Beyond The Walls and Kids Love Nature!
Beyond The Walls and Kids Love Nature! are nature programs I designed to create and support a culture of nature awareness and connection for children, their families, and educators. At the Metro Montessori Schools where I work in Maryland, we use our playgrounds (recognized by the National Wildlife Federation as Certified Wildlife Habitats) as grassy play yards, and also use ‘wild’ areas for outdoor explorations. We introduce children to the natural world in ways that inspire awe and wonder, curiosity and exploration, and comfort in the outdoors. By invoking songs, stories, games, sensory experiences, journaling activities, and celebrations, we provide imaginative and enjoyable ways for children to encounter our flora and fauna in its native places.
We go outside in all kinds of weather, remaining indoors for only the most severe conditions, such as extreme cold or thunderstorms. The children come to school prepared for the day: gloves and mittens in winter, boots and raincoats for wet weather, or sunscreen and insect repellent for warm days. When venturing outside is not possible, we conduct an indoor activity that addresses the weather factor that is keeping the children inside. To promote safety, we bring a first-aid bag on our walks, as well as a cell phone, and we maintain or exceed the proper staff-to-child ratios on our walks. Becoming aware of hazards is the first lesson the children and adults receive, and it's often repeated. From poison ivy to icy sidewalks, the children are familiar with potential dangers and become adept at keeping themselves and others from harm. This vigilance allows them to explore with safety and confidence.
The children come outside by classrooms in the mornings, either in two smaller groups for thirty minutes, or one larger group for an hour. This time never feels long enough! Determining which size group will go out depends upon the activity and the weather for that particular day, and therefore can only sometimes be decided in advance. The classroom teachers and staff know to plan for either contingency. The oldest children in the school go out additionally in the afternoons, either in small groups for thirty minutes, or combined groups for extended periods of time.
Once outdoors, the instructors guide the children in an activity suitable to the circumstances for the day. For instance, a rainy day is an ideal day to observe earthworms, as is a sunny day for spying turtles basking on the rocks at lakeside. The instructors are always watchful for an animal sighting or an emerging interest of the children, and must be able to shift the focus where necessary or desirable to allow the richest experiences for the children. This has allowed us to have remarkable experiences like watching a doe give birth to twin fawns, or rescuing a fledging crow from a stream. Time to just explore or simply imagine is provided for whenever possible.
As an interest is ignited, the children and adults immerse themselves in an intensive exploration, employing all of their senses according to the awareness trainings they have been practicing. Whatever they learn by observing or listening is used to guide deeper questioning by the instructors and children until they arrive at inquiries for which the answers are unknown. They carry these mysteries back for further investigations in field guides, on-line, or to ask experts. Even if the answers cannot be found, the questions are valued and returned to from time to time. The sense of wonder is preserved.
Back at school, posters, photos, drawings, and journal entries are generated to document the discoveries and to recount the experiences of the children. Natural items from the expeditions are displayed in a nature museum where they may be viewed and handled. The children are encouraged to recount their adventures often and in great detail. They create songs and stories about their experiences, both real and imagined, and share them with others.
Once or twice a month we have a weekend event called Outdoor Expeditions. This is typically held on a Saturday morning or a Sunday afternoon. We invite parents, grandparents, and neighbors to join us in a local park and we have an extended adventure. Not only does this strengthen our community, but it also introduces families to their local parks.
By request, in the summertime I operate programs called Kids Love Nature! that are separate from the schools, but which are attended by those in the school community. The age range is generally from three to nine years old. We meet in a local park from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm. The parks have no indoor shelters beyond pavilions and bathrooms, so we are outside in all weather except for thunderstorms. The children bring a comfortable backpack that contains a water bottle, a lunch that needs no refrigeration, a rain poncho, and an extra set of clothing. We provide a gift bag for each child that has things like a nature journal, collecting bag, magnifying glass, tape measure, pencils, sharpeners, erasers, and crayons. We also provide a healthy snack. We set off on a walk each day and explore at a gentle, easy pace throughout the park. We find many safe ways to challenge the children and build their skills physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Our destinations are determined by temperature and weather, and mostly by the interests of the children, and we focus on the journey. When we return to our base camp area we have an extensive collection of field guides and art supplies available to record the adventures of the day.
What has been most compelling about the Beyond The Walls and Kids Love Nature! programs have been the excitement and enthusiasm of the children in experiencing them. They regularly express their interest and happiness regarding their adventures and their parents report the same. The awarenesses of self, community, and the larger world are encouraged and enhanced as the children meet the demands of their developing brains and bodies in spontaneous and joyful ways.
Dr. Montessori wrote, “When a child goes out, it is the world itself that offers itself to him. Let us take the child out to show him real things…” Beyond The Walls and Kids Love Nature! endeavor to offer the children the opportunities to go out and discover their world. If I could do this, anyone can, and if anyone can do this, shouldn’t everyone?
For more information: E-mail Amy at Amy.BeyondTheWalls@gmail.com, or call at (301) 977-3733.