When we often associate Maria Montessori's pedagogy with images of children who are busy handling wooden learning toys or doing their own "housework" in a meticulously prepared environment, we tend to forget the child's most important teacher: nature. Exercise in the open air, exploratory play with natural materials, and the most precise observation of animals and plants are at least as much a part of Montessori pedagogy as the pink tower.
Being attentive to natural surroundings – preferably forest, meadow, and water – remains a central part of cosmic education. And it is established from the very first year of life as the absolute basis for any scientific understanding and ethical action.
You may have heard that many Montessori children's homes or schools have fixed days of the week where the children spend at least several hours or the whole day outdoors.
This institution – the so-called forest or nature day – serves neither for relaxation nor exclusively for physical training: it is the actual core of cosmic education.
WHAT DOES "EXPERIENCING NATURE" MEAN IN CONCRETE TERMS?
Cosmic education is based on the child's ability to perceive and explore nature with its diverse processes at close range and with all senses. In her time, Maria Montessori criticized parents and educators who only took their children outside to promote health – and this attitude is still sometimes encountered today.
In "From Childhood to Youth," Montessori tells of a child who yearns to be able to look at the stars but is always sent to bed by his parents as soon as it gets dark. But she pleads for children to be able to have these and similar experiences, even if it means being unconventional or stepping out of their comfort zone.
Sometimes it also means going against the child's comfort and taking them outside in heavy rain, cold temperatures, or at dawn, for example. Each of these experiences will make nature and your own body accessible to you in a new way.
Above all, Maria Montessori believes that children should be allowed a great deal of freedom in dealing with nature: their curiosity about nature's various phenomena and processes should only be stopped where it could endanger themselves or others. So if a child wants to wade barefoot in a stream or the mud, parents or educators should let them do it – just as if they're going to spend the night outdoors or climb a tall tree. The more diverse the experiences in nature, the more "cosmic" the growing awareness of the child.
Incidentally, the concrete experience of nature does not have to be limited to momentary pleasure; with increasing age, the adventures can become more systematic and extend over a longer period. For example, children can watch the growth of a single plant or the processes in a beehive over several weeks.
EXPERIENCE NATURE FROM THE AGE OF O-6 YEARS
Being in nature is initially a radically sensual affair for babies and toddlers. Children as young as a few weeks are amazed at the green leaves playing in the wind or listen intently to the babbling of a stream. After a few months, babies can recognize animals and perceive them as living beings – and by around nine months, the enthusiasm for everything with fur, wings, or many legs becomes almost overflowing.
The forest also turns out to be an extremely engaging environment; Observing streams and other bodies of water is soon no longer enough: the child wants to understand everything quite literally, put their feet in the water, stroke the bark of the tree, and sniff the flowers. As a mother or father, you don't have to do much more than take your child outside as often as possible and give them plenty of time to get to know living things and the elements.
In the second year of life, the interest in natural phenomena becomes more and more intense and the observation more and more precise. The child will soon be able to name what he sees, and daily encounters with all kinds of creatures can become an essential motor for language development. This is particularly evident in the "why" phase when small children act as little philosophers for the first time and would like to spend the whole day asking and discussing how the world works – and why!
At kindergarten age, many a child acquires an impressively broad knowledge of various animals, but possibly also of space or volcanoes. However, the ability remains rather selective and lives from the aesthetics of the object:
Certain animals are adorable or are great as identification figures, from the solid lion to the cheeky goat.
The stars glitter so mysteriously at night.
The sea looks so beautiful and fascinating with its width and depth and the diversity of its inhabitants.
Whatever your child's interest in nature, support it without overly influencing it.
EXPERIENCING NATURE FROM AGES 6 TO 12
According to Maria Montessori, a lot happens in the child's intellect when the milk teeth start to say goodbye.
This apparent physical change often coincides with intense brain remodeling. It is no coincidence that children start school at six or seven. During this time, the ability for abstraction develops: in addition to the sensual experience of nature, systematic knowledge about it is now becoming more and more enjoyable.
From this age, you can convey to your child how the world is structured. Maria Montessori never recommends under-challenging children, but expecting them to deal with the complexity of the cosmos. For example, when we say that the earth is a planet in a solar system, the aim is to immediately convey that there are many solar systems with many more planets.
The sensual experience of nature remains very important but may become more demanding. At around the age of six, you can introduce telescopes and microscopes/magnifying glasses to experience those parts of our environment that are not so easily accessible.
At the same time, the child is increasingly learning to manipulate this environment. There are many practical exercises for this: from carving to making a fire to growing vegetables and even cooking, all activities involving natural materials are part of cosmic education.
In addition, during this second phase of infancy, man develops into a moral being. The awareness of their responsibility grows, and children understand that non-human beings can also suffer. At this age, many children can be outraged at animal cruelty while realizing that they can act in a more or less ethical way themselves.