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World Wildlife Day: Listen to the Young Voices part one

World Wildlife Day is fast approaching on March 3rd, and the theme this year, Listen to the Young Voices brings me a great blog topic – children and nature study.

My daughter is five and a half. We watched the 1992 film Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest on the weekend and, as I expected, it sparked more excitement to pretend we were fairies rather than how to save wilderness. While we were flying around the living room afterwards she did surprise me in saying that “if the big machine comes to take the trees we can show the driver a picture of what the place will look like with and without the trees. Then he can choose.” Ah, there’s the spark.

More realistically, though, we can’t expect a child of five to understand the complexities of ecosystems or how we, as humans, interact with wilderness to preserve it. They are still preoccupied with gaining a sense of how the world looks, how it feels, smells, tastes and sounds. Montessori sensorial activities were designed for this age to provide safe exploration of his senses independently of the adult.

We can not create observers by saying, “observe,” but by giving them the power and the means for this observation, and these means are procured through education of the senses. – Montessori 1912, p.229

I’ve seen this first hand in our set up home environment, where I observed DD focus on the textures she feels, or where she would listen to a whole song and ask for it many times again, kneading dough, commenting on the smells around etc. Naturally the sensory cravings are equally present on our trips outdoors – to the park, beach, a gardening session here and there. 

We usually go with friends close in age and I observe that they do mostly enjoy collecting and sorting items, using their treasures as toys. They like to feel the sand and dirt, crunch dry bark, have stick fights and climb on rocks. They also still stay close to the parents and are sometimes afraid of what they encounter. When I pulled DD up from a small ditch last week she called ‘Mum, you nearly let me die!’ A little dramatic, but for them it’s all so real.

The same day we were taking our friend’s boy home when I noticed a tiny caterpillar on his neck. This boy has been very scared of insects, so I calmly asked him to hold still while I got the harmless creature to walk onto my finger. After watching it inch his way up and down my arm a while the boy bravely asked to hold it. He squealed with delight at the ticklish feeling and the fact that he was holding a living thing! And he even went so far as to exclaim that he wanted to be the new carer of his green friend and decidedly he took it home. So, this is an insight into what nature does for the five year old.

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DD and I sort coloured leaves to make a spiral.

I’m excited to find, though, that from age seven onwards, the child’s view widens. Maria Montessori wrote extensively on the importance of nature studies and venturing outdoors for age seven plus, and for many reasons. She believed that at around this age the child has the physical need to get out of the house, and for their legs to take flight. Mentally, it is also a time of great imagination and wonder. Where there was once a need to focus inward to develop the senses, the child’s mind is somewhat more free to seek a rich world where he is interested mainly in the ‘how and why’: 

All that used to attract him sensorially now interests him from a different point of view. He is looking for what needs to be done. That is, he is beginning to become aware of the problem of cause and effect.  – Montessori, 2007 p.10

So, it seems, Fern Gully will have a different effect on DD in a couple of years. She’ll want answers and she’ll be more mobile than ever. Thanksfully, Montessori provides many suggestions about how getting out in nature can satisfy the elementary child’s curiosities,  physical needs and social development. It looks like the wilderness will be our classroom much of the time. But, with new territory comes preparation:

Since life outdoors differs from life in a closed environment, a guide and an aim are necessary. In short, to go out, one must be ready for it. Montessori, p12

I was surprised to read that they even had scouts in the 1920s. Montessori recommended children joining a club such as scouts to gain practical life lessons on preparation and survival. Also, as a way to learn from more experienced children and adults some valuable moral lessons and social skills.

As an adolescent, Montessori believed nature immersion was even more important:

Life in the open air, in the sunshine, and a diet high in nutritional content coming from the produce of neighboring fields improve the physical health, while the calm surroundings, the silence, the wonders of nature satisfy the need of the adolescent mind for reflection and meditation (Montessori,  p.112).

So it appears that although much is written about Montessori’s classroom materials she gave equal acclaim to nature’s whispers to children of all ages. If the child could clearly express his developmental needs he would say ‘take me outside!’ ‘Give me time to listen, watch, touch and play.’ The young voices indeed need to be listened to. Nature whispers to them, ‘grow’. 

If a relationship with wilderness is so important to bring up a healthy, peaceful, social and fully functional adult then we must be proactive in providing opportunities for the young ones to experience it. The next couple of blog posts will be dedicated to showing you how you can give this to your child, whether they are in the under 6 sensorial period or 7 and above.

Until then, stay green,

Crystal

The Montessori Method, Maria Montessori (1870-1952). Translated by Anne Everett George (1882-). New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1912.
From Childhood to Adolescence, Maria Montessori. Montessori-Pierson, 2007

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KISS Montessori

So, you started getting into Montessori. You saw photos online of beautiful home environments with orderly shelves and busy children. You saw babies and toddlers doing chores and arranging vases of flowers. You saw the ultimate childhood of learning and peace and figured it was time to prepare your own home. Back then, you were sure all you needed was a laminator, a pink tower, a couple of wooden trays and two low sets of shelves.

