Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Dirt is for Digging

"Of course we must adapt according to conditions, but ideally there is a light airy classroom that opens into a lovely yard, and the children have the freedom to be inside or outside as they wish.
The yard should contain both a cultivated and a wild part. It should consist of a lawn, a flower garden, and a place for the children to plant. There should be appropriate tools, real adult tools with short handles, and a shed to clean and store them."
-Maria Montessori
Upon their return from Spring Break, the children were delighted to find that the seeds they started had begun to germinate.

Today marked the children's first day in the newly constructed garden! Young children are sensorial explorers; as a result, all Montessori cultural units begin with a concrete experience which engages all of the child's senses.

As a group, the children received a detailed orientation to the new garden. To commence our gardening, and our unit on annelids (segmented worms), the children began by turning over a small plot of dirt to see what animals live in the soil. The children were very excited to find a large variety of earthworms, some millipedes, and some earthworm cocoons!

Children are consummate naturalists! The children collected some (57!) earthworms. They measured the worms and closely observed the parts of the worms, how they moved, and their reaction to light. Many of the children wanted to feel the worms wriggle in the palms of their hands, while others preferred to observe at a distance. After a bit, they released the worms back into the plot and watched them scrunch back into their burrows.

For the rest of the day, the vast majority of the children abandoned the swingset and sandbox in favor of working in the garden, digging for worms, or transporting loads of dirt to no place in particular in the wheelbarrow. This might be surprising to some people, but not to a trained Montessorian! One of Dr. Montessori's most astute observations of children was that they prefer actual work to pretend or unstructured play. Dr. Montessori created a large variety of Practical Life activities which invite the child to carry out activities that imitate the way that an adult uses familiar objects to carry out a real task. These activities are uniquely adapted to the child's interests and lure the child into mental and physical activity because they contain the promise of taking part in real adult work; however, there is one crucial difference- because the activity meets the child's needs, they are driven to repeat the work, even though it serves no external purpose.

Later, the children learned about composting and christened the new bin with it's first load of lunch scraps.
Gardening and composting are considered "Care of the Environment" activities. They permit children to contribute positively to the classroom community and to the social group (creating an authentic sense of self-esteem), and demonstrates our confidence in, and respect for, the child by permitting them to take part in "important work."

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Garden is Ready!

We have been very excited about creating a gardening space at Bloom! We feel that hands-on, experiential learning about photosynthesis, composting, and biodiversity are extremely important for children this age. We believe that these experiences help children to try new foods, assist children in developing a more sophisticated palate, provide them with a practical understanding of where their food comes from, and provide them with nutritional habits that will set them up for a lifetime of physical well being.

Additionally, there are an increasing amount of studies which have shown that exposure to nature can aid physical healing, decrease symptoms of ADD, depression, and behavioral issues, improve social interaction and social bonding, and even research which shows that children who have access to natural play spaces (as opposed to concrete, or over-groomed, play spaces) exhibit higher levels of creativity, problem solving ability, and cooperation. Scientists have even put forth what is called the "biophilia hypothesis," the idea that human beings posses an innate attraction to nature and that natural environments contribute to feelings of peace and well being.

Earlier this month, the children began starting seeds indoors; already, a large number of them have begun germinating. Over Spring Break, we built seven raised beds and assembled a compost bin. I cannot wait to see the children carrying compost out to the bin!

One thing I have learned through past experience gardening in a Montessori environment, is that it is very important to retain some part of the garden as a plot of dirt. Digging, hoeing, raking, and shoveling are like all Practical Life activities, whereas, an adult hoes to rid the plot of weeds and aerate the soil, the child hoes because she finds it fulfilling (because the child is in the process of constructing him or herself). Montessori realized this during her observations of children in which she noticed them doing seemingly pointless activities like repetitively cleaning a table that was already spotless. As a result, if you don't begin your garden by setting aside a designated spot for digging, you will either find your vegetables being dug up (or weeded) by errant gardeners, or you will spend the entire summer chasing children out of the garden (obviously, not the intended result).

