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The Montessori Method and Nature
Maria Montessori, who developed the Montessori method of teaching- a method whereby children learn and develop experientially based on interaction with their environment, compared children to sponges in that they soak up all they are given. I know from my own experience that this is especially true when it comes to children interacting with the natural world. I see this firsthand in the way my three year old has learned about nature- about primitive skills, tracking and stalking, hunting and fishing, navigation, the stars, and the weather. When we are outside he watches what I do, listens to every word I say, asks question after question, and understands it all. And then I see him using what he has learned as he makes a "spear" from a stick and stalks a squirrel around our house, as he pounds yucca leaves when we make cordage, as he tells me about lambsquarter or purslane or Mormon tea, and as he prepares tinder and kindling and stacks wood for fuel when we build a fire. He is only three but already he has developed a love for the outdoors, an understanding for the natural world, and is developing his outdoor and primitive skills.
Introducing children to nature at an early age, allowing them to interact, to feel and to understand the natural world based on their own experiences, allows them to develop more completely as people. I believe it also enhances all other parts of their lives, their experiences, their relationships, their growth and development. I know this is true for myself as an adult- I am certain that it is true for my son as well.
I practice the methods developed by Maria Montessori, John Holt (who coined the phrase "unschooling"), and John Dewey in all that we do together, in daily life. I treat my son as an equal when I explain things to him, in all our activities, especially outdoor activities. I treat him as I would anyone I take into the wilderness, teach him the same way and invite him to explore what he has learned. I feel that this is the best way for children to learn and develop, respecting them as individuals.
So now, where to begin the introduction? My answer- based on the child's natural curiosity, they will lead you to where they want to be.
Whether we as parents are aware of it or not, children begin developing their love for the outdoors on their first visit to the park, or sandbox, to a stream or even to a field. It is our job then to promote that interest, to help it grow and evolve, so that they might develop appreciation, understanding and love for nature that will carry on through their life.
I will admit that I often have preconceived ideas for topics of discussion with my son before we go out on a hike, topics I would like to "teach" him. There are bird songs I would like him to listen for, plants I will ask him to identify, tracks or stone tools or animals scats I want him to look for. I try to let him find these things, sometimes with a little help, so that the discovery will be his own. I try to let him ask me about them, let him form the questions and theories about what we find. It is a thrill to see the excitement that he expresses upon these discoveries. It is even more exciting for me when he points out things that I miss.
Suggestions for the Introduction of Nature
The level of interaction that your child will have with nature depends on many factors. It depends on your own comfort level with nature, on your experience with the outdoors, on where you live and the time you have available. But the quality of the interaction does not have to be affected by any of these factors. Children can discover and develop knowledge of nature in the back yard or at the edge of the city park as easily as they can in the Utah backcountry. Developing a bond with nature at an early age is the beginning. At some point in later life the backcountry does become a necessary part of the interaction. As Ed Abbey said, " Wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity...."
Even if you are not an "outdoor person", you can help your child become one. Simple field guides for kids can be purchased at most book stores. Get a bird book, a book on trees or plants, or insects. Take them to the park with you and start searching. When my son and I are out together it is very different, often completely opposite, of my own trips alone in the wilderness. I walk the canyons, often to arrive at a specific ruin or rock art panel. With my son we may walk a few hundred meters and find everything we were looking for; sagebrush, sticks and rocks. It is all exciting to him, and he shows me things that I had forgotten about. He helps me to slow down and see things that I take for granted.
Young Children, Wilderness Thinking, Wilderness Skills
As children become familiar with being in the outdoors, wilderness skills, as well as wilderness thinking can begin to be introduced. By skills I refer to such subjects as seeking shelter, following trails (man-made and game trails), watching weather and animals, identifying plants and trees, and learning about directions and navigation. Wilderness thinking, or wilderness posture, to me includes walking quietly, speaking quietly, learning to observe, minimising impact, being aware of the surroundings and overall environment. At first glance this may seem and imposing list to try and introduce to a two or three year old. But it doesn't take long at all for a child to understand that the wilderness is approached in a certain manner, just as the playground or the school room have their own behavioral "conventions", to avoid the use of the term "rules". Of course it is most important to lead by example- parents are the primary role models for their children. If you walk softly, observing nature as you go, speaking quietly, and are comfortable with the surroundings, your children will follow suit.
Giving Fire to a Three Year Old- An Essential Wilderness Skill
The image to the left illustrates the topic of teaching wilderness skills to children. Many people may find it unsettling that I allow my son to "play" with fire; I feel it is more important that he understands, rather than fear it. While my son's understanding of the operation of the bow and drill is simply the process of learning, it is gratifying to me that he has an understanding not only of the process, but of the importance of the process- the ability to create fire, its uses, as well as the dangers involved. Because we have fires often, both at home and in the wilderness, he understands the entire process- the preparation of the space, clearing away of combustible materials, tinder, kindling, fuels, methods of creating fire, cooking with it, and how to put it out.
I have explained to my son how fire is made with the bow and drill, the process, naming the parts of the kit for him, showing him how they work together to create friction and eventually a glowing ember. He has watched me make fire perhaps hundreds of times now over the last year. He has observed, asked questions, played with his fire kit with and without me. Now, approaching three and half years old, he understands the complexity of the operation- he understands the blunt end of the drill meets the hole in the fireboard, the end that seats in the spindle should be pointed, that we catch the spark on a flake of wood to transfer it in the birdsnest, and how we blow the spark into a flame. Most important of all he has the mechanics of the operation nearly mastered. His foot placement, his body over top of the drill, the distribution of his weight so that the drill is held securely in place as he moves his bow back and forth are all understood. It won't be long before he is starting our fires. And I know that when the time comes, when he ventures into the wilderness with friends, or alone, that he will have the primitive, even primal skills to keep himself alive.
When my son and I venture into the bush I am always following some sort of preconceived plan for our hike. But as I have stated above, I try to let my son take the lead, let him guide us and make the discoveries along the way. Even so, we do have boundaries and we always discuss them before we begin. The boundaries we have established are necessary for safety reasons. Whenever we are laying out boundaries for a hike or a campsite, for example, I explain them and we discuss why we have the boundaries. My son understands that these are not arbitrary rules, and the reasons why we have them. On our recent trip to Utah for camping and a float on the San Juan River, he made it perfectly clear that he understands the boundaries we have established and exactly why we have them.
On our way to the San Juan River we camped at one of our favorite spots, a campsite we call "train camp". It is right on the edge of a cliff face that overlooks train tracks. We typically see at least 3 or 4 trains when we camp there, some of them in the middle of the night. We get up for every one of them and watch until they are out of site. The night time trains are the most exciting with their incredibly bright headlight. Nicolai loves this campsite. We have camped there many times.
When we arrive I always begin by reminding him of the cliff and how I want him to stay a certain distance back from the edge. We set up small cairns so he knows this boundary. Then we talk about the brush and trees around the camp and who might live there. We put sticks in the ground where he needs to stop in his exploration unless I am with him. On this trip mom was along for her first visit to the camp. As soon as we arrived they got out and Nicolai took his mom around and explained the rules to her, as well as why we had them. He was happy to share his knowledge of our safety boundaries with his mom.
As we made our way to the San Juan, we camped at a few of our other favorite sites, and the same thing occurred at each one- Nicolai explained the boundaries just as I had to him on our previous visits. I think he felt it was his job to due so since he was familiar with them and mom was new to a couple of the sites. It was very reassuring to see this happen, to have it confirmed that he really understands the issue of safety when we are in the desert.
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