"How often is the soul of man, especially that of the child, deprived because one does not put him in contact with nature."
- Maria Montessori (1976)
If she were alive today, it would not be surprising if Dr. Montessori gave a wink or a green "thumbs up" to the Beyond the Walls outdoor education program at The Franklin Schools in Rockville, MD. The echoes of Dr. Montessori's voice resonate outside the indoor prepared environments; her voice speaks to the vast arena nature has prepared to be explored and preserved. We hear her saying, "The land is where our roots are. The children must be taught to feel and live in harmony with the Earth."
Under the expert guidance of Maryland outdoor education specialist Amy Beam, Franklin's staff has been guided to reconnect to the landscape, understand native plants and animals, and reclaim a sense of gratitude for the environment that they can readily and enthusiastically share with the 285 children, ages 2 through 6, who attend the school.
Beam advocates combining nature and nurture to meet the needs of the whole child and restore the balance between indoors and outdoors. Her pathway to environmental literacy is a welcome companion to all other literacies encouraged in Montessori classrooms. At the onset of the program. Beam was occasionally asked to plan Beyond the Walls activities a week ahead. She reminded us.
Staff is instructed not to have an agenda. This program moves on exploration, inspiration, and moves on the moment. You can't plan for moments like these. As a facilitator, you want to be available to do, to be present and there, and to be very vigilant in your flexibility.
Recently, nature educator Justin Pegnataro of Two Coyotes Wilderness School in New Haven, CT, joined Beam to conduct a staff workshop. "Teachers have a pivotal role for the future of the world to connect children to nature," they said. "Sometimes, teachers have struggled to get children into a lesson in the classroom that is not a struggle with what nature provides. Being active and playing outside is a cure for fears about ecological problems and the natural world." Beam added, "Nature retunes the body and mind for greater learning and curiosity." She sees the geography of childhood as a magical landscape. On a walk to a nearby duck pond, she had the children pause on a bridge and use their sense of hearing to capture the sound of the water that could not be seen beneath the structure. On previous visits, it had been called the "troll bridge," but from this day forward it became the "listening bridge." As Beam noted, "Children often create names for places and weave them into their story of their landscape."
Franklin's three-acre campus, named a Certified Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation, provides ample opportunities for the children to establish an early appreciation and stewardship of the area's natural resources. In the backyard of the campus is an area affectionately called,"The Back 40," where vegetation has been deliberately kept wild for the children to observe what is occurring in their immediate environment, and to investigate plants common to the area.
Teacher Betsy Newman embraces the connection between Montessori philosophy and nature. She attended the Art of Mentoring program at the Wilderness School in Duvall, WA. Several of her Franklin colleagues attended a similar program at Vermont's Wilderness Awareness School. Newman said, "Montessori's theories really complement nature as a source of inspiration for learning. She believed children are fascinated with nature and recognized the importance of the natural world and its relevance to the child. The act of studying things is, in a way, meditation on detail." Montessori herself stressed the use of natural materials in the classroom and their effect on the child's development. In her own words, "We cannot 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, 1964, p. …