effort you are willing to put into caring for the plants during the growing season.

Container gardens fit nicely onto porches and decks.  This is a nice way to keep things simple if you’re new to gardening or know you will be short on time.  Finding space for even a few pots can be a fun and rewarding experience for you and your children.  

Thinking you may want to go bigger?  Raised beds keep things contained and easy to manage.  This can be as simple as four 2x4s screwed together with some metal corner brackets, or you can find designs for elaborate and much taller beds online made of a variety of materials.  If this is your first time gardening you might consider starting with 1-3 beds, roughly 4 by 7 feet.  Fill the beds with a mixture of soil and compost and you’re good to go!

A few last considerations: consider what you want to grow and how much sunlight you will need, as well as how close the space is to a water source.  

Selecting Plants

This is the step that younger children can really become more involved with.  Check out options at your local nursery or garden center, but have some ideas beforehand.  Do you want to focus on flowers?  Vegetables?  Does your family enjoy berries or do you like cooking with fresh herbs?  There are so many possibilities it can be easy to get carried away!  A little planning goes a long way.

Selecting garden plants could open new doors for your child.  If you have a picky eater, encouraging them to choose, say, a plants whose vegetables they typically shy away from, you may be surprised by the end of the summer.  When a child takes the time to care for a garden they feel deeply connected to the plants.  They will feel a great swell of pride when they harvest that first zucchini, and they may well enjoy tasting it with new perspective.

Keep in mind the location you have chosen to place your garden and pay attention to the amount of sunlight the spot receives at different times throughout the day.  Some plants require full sun, while others need partial sun or even shady areas.  

Companion planting is fun to consider as well.  Some plants compliment each other when planted nearby.  This often has to do with properties of the plants that contribute to pest control, or what kinds of nutrients they take from (or give to) the soil.  Check out this site for more information on specific companion plants.

Care and Maintenance

Your main two tasks throughout the growing season are watering and weeding.  It can take time and practice to set up a system that works for you, but here are some tips:

  • Water early in the morning or late in the day.  Midday watering can lead to the sun heating up the water and essentially boil the plant and its roots.
  • Make your watering system easy.  Have a hose ready or a sprinkler set up.  
  • Mulch is your friend.  While there are different options, cut straw can be a great way to cover the soil around your plants.  It holds moisture in by preventing excessive evaporation and limits weeds’ ability to grow.
  • Teach your child the difference between weeds and the plants you are intentionally growing, then watch closely while they help!  (If they do inadvertently pull a few plants up by the roots you may be able to salvage them.)
  • Keep an eye out for pests!  Anything from insects to deer can cause problems.  Be aware of the potential where you live and ask around for specific ways to prevent or treat damage.
  • Some plants have more needs.  Climbing plants need guidance, while others may need pruning or thinning.  Seed packets typically include these types of directions, but the the folks at your local garden center are another great resource.  

Enjoying the Benefits

Believe it or not, there are plenty of benefits you will reap long before harvesting.  Gardening allows us to spend time outdoors, breathing in fresh air, taking in the sunshine, and nurturing our own connection with the earth.  Spending this time with your child allows you to enjoy these benefits while spending time together.  The time you spend gardening as a family will leave a positive, lasting impact that your child will remember.  

The harvest does, of course, bring joy all on its own.  Whether you have a gorgeous vase of fresh blooms in your dining room, fresh pesto for your dinner, or hands full of strawberries that never even make it to the table, you will all enjoy the result of your hard work.

Happy gardening!

 
Click to go to this book on Amazon.

Click to go to this book on Amazon.

If you’re looking for more information, this reference book is full of general gardening advice and plant-specific information. 

Spending Time Outdoors in the Winter

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Norwegians have a long-standing tradition known as “friluftsliv”.  The word loosely translates to ‘open-air life’ and embodies the nation’s dedication to spending time in nature on a regular basis.  This is easy enough to do when the sun is shining and the days are long, but how can we continue to get outside during the colder, darker months?  And why is this so important for children?

Why Get Outside?

We all know the stir-crazy feeling that sets in after too many hours cooped up inside.  The following are just some of the benefits to bundling up and heading out.

  • Soak up the sun for vitamin D: One simple way to boost our body's’ supply of vitamin D is through sun exposure.  While it is important to consider our skin’s need for sun protection, we all need some time to enjoy the benefits of the sun’s rays.  
  • Reduce stress: A short walk - even just 20 minutes - can significantly lower stress hormones in the body. 
  • Gain focus: One study determined a clear link between children spending time outdoors and a decline in ADHD symptoms.  
  • Improve immune function: Japanese ‘forest bathing’, or simply spending time in a forest or around trees, has been linked to an increase in immune function.  
  • Boost your creativity: Regular time spent exercising outdoors has been linked to an increased capacity for creative reasoning. 

Endless Options

So what exactly is the best way to spend time outside when it’s chilly?  Winter provides us a huge range of opportunities:

  • Sledding: Dragging a sled up a hill while trudging through snow is a workout!  The reward of sliding down a slippery slope each time is fun for all ages.
  • Star Gazing: Even younger children with earlier bedtimes can enjoy star gazing on crisp winter nights.  
  • Skiing and Snowboarding: Whether you prefer the speed of the slopes of the quiet of cross-country, there are options for everyone.  Many mountains offer lessons for children as young as three.
  • Visit local parks: Public parks stay open year-round.  Go together and enjoy your local resources, or make a day trip of it and visit a park that’s a bit farther away.
  • Feed the birds: Because many species migrate during the winter months, your area’s population will look different now than during the spring and summer.  Borrow a field guide from the library and do some bird watching.  Set up or make your own bird feeders and place them outside a window of your home.
  • Make environmental art: Use what you find in nature to create inspiring pictures and sculptures!  
  • Take a closer look: Use a magnifying glass to examine snowflakes, ice, or whatever else sparks curiosity.
  • Walk: Perhaps the simplest option, this can be made even more special if done while it’s snowing outside!  Consider location as well - think about any access to nature nearby, whether it be a forest, river, or even a city park.

