nature in education
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Nature in Education

When the “The Montessori Method” was published in English in 1912, Dr Montessori included a chapter on “Nature in Education”.

Maria Montessori was firstly a scientist and as we know science does not stand still. New ideas are constantly being developed, tested and accepted or rejected.

Learning Outdoors

Dr Montessori’s thoughts on the importance of the outdoor environment continued to develop when she was in India. In a lecture she gave at Kodaikanal in 1944, Maria Montessori described the school garden as “the entire open space around the school, which should be vitally organised” and said “It forms part of the living environment.”

She gives a very full description of the ideal garden which should include aspects such aesthetic appeal, possibility for the children to be involved in the work of the garden, vegetable gardening, hothouses, possibilities for studying plant physiology and fruit trees. She also describes features such as a cycle track, small huts for storage of garden tools etc and lawns with gross motor apparatus.

nature in education

Like many of her other ideas, time seems to be proving the validity of what were at the time regarded as quite revolutionary. Modern researchers are stressing the importance of the outdoors for various reasons.

The outdoor and indoor environments should function as parts of the whole “prepared environment”.

Absorbing Nature

Montessori stated explicitly that children do not need teachers. They will absorb from their environment what they need. Hence her emphasis on the environment: the more enriching the environment, the more enriched the children become.

The school needs to cater for the child’s needs and some can be met best in the outdoor environment. These include development of gross motor skills, creativity, social skills, co-operation and spirituality. Not to be forgotten is the child’s need to have places available where they can experience the feeling of being completely alone and away from adult intervention. Dr Montessori described a structure that the children could climb topped by a platform which she described as “the real part for the child. It is meant as a space for mental rest.”

Montessori Practical Life

From the Montessori practical life perspective, there are many exercises which can be done only outdoors such as care of the environment by means of sweeping, raking, making compost, and gardening including planting and harvesting. Even woodwork is an activity which is difficult to do indoors because of the noise and so is best included in “outdoor activities”. So it is not simply a matter of taking a puzzle or group game outside which is normally done inside just in order to keep the child outdoors. There is, of course, nothing against doing sensorial or KUW exercises outside.  There should however be a utilization of the unique characteristics which the outdoors presents.

The guide/directress / teacher has a responsibility in the outdoor environment just as much as indoors. The guide must be the link to the outdoor environment and that comes about by observation and presentation of suitable activities. It is not just a play area.

Exploring Nature in Education

Looking, wondering at and exploring the natural features of the outdoor environment can be used as a link to the indoor environment. Once the child’s love and interest are aroused, it is easier to further their knowledge using the excellent Montessori materials kept indoors. To link the child to the outdoor environment, there are many examples of practical activities in books such as “Rousing the Sleeper” by Frank Opie. Some are not activities as such, but just an openness to sharing and affirming the experiences the child has in nature, for example:

1. Keep the doors of your mind wide open –use phrases such as:

  • Come and look at this flower
  • Do you think this is a happy flower?
  • Don’t you think this is a pretty leaf?
  • Can you find another stone like this?
  • Feel this moss – what does it remind you of?
  • Would you like to be a bird like that?

2. Don’t allow your own prejudices to intrude:

Avoid the following:

  • Don’t get your clothes dirty
  • No, you can’t climb the tree
  • Kill it, its dangerous

3. Make spaces available for the child’s relationship with the earth to grow and flourish:

  • Let’s see what is inside this old log
  • Let’s take off our shoes
  • Let’s crawl into the bushes like a tortoise.
  • No, we mustn’t kill it, this is its home, it is safe here.
  • Walk carefully, there are lots of little things who live here.

4. Encourage finding and looking:


  • Wow, that’s a special thing!
  • Where did you find that? Won’t you show me too.
  • I know a story about that tree

5. Don’t assume too much:

Earth bonding is not an automatic process.

There are many activities Frank Opie mentions as suitable during these early sensory years.

The outdoors is also important in developing creative thinking – in Goodie Tshabalala Mogadime’s book, “Creativity and Self-discovery in Every Child’, she says: ”On the whole, a good deal of our education still focusses on telling children what to think rather than recognizing that they have thoughts of their own.

Exploring Raw Materials

Children are naturally inclined to explore raw materials such as soil, mud, clay, sand, and water. Still, from an early age, we begin to offer them alternative forms like workbooks, reading kits based on behaviour modification, and language charts. We destroy the natural creative process and prevent it from unfolding. We eliminate the current of spirit that is moving the internal life force, the energy and the internal imaginations of inner harmony.

The natural elements of the earth are the things that challenge people to become intelligent human beings.”

This same sentiment is stated in an article entitled “The gift of boredom” by Dr Aric Sigman. He says; “Yet it is precisely those undesignated moments or better yet long periods of self-directed exploration that may ultimately foster creativity and imagination for the expressive arts.’

Other researchers such as Mark Tomlinson, a psychologist at the University of Cape Town’s Child Guidance Clinic express the same findings: “Children need unstructured free play. When young kids play, they learn”.

Gavin Keller who introduced a “No homework” policy at Sun Valley Primary in 2015 stated it as follows: “Creativity and innovation are directly linked to the amount of time we allow the brain to be in a non-focussed state. ‘Aha!’ moments – when you experience sudden insight or discovery – never happen when the pre-frontal cortex is engaged in active learning. Innovation happens when the brain is in automatic, unconscious, mindless mode. Time has to be created for play….”

