By Mirae Hassler, 0-3 Director
I have a vivid memory from my first year as a Montessori Toddler teacher. My school had a lovely outdoor area where, due to my own love of nature, I spent as much time as possible with the children. One day, I discovered an insect crawling around on the cement. I quickly called the children over, repeating my mantra, “look with your eyes and observe nature like the scientists you are.” I will never forget the look of wonder, awe, and amusement as the creature crawled back and forth across the leaf I was holding. Eventually, the insect spread its wings and flew off to find a safe space away from the watchful, intrigued eyes of twelve toddlers. At that moment, these children who had only experienced life in an urban setting had a taste of the wonders of the natural world. Had the insect not flown off, I’m convinced we could have watched it for as long as a toddler has an attention span. Instead, we spent time searching for other fascinating creatures in the garden, as I commented on everything from the sticks we found to the flowers we smelled to the soft, wet dirt we molded in our hands.
I grew up in a quiet suburb just outside Saint Paul, Minnesota, where I learned to seek out the natural world on my own. From a young age, I spent my evenings after school running around and playing outside. I didn’t grow up with the woods in my backyard or streams flowing through my property. My dad was not an avid gardener, nor did my mom have a green thumb. But in the midst of suburban life, I found green space and I clung to that. I played in the dirt in my yard, finding all sorts of insects and other tiny creatures. I created a habitat for a cicada where I kept it until it flew off. Once I saw a bird fly into my neighbor’s house and I cared for it in an old shoe box filled with grass and twigs. While my parents took me camping throughout the hot Minnesota summers, my daily life was spent in our small suburban town. Despite not growing up with the wilderness at my fingertips, my parents cared about the outdoors and instilled in me an inherent love of nature from a young age.
My love of the outdoors has stuck with me throughout my childhood and into my adult life. As I became educated in the Montessori philosophy, I was thrilled when I read Dr. Montessori’s Nature in Education lecture. Even in the early twentieth century, Dr. Montessori was concerned about the fear adults harbored over the natural world and how this was reflected in our children. Throughout her lecture, Dr. Montessori (1988/2013) encourages readers to let children play freely outside because it is through spending time in nature that children truly come alive. One of our goals, as Montessori educators, should be to get children playing outside, but because of a lingering fear of nature, it simply doesn’t happen. She desperately wanted adults to understand the tremendous value there was in nature.
Let the children be free; encourage them; let them run outside when it is raining; let them remove their shoes when they find a puddle of water; and, when the grass of the meadows is damp with dew, let them run on it and trample it with their bare feet; let them rest peacefully when a tree invites them to sleep beneath its shade; let them shout and laugh when the sun wakes them in the morning as it wakes every living creature that divides its day between waking and sleeping. -Dr. Maria Montessori, Nature in Education (1988/2013)
With everything that is taught at Montessori schools, nature education should be at the forefront of our minds. Maria Montessori was a huge advocate of allowing children the freedom for unstructured free play in the natural world. Even while she was writing The Discovery of the Child, she believed that children had a disconnect from nature (Montessori, 1988/2013). According to Dr. Montessori, children have been disengaged with nature since the early twentieth century, and one could argue that with expanding urban populations and our use of technology, children are even more detached from nature today than in the past. Because so much of the technology we have is fairly new, its full effects on our youngest children are unknown. What we do know is that teenagers who have grown up with smartphones and the internet at their fingertips have a greater risk for depression and suicidal thoughts (Twenge, 2017). Pediatricians and occupational therapists (OTs) in the United Kingdom are becoming concerned with the increase of young children who require occupational therapy services due to a lack of hand strength (Hill, 2018). OTs worry that children are losing the muscles in their hands as they are handed screens for swiping rather than blocks for building, crayons for coloring, and ropes for pulling.
Montessori schools and environments are beautiful tools used to educate the children of the world. With the underlying message of independence, self-confidence, and empowerment woven through each environment, Montessori Guides have a unique opportunity to use this method to help educate children. Through their sense of wonder and curiosity, children are drawn to the beautiful practical life work that is offered each day. Children help wash dishes and clothes, sweep the floors, prepare food, and clean up after themselves. Even with all of this magical work taking place, I worry that we too have learned to fear the outside world, just as Dr. Montessori warned us about.
