Nature Play in the Early Years
A key tenet of The Montessori approach is that children learn through movement and the use of their senses (Montessori 1907). From birth, babies seek to explore and make sense of their world through touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound. It is most enriching when playing freely in nature, and with the loving support of parents and caregivers.
The desire to explore nature should be supported throughout pre-school. Experiences can be consolidated through the learning of concepts with the Montessori Materials and making connections between experiences and language. Shapes, colours, dimensions, textures, animal classification and life cycles that have been observed in nature can be understood more fully with the support of the teaching materials and outdoor project work. Building on the early spontaneous connections that little people have with nature develops not only develops knowledge but spawns a deep love and respect for the natural world. From this we hope to propel young people to be champions of their planet, which is of critical importance to our future.
Over 100 years ago, at the start of the 20th century, Montessori expressed concern at children having decreased opportunities for spending time in nature due to increased urbanization. Furthermore, she noted that nature could often be seen as a ‘hazard’ that children should be protected from. Communicating these concerns, she wrote the following in her book “The Discovery of the Child;”
“Set the Children free, let them have fair play, let them run out when it is raining, take off their shoes when they find pools of water, and when the grass of the meadow is damp with dew, let them run about with bare feet and trample on it: let them rest quietly when the tree invites them to sleep in its shade: let them shout and laugh when the sun wakes them up in the morning, as it wakes up every other living creature which divides its day between waking and sleeping.” Maria Montessori 1907
This is one of my favorite passages from Montessori. It evokes my own childhood memories of nature play. Fleeting images of lying in the dappled light under a tree canopy, standing in the waves at the shore with sand and water running over my toes, the sound of a distant fish eagle, the taste of a freshly picked strawberry. To this day, such experiences can take me back to a different time and place. The connection between our senses, emotion and memory is a powerful and one that we should provide every opportunity to develop and savor. Nature is a happy space, and it is important to be able to tap into these memories, building a reservoir of calm to guide us at times of stress and overwhelm in our busy, modern world. We can help our children develop this by offering them beautiful and spontaneous experiences in nature.
“Children live through their senses. Sensory experiences link the child’s exterior world with their interior, hidden affective world. Since the natural environment is the principal source of sensory stimulation, freedom to explore and play with the outdoor environment in their own space and time is essential for healthy development of an interior life …” (Moore, 1997, in Louv, 2005)
In the twenty first century our children are in even greater need of the type of learning environment and curriculum that Maria Montessori proposed 100 years ago. Many children grow up in towns and their freedom to play outdoors and to seek natural sensorial stimulation is severely limited due to lack of opportunity, pollution, safety, and hygiene worries.
So where do we begin? We need to be re-awakened to the value of nature and sharing outdoor time with our children. Start by getting outside and just enjoying time together, choose the park and beach over a mall, whenever you can. Dawdle a bit, chat, observe, soak up the sun and enjoy the elements together. There are great practical spin offs too; fresh air and exercise promote good sleep, appetite and boost the immune system. Time in nature is a great sensory regulator, calming for the whole family.
In my next two Blogs, I look forward to sharing many practical ideas for taking this learning forward with babies and children both at home and at school.