Weaving Nature-Study into the Montessori Elementary Classroom

Written By Kelly Johnson

For every first year Montessori teacher there is a learning curve. For me, in that first class 15 years ago, I learned that equally important as teaching reading and math, is keeping alive the children’s senses of wonder and connection with their natural world. Of course, in theory, as Montessorians, we know this, but in the thick of everyday classroom routines, it isn’t always so easy to keep nature-connection at the top of the to-do list.

Montessori Elementary "We don’t protect what we don’t love, so I was going to make sure my students loved nature...!"

Starting with a very small schoolyard garden bed, I made it my mission to open those children, their families, and the ones that followed, to the wonders of a seed, the fun of harvesting and cooking greens, and how delicious a tomato, picked and eaten fresh off the plant, can be. I made these lessons from nature an integral part of daily life and wove them into my lower elementary curricula. Why? Because I felt that this was the way I could really contribute to Montessori’s vision of education as a tool for peace. Environmental protection comes from a culture that is connected to the environment. We don’t protect what we don’t love, so I was going to make sure my students loved nature  (and learning of course!)

I have always had a strong connection to gardening and nature, but as I look back, I understand on a deeper level the importance of the connections to nature, wonder, beauty, and food that were built in my childhood. There was never any fuss over eating vegetables in my house because they were homegrown and delicious! I had a connection with my food and the people who grew it, as well as a connection with the wilder aspects of nature that surrounded me. Although I lived in the suburbs, I was able to dig holes, play with sticks, and go camping in nearby wooded areas regularly. These childhood nature experiences were the foundation for my adult desire to create school, backyard, and community children’s gardens and to help adults create experiences that build foundational nature-connections with the children in their lives.

Nature-Study and School Gardens: Yesterday and Today    

Montessori Elementary Montessori teachers educate for peace and the human potential for good.

When I discovered the historic Nature-Study movement, I discovered the educational philosophy, which had been influencing my teaching style and work connecting children and nature for years. This prominent movement sustained mainstream popularity from the late 1800s through the early 1920s and promoted a conservation ethic in children through education and primary experience in and with nature. In America, this movement paralleled Maria Montessori’s work in both time and necessity.

The Nature-Study movement gained huge popularity across American culture and encompassed these various themes:

  • the sentiment of nature versus the science of nature,
  • an integration of gardens in schools,
  • the popularizing of the belief that children specifically, and humans in general, have a natural inherent connection with nature,
  • the promotion of conservation awareness,
  • and the concept of nature’s intertwined relationship with aesthetics and art.

Nature-Study also incorporated the following sub-themes:

  • elementary education reform as the primary outlet for changing society’s view on conservation,
  • technology and industry contrasted with sympathy for nature,
  • and the necessity of primary experience as the key to nature connection.

When I first discovered these themes, I could only think how inherent they are in both Montessori philosophy and method.

The Nature-Study movement was very popular in America from the late 1800s through World War I, but had generally waned from popular culture by the Depression Era. Nature-Study was influenced by the likes of Thoreau, Whitman, and Agassiz and was essentially the first major environmental and conservation movement in the United States as it responded to changes and popular concern stemming from the Industrial Revolution and supported Progressive Era politics. Theodore Roosevelt was an avid supporter of this movement as was Ralph Waldo Emerson, Booker T. Washington, and many other influential progressive naturalists, artists, and educators of the early 1900s including Anna Botsford Comstock and John Dewey.

Now often referred to as biophilia “the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike process.” (Wilson 1)

Montessori Elementary “adults who had significant and positive exposure to nature as children...were more likely to be environmentally sensitive, concerned, and active ”

Similar to Montessorians, advocates of the Nature-Study pedagogy believed that primary nature experience was critical and that it provided children with the resources to help them critically assess popular culture and materialism (Armitage 21). Elementary science first began to take root within the Nature-Study movement and the majority of its proponents promoted Nature-Study as a way to make science and natural history hands-on (Kohlstedt 117). The major difference between modern science education and Nature-Study is that the latter, like the Montessori cultural curricula and the elementary cosmic curriculum, employed a creative child-centered approach focused on incorporating nature across the entire academic curricula and child’s life (like a web) through the use of observation and the arts, rather than the view of natural history being a separate discipline. Unlike traditional modern science education, the desired outcome of Nature-Study was “to teach it for loving” (rather than controlling) nature (Comstock x). This struck me as a valuable parallel to the way Montessori teachers educate for peace and the human potential for good.