More and more research is being done on the positive aspects nature has on children, as well as the detriments of a sedentary life spent indoors. Nature plays a crucial role in a child’s mental health and well-being, with nature contact linked to a reduction of allergies and respiratory diseases and lower rates of diabetes (Chawla, 2015). In addition, children are more active outside, especially if they are given opportunities to run and be free (Sharma-Brymer & Bland, 2016). This can help reduce childhood obesity and increase gross motor development (Kabisch et al., 2017). Access to nature has also been shown to produce positive moods and reduce stress (Kabisch et al., 2017). Through spending time outside, creativity, problem-solving, and social skills can all be enhanced (Jayasuriya et al., 2016). One study even showed that simply having a view of greenery and nature from their window allowed for a group of teenage girls to do better “on tests of concentration, control of impulsivity, and delay of gratification” (Chawla, 2015). This may mean that even just looking at the natural world from a window could positively affect a child’s well-being. While some of these studies are correlative, it is important that many of the different studies show similar findings.
When we start educating children at a young age about healthy practices regarding time spent outdoors, we have the potential to positively affect a child throughout their lifetime (Kabisch et al., 2017). The physical and mental health benefits that nature provides for us cannot be ignored, and it is our duty as caregivers to do what we can to give these benefits to children. Connection to nature is often viewed as an abstract concept, but there are observable indicators of how a child perceives this connection (Hughes et al., 2018). Children who develop a strong positive connection to nature often show greater empathy, a sense of unity with the natural world, and overall positivity and enjoyment in their lives, especially when outside (Hughes et al., 2018).
Children can only begin to garner an appreciation for the natural world if they are given opportunities to explore it. This means that the attitudes of the adults in their lives are tremendously influential on their perceptions of nature (Soga et al., 2018). Children who grow up spending quality time outside, experiencing positive moments in the outdoors, are more likely to become stewards of the environment (Soga et al., 2018). They develop empathetic feelings about issues like biodiversity loss and the rapidly changing climate (Sampaio et al., 2017). The concern with children who are not given quality time outdoors is that they may not have the same opportunities to develop a strong connection to the outside world. This could then mean that they have less of a desire to protect the earth. What does this mean for the future of our planet? Global temperatures and sea levels are rising, the weather is becoming more extreme, precipitation patterns are changing rapidly, and growing levels of carbon dioxide in the environment are leading to higher levels of air pollution (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, n.d). Without quick action and change, our world will look vastly different in the coming years. If we truly believe that children can change the world for the better, we need to be diligent in offering them these natural experiences to foster a greater connection to nature.
So how can educators encourage children to love nature, even in the middle of a city? This can be done in simple ways, like having plants or other natural items in the environment. Since people are spending more time inside, bringing plants and other natural materials indoors is a wonderful way to engage with children and nature. Not only are plants useful in removing harmful airborne toxins that build up indoors, studies show that indoor plants can also have positive benefits on mental health (Deng and Deng, 2018). Plants can be used to create a beautiful natural space to help offset the amount of time spent inside. In addition to plants, sensory bottles and shadow boxes filled with natural items are wonderful, especially if you work with infants who tend to put everything in their mouth. Older children can benefit from having a whole natural section in the classroom filled with all kinds of items from where you live, like leaves, pinecones, shells, sand, flowers, sticks, and rocks.