The wonder of earthworms

Child Development

From a general child development perspective, the school outdoors is becoming more and more important for development of gross motor skills because in modern life children are often only taken home in the late afternoon often to a flat or house with limited garden space. (Richard Louv’s “virtual house arrest”). Children need to develop their gross motor skills during these early years or else later problems will need the OT to take them back to these early stages during therapy. Natural objects such as trees also provide better experiences as the child needs to learn to concentrate and respond to challenges.

Cam Collyer in the foreword to “Asphalt to Ecosystems” also has this to say: “it appears the outcomes of such dramatic loss of freedom are considerable. While the research is still emerging, the signs are clear: impaired social development, skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity, a diminished ability to develop a responsible approach to risk, and greatly reduced contact with the natural world.”

Andrea Taylor and Frances Ming Kuo. found that “Those who regularly play in outdoor settings with lots of green (grass and trees, for example) have milder ADHD symptoms than those who play indoors or in built outdoor environments. The researchers found. the association holds even when the research controlled for income and other variables.”

Very importantly, increasing evidence shows that contact with nature nurtures a child’s spirit. We need to remember that Dr Montessori wrote extensively about the spiritual nature of the child and the need for cultivating spirit but although these theories have no concrete form (unlike the academic materials such as the pink tower etc), they are fundamental. In “Nurturing the Spirit” by Aline Wolf, she quotes an article by Sofia Cavalletti and says “As Montessorians, I think, we contradict ourselves if we do not satisfy the child’s thirst for the transcendent, his most basic need.”

Forces of Nature

In “The Montessori Method” Maria Montessori devotes an entire chapter to “Nature in Education”. She says: ”But if for the physical life it is necessary to have the child exposed to the vivifying forces of nature, it is also necessary for his psychical life 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.”

In “From Childhood to Adolescence” Maria Montessori says “How often is the soul of man, – especially that of the child – deprived because one does not put him into contact with nature.”

Nurturing a child’s spirit is very different from teaching a specific religion. Thus, whether or not a school promotes any specific religion, it is important to nurture the spirit of the child.  Because the teacher forms part of the child’s environment, the teacher must herself function from a “centre steeped in humility and awe as we recognise and reverence the wonders of the universe, the patterns of nature and the gift of life.” (Aline D Wolf)

Many of the activities given by Frank Opie will have this effect of producing awe as well as increasing nature knowledge.

Aline Wolf emphasises the spiritual aspect. Her book includes many similar activities.

Clare Cherry also has ideas on the importance of guiding children into learning how to relax “in order to develop a deeper appreciation of their inner selves and the human striving for tranquillity.” She suggests wonderful outdoor “rest” periods –

Douwe van der Zee said: “I would like to venture that, because of our identification with the mind, most of us adults cannot give our children the connection to the heart they need so desperately. We can contribute to a greater or lesser extent, but that is all. All children need the space and time to be in a natural environment where they can feel absolutely safe and free from judgement. That means NO interference from adults.”

Let us not limit children to the indoors as the only learning environment but let us value the outdoors for its own uniqueness.

Just as much as the guide needs to be the key linking the child to the indoor environment, so too does she need to be the key linking the child to the outdoor environment, keeping it carefully prepared.

Reach out to Hatfield Montessori to learn more.

References and Further Reading

Montessori Voices – Guided by Nature, Special Issue of The NAMTA Journal Vol 38 No 1 Winter 2013

Aline D Wolf (1996): Nurturing the Spirit in non-sectarian Classrooms

Maria Montessori (1915): The Montessori Method

Maria Montessori ( ): From Childhood to Adolescence

Frank W J Opie (1992): Rousing the Sleeper, Awakening Earth Love in the Young and Young at Heart

Frank WJ Opie (1989) The Outdoor Classroom

Frank Opie & Maureen Schuil (1993): The Dawn Years

Joseph Bharat Cornell (1979): Sharing Nature with Children

Goodie Tshabalala Mogadime (1988): Creativity and Self-discovery in Every Child

E M Standing (1957) Maria Montessori, her life and work

Douwe van der Zee (2012): The Power of Childhood

Elizabeth Goodenough (2003): Secret Spaces of Childhood

Richard Louv (2006): Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-deficit Disorder

Andrea Faber Taylor, Frances E. Ming Kuo. (2011) Could Exposure to Everyday Green Spaces Help Treat ADHD? Evidence from Children’s Play Settings. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being

Sharon Gamson Danks (2010): Asphalt to Ecosystems – design ideas for Schoolyard Transformation

Natural Learning Initiative and National Wildlife Federation (2012): Nature Play at Home Online Edition

Marjorie Mitchell (1982) The Discovery of the Environment as a stimulus to the development of the young child’s creative and cognitive faculties – A guide for Montessori Teachers published by London Montessori Centre as a source book to be used in the Nursery Correspondence Course

Dr Aric Sigman (2013) The Gift of boredom, Montessori international Arts & Crafts Issue 108

Gill Cullinan (2000) Give Your Kids a Special Summer, Reader’s Digest, Dec 2000

Clare Cherry (1981) Think of Something Quiet – A guide for achieving serenity in early childhood classrooms

Samantha Page (August 2016 edition of Child Magazine) Should we scrap homework?

South African Nature Foundation (1988) We Care!

Anna Koaleha (1995) Trust the Children

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