Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Importance of the Outdoor Prepared Environment to the Life Sciences

This past week, the children discovered this little character living amongst the zucchini in our garden (perhaps this is one of the little praying mantis's we hatched and released at the beginning of the summer?). Our animated guest was a good sport; he spent the morning in the classroom observation terrarium, then dutifully walked across their little hands at line time, and entertained the fascinated children by bravely defending himself by waving his little arms frantically about before fluttering off.

Watching the children with their insect companion really clarified the importance of the outside prepared environment. Young children are consummate naturalists; as Montessori noted, they are "sensorial explorers" who absorb every aspect of their environment. Providing children with the opportunity to interact daily with the plants and animals that surround them is an essential part of the child's experience as it affords them with the opportunity to carefully observe natural phenomena (the changing of seasons, the lifecycles of plants and animals, the importance of pollinators, a food chain, and an ecosystem).

The Montessori method of education sees education as a natural, spontaneous process in which children actively construct and refine their understanding of abstract concepts by scaffolding the information around meaningful experiences, rather than treating children as if they were empty vessels to be filled with memorized facts and accumulated wisdom.

It is experiences like these, in the natural environment, with living creatures, that serve to reconnect children with nature, to spark their interest in the natural sciences and the world around them, and to provide children with an authentic Montessori education in the natural sciences.

Our children have been lucky to have had many such visitors.

We are extremely fortunate to have a beautiful outdoor prepared environment, replete with mature trees, beautiful butterflies, friendly rabbits, grape vines which are just beginning to turn purple, apple trees laden with with fruit just beginning to show the first blush of fall, and the occasional slug or interesting insect. These daily hands on experiences (collecting fallen apples, running out to the garden to surreptitiously taste the grapes, or gathering vegetables and herbs from the garden), help to bring the children in touch with the natural environment and draw their attention to the changing of the seasons and the lifecycles of plants and animals in a way that no other "lesson," or an over-groomed playground, ever could.

Not surprisingly, given the excitement generated by our outdoor prepared environment, the weekly CSA share, the vegetable garden, raising butterflies, ladybugs, and praying mantises, and field trips to the CSA farm and the apiary, the botany and life sciences works inside the classroom have also seen a flurry of activity.
Once the children have had real, meaningful, concrete experiences, the carefully prepared classroom materials help to deepen the child's understanding of the more abstract princples and concepts involved and allow the children to actively construct meaning from their experiences. This is particularly important in assisting young children in their understanding of botany and the life sciences.
I have to admit to having fallen a little behind in posting photographs about what we have been up to. Over the past few months, the children have busied themselves with carefully dissecting flowers,
making "Parts of the Plant" and "Parts of the Flower" booklets,

working with botany puzzles,

pressing flowers,

producing naturalist drawings and watercolour paintings,

and learning to recognize and appreciate different fruits and vegetables.
The children particularly enjoyed matching the set of knitted vegetables my assistant made, matching 3 Part Cards of different fruits and vegetables,

sorting miniature vegetables,
and reading about vegetables and how they are grown.

Then, there were the mounted specimens of honeybees, and other arthropods, to examine,the wooden candlestick holders to paint,
and the beeswax candles to fashion.
There were "Honey Circles" to be baked (imagine a light, golden cookie that is a perfect combination of sweet and salty- made with only six ingredients- whole wheat flour, salt, vanilla, oil, honey, and sunflower seeds). This is one of my favorite baking projects both due to both the absolute simplicity of the ingredients and the fact that it incorporates both honey and sunflower seeds, making a great project to supplement both the unit on pollinators and parts of a flower.

And, of course, there was the zucchini to be grated,

baked into fragrant mini loaves,

wrapped and tied by the older children (who practiced their bow tying),
and taken home to share with mom and dad.
Finally, there were seeds to collect and investigate. The children were very interested in examining the structure of different seeds and in sorting them based upon their different methods of dispersal (that they have structural differences in design which facilitate their travel in wind, in water, by hitching a ride on animals, by being eaten by animals, and using mechanical properties of the seed pod).

It is such a pleasure to watch young children in the process of investigating the world around them.


  1. Amazing work. So inspiring! Thank you for sharing these gorgeous pictures.

  2. Thank you for your kind compliment!

  3. Abigail - you write so well. I feel so lucky to have stumbled upon your blog.
    I work in a non-Montessori International bilingual preschool in Japan. Since becoming interested in Montessori and learning more and more, I have since introduced an Activity Area into my classroom. I have one to three year old students - what age range do you cater for?
    I'm inspired and am thinking of how to adapt some of your ideas for my classroom. Thanks again!

  4. I love your school blog. It is full of wonderful ideas. I am really intrigued by "Honey Circles". Can you tell me where can I find the receipe, please? It looks yummy and wonderfully there are no eggs inside!