Shifting Our Mindset

One way Norwegians support their philosophy of friluftsliv is with an old saying: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”  By preparing ourselves adequately, spending time outside can and should be enjoyable, no matter the season.  So bundle up and head outside!

Sources
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494413000959
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1448497/
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2793341/
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3520840/ 

Recess

A line of students filed out of the big metal door. You could hardly see our faces under our brightly colored raincoats. Boots squeaked and thudded. Rain pants rustled. Inside the door, the line was straight and organized, but as soon as we stepped outside, we were wild — children of the Earth.

Recess had begun.

A newly formed river of mud and rain in the woods. A slippery fallen tree acts as a bridge, or a castle, or a throne. Leaf crowns. Tiny rocks, twigs, and the sand pile make a tiny fortress. A moat is carved out of the dark brown mulch much to the chagrin of our teachers, and the rain quickly fills it in. Wet bark peeled off a dead tree, rocks, leaves, twigs, acorns, pine cones, a feather from home, and we built a fairy house. Capture the flag goes on in all weather. The wetness is an added challenge, an extra bit of fun. We liked to show off our grit.

We slipped and slid across the soaked playground. Our heels rubbed raw in our boots, but we didn’t care. Fingernails quickly filled with dirt and sand and wet bits of bark, but we didn’t care. Mud splashed in our faces and we wiped it away with muddier hands, but we didn’t care. Our fingers and noses were numb with the wet chill, but we didn’t care. Despite the “waterproof” rain gear we were wearing, we were soaked through, but we didn’t care.

We did care though, when the teachers began to call us inside. When the little bark castles had to be left for tomorrow — who knew if they would keep from collapsing without us watching over them? When the imaginary kingdom by the new river in the woods had to be abandoned for another day. When the capture the flag game had to end before anyone had scored. When the leaf crowns had to be taken off. Then we cared.

Up until two years ago, I attended a Montessori school. This meant I spent a lot of time outside. In elementary, we had recess every day, whether it was snowing or raining or sleeting. We had lessons out in the woods and took trips to the beaches and mountains. Unless the temperature was way below freezing or it was thundering and lightning, we were out in it.

Curiosity, love, and concern for the natural world has been a part of who I am from a very young age. Now that I am older, I read the biology textbooks, watch the powerpoints on ecology, take my dog for a walk after school every day, and I understand a little more of what is happening out there in the world. I get it. And I love getting it. Learning about life and nature gives me a sense of fulfillment that no other subject in school does. I compost and recycle at home. I am President of the Green Group at my high school, and I am happy to say that the school now recycles! When I’m out with my dog I'll pick up trash from the side of the road. I hike mountains with my dad, even in the snow. I love being outside.

Recess, but also every lesson and trip we took in the outdoors while I was in Montessori, was a very meaningful experience for me. It made me the person I am today. It instilled in me a curiosity and a passion that otherwise might not exist and for which I am very grateful. I’m seventeen years old now, but I will never stop playing outside. I will never stop loving the earth and I will never stop fighting for it. I will never stop asking questions and never stop wondering how the earth works. I will never stop — because of recess. Because of log kingdoms, leaf crowns, little sand fortresses, and muddy games of capture the flag.


-Alexandra Campbell, HMS '14

 

Cautious? or Overprotected?

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A headline in the Nashua Telegraph last fall proclaimed: “School Yard Game of Tag Banned.” This caught my attention! What was the harm in this playground game? The principal stated that “the game of tag seems innocent enough, however the force with which students tag varies greatly and this game, in particular, has been banned in many schools in the U.S. due primarily to concerns about injuries.”  This wasn’t the only headline like this in recent news. A school in Long Island banned balls from the playground this past fall, and you can read similar examples from other towns across America. Have these decisions gone too far? Some parents thought so.

Children's play has long been understood to have a key role in the development of their future life skills. Real play, when children are in charge, instinctively making hundreds of decisions as they assess and determine the levels of risk they want to take—physically, emotionally and sociallyallow mastery, day by day, in an increasing repertoire of skills which add to their bank of experience.

What had changed so much since my own childhood of climbing to the top of the monkey bars and playing king of the hill? Modern fears and anxiety, in a world much safer than ever before, has led to a risk-adverse culture that can express itself in what some perceive as overbearing safety policies. What’s forgotten are the benefits of learning about and discovering risk. Fears of litigation increase tendencies to err on the side of caution, often creating standards that lack real play value.

Through play, children acquire confidence, but also an awareness of limits and boundaries. They learn, in short, how to be safe. For our children, we must remove the bubble wrap of overprotectiveness and grant them the opportunity to play in ways that challenge themselves.

So, to my own children, who have much loved the opportunity to climb trees, cross creeks, and climb as high as they are comfortable, I pledge to continue giving you the opportunity to challenge yourself, for it is only through your own experiences and choices that you will truly learn the skills for this game of life.

We want to hear from you! What do you think about playground risk?

Read the Atlantic Monthly article here: The Overprotected Kid

Kari