We also built a small tool shed to house the children's gardening tools.

Finally, I enlisted the help of my talented assistant Katie, who willingly spent some of her Spring Break creating these hand-painted signs for the garden.

For more information about the importance of nature to children, see Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv; for more information about the importance of experiential gardening to nutritional education, please see Raising an Adventurous Eater: Ideas and Inspiration from the Edible Schoolyard.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Spring Break- The Action Shots!

Colorado's spring weather is known to be unpredictable... beautiful sunny afternoons in the high 60's juxtaposed with serious accumulations of snow and ice. So, it really isn't that surprising that we spent Spring Break intermittently armed with both snow shovels and garden hoes.

We decided not to be deterred by fickle mother nature. Despite the snow on the ground, we went about the unglamorous work on the HVAC system (to prepare for summer's warmer temperatures) and routine maintenance that we had planned.
The piece de resistance of our vacation work session was the garden! Josh built beautiful raised beds out of untreated fir, which surpassed what I had imagined (Josh likes to tease me by saying that I don't have ideas, only plans).
He painted them a lovely shade of white.
We had purchased a yard of topsoil from the local landscaping company, but felt a little foolish when we turned over the dirt and were pleasantly surprised to find beautiful humus- light, dark, and full of worms (the former owner had told us that this part of the yard had been used as a garden). I even found four earth worm cocoons to share with the children!

We hope you had a great Spring Break!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Farm to School Program Informational Meeting- Tuesday, March 23rd 5-6 pm

Mike Record, of The Family Table Farm, will be at Bloom! Montessori School this Tuesday, March 23rd, from 5-6 pm to meet with CSA shareholders, answer your questions, discuss the Bloom! Montessori Farm to School program, and provide the logistics for collecting your CSA share.

Childcare will be provided for families in attendance. Please contact the school if you have additional questions!

For more information (and some delightful photos) about the Family Table Farm, please visit their website at

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Taxonomy and the Fungi Kingdom- Part 3

Of all the genera in the Fungus kingdom, perhaps none is more beloved than Saccharmyces Cerevisiae, otherwise known as baker's yeast. Today, the Children's House was filled with the enticing fragrance of freshly baked bread as the children continued their study of Fungi by learning about the magic of yeast and by producing lovely white whole wheat boules.

I have always loved things that have a personal history (my wedding ring is an estate piece, my favorite seeds were saved by relatives or come with interesting anecdotes about the people who developed them or transported them to North America, and my favorite variety of coffee was stolen from a Paris garden and smuggled to Brazil in bouquet given to a young man by his lover). So, you can imagine how enamored I am with our first class "pet."

The children have begun caring for our own yeast colony- this Sourdough Starter (a piece of dough in which the yeast is continually reproducing thanks to being "fed" a daily ration of flour- this is responsible for the distinctive flavor of sourdough bread) that we purchased from King Arthur Flour Company (one of our favorite companies and the best flour you can buy!). This sourdough is descended from a starter that has been lovingly nurtured in New England since the 1700s.

Sourdough starter is undoubtedly the perfect first pet- low maintenance, quiet, and it smells good! However, it does need to be fed and watered daily (a chore that the children love to perform!). One of the things I really like about incorporating this into a unit on Fungi is that it helps the children to really appreciate that Fungi is alive and to understand one of the principle differences between Fungi and Plants (which can be difficult for them to grasp- many students intially guess that mushrooms are plants)- Fungi are unable to produce their own food and must obtain their nutrients by absorbing them from other sources.

In order to help the children fully appreciate the many virtues of our new class pet, I convinced the best bread baker I know, my husband, to take a day off of work and teach the children to make artisan boules. The children were very excited to learn that the holes in bread were the result of carbon dioxide bubbles released (burped!)by the yeast as they consumed (gobbled!) the sugar in the flour.

After two hours of rising, the dough was ready to be turned (kneaded). While some were initially apprehensive about the stickiness of the dough, by the end, everyone was happy to help (and some couldn't help but take a premature taste).

