“The land is where our roots are. The children must be taught to feel and live in harmony with the Earth.” – Dr Maria Montessori
Children, Nature, and the Montessori Method
Gery Juleff, Sustainability Manager and Ecology teacher
In today’s world, children spend much more time indoors compared to previous generations. Not surprisingly, studies show that this can have a negative effect on them and that children who spend time outside are happier, healthier, better at paying attention, and less anxious than those who spend more time indoors.
There is an increasing amount of research on this subject, and many books, including Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. The author argues convincingly that the disconnect from the natural world is producing ill effects in both mind and body. He suggests that a connection to nature is biologically innate; as humans, we have an affinity for the natural world (after all, we spent about 90,000 years as hunter-gatherers, 12,000 years as farmers, and 1-200 years as factory/office workers in an urban environment!). Problems associated with alienation from nature include familiar maladies such as depression, obesity, and attention deficit disorder.
However, even if children don’t have any of the specific problems mentioned above, those who don’t get out much are likely to be less fit and to lack the sense of wonder that only nature can provide. Being in nature can increase independence and a sense of responsibility, and develop practical skills. Children who have direct access to nature are better learners. Exposure to nature has been shown to reduce stress and increase attention spans.
Given that we are facing unprecedented environmental challenges, ensuring that future generations of leaders are familiar with, and appreciate the importance of, nature is also important for the future of our planet, the only one that we have.
Dr Maria Montessori, of course, knew this over a hundred years ago! One of her many observations on the importance to children of being outside in nature:
“Nature enriches the life of each child by supporting physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development. By increasing a child’s interactions with the natural world, Montessori guides and Montessori parents are promoting the child’s development as a young naturalist” and “The best way of invigorating a child is to immerse him in nature”.
Maria Montessori said much more on this subject, and the importance of children spending time outside and in nature became a key tenet of the Montessori philosophy.
How does Princeton Montessori put these ideas into practice?
We have several outdoor play areas on our 20-acre campus, and children spend all their playtime (weather permitting!) outside. We also use the outdoors for classes when possible, especially for younger children in good weather and for Elementary and Middle School in (almost!) all weather conditions.
We have an outdoor classroom in the school woods which is used for almost all Ecology classes. Children start with a minute’s silence, followed by class, and – if time permits – time for exploration.
The school has a vegetable garden, and two greenhouses, which the children use to grow, and harvest, vegetables. They are looking forward to harvesting strawberries and garlic in the spring. This year we are growing vegetables indoors throughout the year. Our aim is to help them understand where their food comes from, and the importance of making the right food choices for the health of both themselves and the planet.
This is reinforced by farm visits, to Marchese Family Farm and Groundswell reFarmative, two models of sustainable farming. The students really enjoy getting their hands dirty planting, transplanting, and harvesting.
In addition to farm visits, the school has partnerships with the Ridgeview Conservancy and Sourland Conservancy. The first enables us to better understand the importance of forests, what the main threats are, and how to care for them. With the latter, our Middle School students are able to explore, learn about, and appreciate the wonder that is the Sourland Mountain, right in our backyard.
Finally, a student-led Eco team is starting to find its way, with a Mission to encourage and support the school with its environmental and sustainability agenda.
As always, there is so much more that we plan to do. However, with the commitment to and understanding of nature that Maria Montessori showed a hundred years ago, we will continue to make progress so that our children will leave here with a deep understanding and appreciation of nature, and with the tools and knowledge to make the right choices that will help them, their own children and the planet.