Another simple solution to foster nature experiences is to take children outside in all types of safe weather. Interact and engage with them while outside! Talk about feeling the warm sun on your skin, the breeze of the wind through your hair, and how the snow looks when it lands on your mittens. Use language to observe the biodiversity living in urban dwellings. Having plants outside invites pollinators, insects, and birds to the area that children can observe. Watering these plants allows for gross motor movements from the child and the sense that they are helping to keep a plant alive. Nature journaling or coloring while outside are enriching activities that can be done with children as young as two. Take a moment to stop and listen to the song of the chickadee, and observe how strong the ants are as they carry materials back to their nests. Use these experiences to ask children open-ended questions to help develop critical thinking and reinforce their emerging curiosity. You could even lay in the grass on your backs, looking up at the sky as you find pictures in the clouds. Scavenger hunts and “I Spy” games are enjoyable activities for children of all ages. These games help to develop their problem-solving skills while also causing them to take note of the natural world around them. Allow children to dig in the dirt, getting their hands dirty, as they experience all the wonderful sensorial ways to learn about the world. Imaginations and creative minds are formed when spending time outside! In my practice, I have incorporated these activities with children in urban settings and have seen just how much they are enjoyed!
As I continue my Montessori journey, I am amazed at how much children crave to be in nature. I am constantly trying to figure out ways I can incorporate nature in the classroom so that the relationship between children and nature develops organically. I keep flowers inside on the tables and, as I do with insects, I teach the children to use their senses by looking at the flowers with their eyes and then smelling them with their noses. I love seeing how they use this skill they learned inside to look at and smell the flowers and plants we have on the playground. It’s wonderful to see as the creative wheels inside their heads turn around and around with each new item that is discovered outdoors. Even infants can begin to reap the benefits that nature has for them, and it is my goal each and every day to support this.
I urge the readers of this magazine and the Montessori Community to think about our children and to think about the future. The benefits nature gives us are valuable and inspiring. Nature provides us with so much and learning how to respect it can have a profound impact on the future of our world. So let children taste the dirt, pick up the caterpillar, or run wildly after the squirrels. Take them outside in the rain and watch with amazement as they splash enthusiastically in the puddles. Give them the opportunities to love the natural world so they can become stewards of the amazing planet we live on. As Montessori educators, we are called to create tomorrow’s leaders. Let’s make them fall in love with nature, too.
Chawla, L. (2015). Benefits of nature contact for children. Journal of Planning Literature, 30(4), 433–452.
Deng, L., & Deng, Q. (2018). The basic roles of indoor plants in human health and comfort. Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 25(36), 36087–36101.
Hill, A. (2018, February 25). Children struggle to hold pencils due to too much tech, doctors say. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/feb/25/children-struggle-to-hold-pencils-due-to-too-much-tech-doctors-say
Hughes, J., Richardson, M., & Lumber, R. (2018). Evaluating connection to nature and the relationship with conservation behaviour in children. Journal For Nature Conservation, 45, 11–19.
Jayasuriya, A., Williams, M., Edwards, T., & Tandon, P. (2016). Parents’ Perceptions of Preschool Activities: Exploring Outdoor Play. Early Education & Development, 27(7), 1004–1017.
Kabisch, N., van den Bosch, M., & Lafortezza, R. (2017). The health benefits of nature-based solutions to urbanization challenges for children and the elderly – A systematic review. Environmental Research, 159, 362–373.
Montessori, M. (2013). Nature in Education. NAMTA Journal, 38(1), 21–27. Reprinted from "The Discovery of the Child," pages 69-77, copyright © 1988 by Montessori-Pierson Publishing Company.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (n.d). Global Climate Change Indicators. Retrieved April 4, 2019, from https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/monitoring-references/faq/indicators.php
La Paro, K. M., & Gloeckler, L. (2016). The Context of Child Care for Toddlers: The “Experience Expectable Environment.” Early Childhood Education Journal, 44(2), 147–153.
Sampaio, M. B., De La Fuente, M. F., Albuquerque, U. P., da Silva Souto, A., & Schiel, N. (2018). Contact with urban forests greatly enhances children’s knowledge of faunal diversity. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 30, 56–61.
Sharma-Brymer, V., & Bland, D. (2016). Bringing Nature to Schools to Promote Children’s Physical Activity. SPORTS MEDICINE, 46(7), 955–962.
Soga, M., Yamanoi, T., Tsuchiya, K., Koyanagi, T. F., & Kanai, T. (2018). What are the drivers of and barriers to children’s direct experiences of nature? Landscape and Urban Planning, 180, 114–120.
Twenge, J. M. (2018, March 19). Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? Retrieved April 27, 2019, from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/