By nap time, we had nine perfectly shaped mini boules.

The children were awakened from nap with a bright, sunny afternoon and the enticing aroma of freshly baked bread. They excitedly enjoyed their special treat of warm bread at a table strewn with crumbs. Then, as the perfect conculsion to a fun day, they took home their own little boule to enjoy with their family over dinner.

Bon Appetit! (and, thanks Josh!)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Taxonomy and the Fungi Kingdom- Part 2

Our unit on Fungi continued this week with Mushroom Slicing, a twist on a classic Montessori Practical Life exercise. The children enjoyed carefully cleaning and slicing fresh Button Mushroom caps.

Later, the children enjoyed a special treat of Spinach and Maitake Mushroom wontons prepared by my assistant, Katie. One boy reported that they "taste like chicken," an idiom I had not expected from a two year old. Without exception, every child took a second helping and begged for more.

Many of the children chose to use the independent work period to reinforce their learning about Fungi by re-reading the Fungi books in the reading corner and matching different types of Fungi with the 3 Part Cards.
Their interest in Fungi even spilled over to outside play time. One boy came running toward me yelling excitedly, "Fungi, teacher! There's Fungi!" I followed him to find lichens growing on some of the trees and rocks in the yard. How lucky!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Taxonomy and the Fungi Kingdom

"Out of damp and gloomy days, out of solitude, out of loveless words directed at us, conclusions grow up in us like fungus; one morning, there they are, we know not how, and they gaze upon us morose and gray. Woe to the thinker who is not the gardener but only the soil of the plants that grow in him."
Friedrich Nietzsche

Young children are sensorial explorers and science appeals to their natural curiosity about the environment. In the Primary (3-6) Montessori cycle, children begin by learning to distinguish between things which are living and things which are non-living and discussing the characteristics of living things (not a simple feat for children who are in a period of cognitive development defined by animism and magical thinking). Subsequently, children learn to classify living things according to their biological taxonomy. We begin our study with the five Kingdoms.

This week, while we await reliably good weather to begin our study of plants, the children began a unit on Fungi. Fungi are fundamentally important to life on Earth because of their ability to decompose complex organic biomolecules and recycle plants after they die. In fact, if not for fungi, the Earth would be buried in several feet of debris and life on the planet would disappear!
Montessori strongly believed that all studies for children this age should begin with a concrete experience and that "nothing is in the intellect which was not first in the senses." As a result, we began our study of Fungi with a hands-on examination of twelve varities of beautiful, organic, exotic mushrooms. The children learned about the lifecycle of mushrooms and learned to identify the basic parts of mushrooms. It was amazing to watch how carefully the children handled them and how thoroughly they investigated and observed them (inhaling their earthy fragrance, delicately running their fingers over their velvety gills, and excitedly remarking about the diversity of colors and textures).

After completing the group activity, many of our mini-mycologists chose to continue the activity by matching mushrooms to corresponding matching cards and examining the specimens with magnifying glasses.

The children also began learning about the lifecycle of mushrooms by planting their own self-contained garden of Enokitake mushrooms. Although there are many different mushroom kits available, I particularly love this one because it is translucent; already, the children are able to see the mycelium (cobweb-like threads which are the "plant" from which the mushrooms will grow). The children seemed very excited!

Finally, the children celebrated the culinary virtues of fungi, by making and enjoying a special snack of mushroom risotto. There were more than a few fans of the earthy flavors in this classic comfort food!

Over the coming weeks, the children will continue their unit on Fungi by studying mushrooms using 3 Part Matching Cards and making Parts of Mushroom Booklets. After that, the children will learn about some other common fungi- including yeast, molds, and lichens.

Want to learn more?
-Our favorite local mushroom farm, Hazel Dell Mushrooms, has a great website-
-Mycologist Paul Stamets gave a really interesting lecture at the 2008 TED Conference called "6 Ways That Mushrooms Can Save the World" that you can watch at He also has a little cottage business where he sells mushroom kits (including the one we purchased), growing supplies, and educational materials on his website