After a couple of years of printing, laminating and carefully rounding the corners of your beautiful three part cards you realised your little one isn’t into them. The ones he likes have dog ears and the other 2000 have cobwebs. Whenever you tell him its time to work he comes to you saying he’s bored. So you get him a jar of beans to sort and set about finding another set of printables online. Surely there’s something that he will want to do on his own!

You got tired of changing out the shelves so you bought several other bookcases. Oh, and a larger house…with a seperate shed….for you all to sleep in.

Time went by and you made and bought several materials. There were some your child just wasn’t interested in so you have to put them aside in one of your newly-allocated cupboards. One day he came to you and said he wants the pink tower. “But son, you used it so many times then you stopped so I put it away. Don’t you want to use your lovely new fractions stacker?” In your mind you tried to navigate the deepest cupboards to where you put the pink tower.  Hours later, “here it is, son”. “No thanks,” he shrugs, “I’m doing the fractions.” [Sigh].

Eventually baby number two came. The pink tower lost it’s smallest cube (Which you found later during a daiper change). Beads went all over the floor several times. So you got back to one shelf and a few trays. Your older child wanted to do the housework with you. You went for long walks in the park with the baby. And you were all breathing normally again.

Obviously this is a tongue in cheek version of what could happen in an over zealous Montessori household. I know first hand the expectation vs reality of what Montessori at home looks like. When my daughter was 16 months old I heard about the philosophy from a friend and, after reading more into it I had certain expectations. Four years and three house moves later, I have honed my skills (and altered expectations) somewhat. Behold, my top five tips for keeping your sanity if looking at this as a long term lifestyle.

1.Use shelves with wheels

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Shelves with wheels enable you to move things when needed without too much disruption.

I got these from a local furniture store – nice and deep, durable timber with decent height and depth. This might take a little extra trouble to source but so worth it to be able to have any kinds of materials out – from the pink tower to the large movable alphabet. We had the shelves in the spare room, which we could move when we had guests.

2. Don’t bother laminating things

When my daughter was a toddler I used to laminate all her three part cards or home made puzzles. This kept them durable, but since they are only used a few times each it’s not necessary. Classroom durability is not essential at home.

3. Have a healthy view of independence.

Maria Montessori expressed the importance of developing independence in children:

Any child who is self-sufficient, who can tie his shoes, dress or undress himself, reflects in his joy and sense of achievement the image of human dignity which is derived from a sense of independence.

After doing Montessori lessons at home for a year I expected my daughter should be able to choose an activity by herself, quietly focus on it for a considerable time or even finish something before moving onto something else. But it seemed no matter what I showed her she wouldn’t go to a material without me beside her. And she loves to talk, wanting conversation while working. I used to think there was something wrong but now I see the missing piece of the puzzle.

In a Montessori classroom children are working alongside other children. This companionship is motivation for them. The older kids are modeling behaviour, and when they see their friends moving on to the next level they are also keen to try. At home your child might seem clingy, when in fact they may just be wanting your presence whilst they work, at least until they build confidence in trying things on their own. Some children also are aural learners or just like conversation.

I am not at all bothered that DD sometimes follows me around the house or wants to join in what I’m doing. She often works on her own activities independently but I also acknowledge she’s a people person and just wants to share her experiences with me.

4. Presentation is Important

I’ll never forget this video I saw of a toddler opening a gift-wrapped paperclip. . Hard to tell whether her excitement came from being told she had a gift, or whether it was in a beautiful box, or the fact that her parents filmed her like it was Christmas morning. Anyway, her reaction showed how enthusiastic children can be by even the most seemingly insignificant things. Therefore, when you present a lesson to your child, make it like a discovery of something new and exciting, something special, valuable and fun.  Look at it from different angles. Explore with them by asking questions “I wonder what happens if I move this?” “Is there a pattern here, I wonder?”. Taking this approach will get their interest, develop a sense of exploration and make the most with less.

5. Have a Storage System and Change Regularly

My DD was not at all interested in the moveable alphabet when I first presented it to her at four years. It sat on the bottom of the language shelf practically untouched for months so I put it away, dismayed at the thought I had wasted money on it. On the empty shelf I placed grammar activities.  A year later I noticed her wanting to write.  So I got the moveable alphabet straight out of the cupboard and demonstrated how to use it to sound out words.  I pretended I was struggling to spell, but that I wasn’t worried as long as I could place letters that made the right sounds in the words. Any difficult words I got out blank name cards as a placemarker, then went back to them at the end.  Then DD had a turn and got me to read her sentence. She was excited that I had been able to read her writing. I noticed then one of the advantages of Montessori – being prepared and able to respond immediately to any spark of interest. In a home environment a challenge is space. Fortunately, as parents or caregivers we can keep close observation on the child’s interests and abilities and, if we are organised, get to what they need in a moment’s notice.

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DD showed interest in the moveable alphabet when I showed her that spelling correctly was not important at this stage.

I believe it’s so important to focus on simplicity if you’re doing Montessori at home. Limited time, space and finances mean that we need to be adaptable and practical. I’m learning how to improve this every day, so I’ll update you on any hacks as I come across them. Oh, I can add one more right now:

6. Keep Blog Posts Short and Sweet

At that, I’m signing off,

Crystal