During the rapid industrialization of the early 20th Century, so similar in cultural change to today’s rapid computerization, the foremost advocates and educators of Nature-Study promoted the movement as the ultimate qualitative, cross-curricular method for inspiring connection to the natural world during youth, with an outcome that anticipated adults who would care for their natural world. Similar in intention to Montessori’s goal of educating for peace, the Nature-Study advocates educated children on the power of nature for promoting peace. Nature-Study was something that spanned indoor, outdoor, and home learning environments. It was a popular area of study as well as pastime, which I believe, like Montessori philosophy, is one of the strengths. When the child sees that their teachers and family members value a practice, (whether Montessori or Nature-Study) it becomes an integral part of the child’s ethical system.

From a more academic standpoint, Nature-Study documentation provides consistent data indicating modern research’s outcome that “adults who had significant and positive exposure to nature as children...were more likely to be environmentally sensitive, concerned, and active  (Blair 18). It is very intriguing how the rhetoric of today’s environmental and “green” education movements mirror that of a century before. As Montessori teachers and parents, we need not struggle to integrate outdoor learning across curricula and children’s lives. The Nature-Study advocates solved curriculum integration and Maria Montessori corroborated the importance of slowing down to the child’s pace. She observed that children want to “bring their activity into immediate connection with the products of Nature” and when she speaks of “the garden as being what responds to the needs of the child’s spirit” I feel as if I can’t help create children and school gardens fast enough (Montessori, 2006).

These are only a sprout of the many green “thumbs-up” Montessori gives her teachers for incorporating outdoor environments and nature into the life of the child (and adolescent) as much as possible! The combination of historic and modern research across fields of progressive education support that the time for a 21st century Nature-Study has returned and the Montessori classroom and home environments are natural leaders!Montessori Elementary

Whether you have a flowerpot in a sunny window, a full-scale school farm, or access to a bed in a community garden, integrating gardening into Montessori curricula, as well as daily life, is the perfect way to fulfill the child’s developmental needs for connection with nature in a holistic meaningful way. Additionally, it helps cultivate a future society that is connected to and in love with the natural world of which it is inherently part. Let’s get planting!

Coming up next week:

Nature Journaling with Upper and Lower Elementary Children

Kelly Johnson (BFA, MA, AMS 6-9) is an artist, author, Montessorian, and children's garden guide in Neptune Beach, Florida. Through her book Wings, Worms, and Wonder: A Guide for Creatively Integrating Gardening and Outdoor Learning Into Children's Lives, blog, articles, student and teacher workshops, garden consultations, eCourses, and handmade garden accessories, Kelly inspires children and adults to creatively connect with their natural world through gardening and the arts. Contact Kelly at wingswormsandwonder@gmail.com and follow her blog at wingswormsandwonder.com for more Montessori and Nature-Study inspired children’s gardening and nature journaling fun.

 Learn more about integrating Nature-Study across Montessori curricula in Kelly's presentation Peter Rabbit in the Garden: Beatrix Potter & Ecological Literacy at the 2016 AMS Conference or get continuing education hours with her AMS webinar “Using Gardening and Art to Preserve Wonder and Weave Learning Across Montessori Curricula”

Works Cited in this blog:
Armitage, Kevin C. The Nature Study Movement: The Forgotten Popularizer of America’s Conservation Ethic. Lawrence: UP Kansas, 2009. Print.
Blair, Dorothy. “The Child in the Garden: An Evaluative Review of the Benefits of School Gardening.” The Journal of Environmental Education 40.2 (2009): 15-38. Print.
Kohlstedt, Sally Gregory. Teaching Children Science: Hands-on Nature Study in North America, 1890-1930. Chicago: U Chicago P, 2010. Print.
Montessori, Maria. The Discovery of the Child. Madras: Kalakshetra, 2006. Print.
Wilson, Edward O. Biophilia: The Human Bond with Other Species. Cambridge: Harvard UP,      1984. Print.

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