As families attempt to balance modern life with healthy habits, nature-based learning and education for young children has become a fast-growing trend. The number of nature preschools in the United States has grown exponentially in recent years in response to parents’ concerns about lack of exercise and too much screen time.
Montessori Center School is no newcomer to the outdoor learning scene. Our children have been learning from nature since our very beginning, more than 30 years ago, when our founders bought and restored a horticultural ranch with nature-based learning in mind. And the Montessori approach has been nurturing the child’s relationship with nature for over 100 years.
Roots in Reality
Maria Montessori observed, “There is no description, no image in any book that is capable of replacing the sight of real trees, and all of the life to be found around them in a real forest. Something emanates from those trees which speaks to the soul, something no book, no museum is capable of giving.” Contemporary research supports Montessori’s insight that learning from nature is uniquely beneficial in child development (see the list below for some of the positive effects researchers have found).
| BENEFITS OF NATURE-BASED LEARNING|
· Better performance in academic areas—reading, math, science, social studies
· Improved scores on tasks involving creativity, critical thinking, problem solving
· Increased focus and attention, fewer ADD/ADHD symptoms
· Greater overall interest and engagement in learning
· Better impulse control, self-discipline
· Reduced stress and anger
· More refined social skills
· Increased physical activity
· Improved nutrition
· Improved eyesight (less likely to be nearsighted)
· Reduced risk of obesity and diabetes
· Greater self-esteem
· Stronger attachment to both people and nature
Sources: Children & Nature Network (childrenandnature.org),
Natural Learning Initiative (naturalearning.org),
Natural Start Alliance (naturalstart.org).
Real nature surrounds us every day at Montessori Center School, from our gardens and play areas to our resident sheep, Nina and Rani. Children learn where their food comes from by planting, caring for, harvesting, and tasting their own vegetables. They learn patience by waiting for seeds to germinate or a chrysalis to open. They learn kindness by feeding the tortoises, fish, cockatiels, and parakeets.
Nature provides both a motive and an arena for self-development. Along the Hummingbird-Butterfly Trail at our school, for instance, we often have a chance to approach an insect as it suns its wings or takes a drink of nectar. A child who understands a butterfly as a living being, not an object, will not want to disturb or harm this new friend. She will concentrate on controlling her movements, maybe even hold her breath as she observes. She is developing her will, gaining the power of self-control, a skill that will serve her for life. And the respect she shows for that one little butterfly will spill over into her relationships with classmates, teachers, siblings, and parents.
Montessori Center School’s award-winning Sensory Garden is the perfect setting for nature-based learning. Its designated areas stimulate each of the five senses, from fragrant herbs to smell to spineless cacti to touch. Our outdoor model solar system gives the children a concrete way to comprehend what lies beyond the reach of the senses.
The works of art in our gardens help reinforce classroom lessons and encourage children to touch, hear, and notice beauty. The artwork chosen represents peace, diversity, and the importance of childhood.
Nature-based learning in Montessori helps the child find his place in the world by taking on real responsibilities. Children at Montessori Center School actively care for our sheep, birds, indoor plants, classroom pets, and vegetable and flower gardens. They plant seeds, tend them carefully for months, and finally enjoy a harvest of carrots, broccoli, sugar snap peas, cauliflower, and more.
Sometimes this is no small task. When our Thompson seedless grapes ripen, everyone pitches in with scissors and baskets in hand. Our last harvest was a delicious 75 pounds!
Nature’s Learning Laboratory
The paradox of nature-based learning is that young children develop best when given more outdoor freedom and less academic pressure. Maria Montessori understood this principle, so she advocated for the child to have free movement and unstructured time outdoors.
Such freedom offers opportunities for physical activity and promotes critical and creative thinking. It affords endless exploration and discovery as well as opportunities to work and play together. Above all, outdoor learning at Montessori Center School provides daily opportunities to grow in responsibility, independence, self-confidence, and love and respect for all living things.