I’m honored to have Kelly Johnson on our blog today. Kelly is a talented Montessori teacher, artist, and author. She is passionate about expanding children’s experiences with nature. If you’re a Montessori professional, you may have heard her speak at a Montessori conference, attended her recent AMS webinar, or read her articles in Montessori Life magazine. It’s also likely that you own her gorgeous book, Wings, Worms, and Wonder. If you don’t already own the book, you can use our affiliate links to get it from Amazon.
Kelly has some great information to share with us today about how to make big nature connections even if you are in a small space. She has also graciously made some of her lovely watercolor journal prompt cards available to Trillium readers for free! Read through to the end to find out how to download them. You’ll love them!
Big Nature Connections in Small Spaces
by Kelly Johnson
Connecting children with nature is often portrayed as this romanticized and grandiose thing, with children peacefully meandering around gorgeous edible school yards and professionally crafted outdoor classrooms, but for the majority of us, these scenarios are not the case. As teachers and parent teachers, we want to bring nature in and take the children out, but our classroom, school, or home environments (as beautifully as they may be prepared) simply may not offer much natural outdoor space. Perhaps the school is located in an urban environment where outside space is a commodity, maybe you are in a suburban rental location where altering the landscaping isn’t an option, or the funding to create and productively run a school garden just isn’t available. For those of you in limited natural space environments, never fear! Less outdoor space may actually help you in the quest to bring nature indoors in all seasons!
In my workshops, when I stress that all you need is a flower pot, a window, and a nature journal to spark wonder and connect children with their natural world, I am not exaggerating. The impressions made from a creative nature experience bursting with the teacher’s enthusiasm should never be underestimated! The key to helping children make successful connections, that keep wonder sparked and build relationships with local nature, rests on consistency. So, how can we incorporate nature into our classrooms on a daily basis?
How Do You Feel About Nature?
First, check in with yourself. We know that Maria Montessori puts huge importance on self preparation. How do you feel about nature today? How did you feel about it when you were the age of your students or children? What did you love most about nature as a child? Do you view your thumb as green? Assess your thoughts and feelings (without judgement) and embrace a beginners mind.
The best thing about trying something new with children is that we all become learners together! You have created a safe and inspiring learning environment for the students, so consider how you will prepare areas of that environment to embark on the journey of blending nature connection and Montessori education! If in doubt, remember what Rachel Carson (1956) said in her landmark work The Sense of Wonder,
“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder…he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in…for the child, and for the parent [teacher] seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel.”
Start simply and don’t overlook the obvious. Examine your botany and practical life curricula. How could you bring more hands on nature to those lessons? Can you incorporate more plant care, seed, and leaf work?
Instead of using tongs and pom poms, for example, use local nature materials the children may be familiar with from the playground or park.
I love three part cards as much as the next Montessori teacher, but when it comes to the botany curriculum, they are sometimes best abandoned for exploring real plants!
Nature Across the Curriculum
The cultural curricula present many opportunities for discovering history and geography through food at all levels. Elementary teachers, look to your economic geography and cosmic curricula. These areas are wellsprings of opportunity for integrating nature, food studies, and cooking. The Elementary level “Who Does the Farmer Need” lessons are a great place to start.
Explore ways that nature can be represented in math, geometry, and language. For example, label nouns from pictures of natural scenes, walk around the school grounds and have the children make lists of adjectives or noun families to describe their observations, write poetry, read stories about naturalists, grow the same plant in 2 different pots with 2 different types of soil and measure their growth rates, grow the same seeds in 2 pots and count, add, and subtract the numbers of sprouts. (Sunflower seeds are good for this because the seeds and sprouts are big for little hands.)
As you reflect on the areas in which you can easily begin to integrate small nature into the classroom, consider Maria Montessori’s observation that “Harmonious interaction–when it exists, as in the child–represents the normal relationship that should exist between the individual and his surroundings. And this relationship is one of love” (Montessori, 1972).
When children are encouraged to attune with nature in ways applicable to their daily life, they become perceptive and sensitive to feeling nature beyond the visual, and can truly connect to, and love, their world and place in that world. Isn’t that a foundation of why we are Montessori teachers – to prepare the children for their world? When we incorporate nature connection, we educate for peace, in this case environmental peace, and prepare children for the safe and healthy future world they want.
The Nature Journal
So how do we tie all the diversity of nature and learning together in our classrooms? That is where the magic of the nature journal enters.
The nature journal is a time-tested way to document and assimilate nature experience and discovery. They’ve been used by some of humankind’s greatest thinkers, artists, naturalists, and scientists. How often are Maria Montessori’s observation journals referred to in her work? All the time, and they are priceless, just as a nature journal full of observations are to a child’s discovery to and connection with her natural world.
The journal is a place to document observations, information, and then assimilate discoveries in creative and scientific ways. Through journaling, patterns and observations discovered in nature that may have otherwise gone unnoticed or overlooked can be tracked and tied across learning. This type of pattern work enhances students’ connections to their local and wider natural world, while also serving the teacher as a fantastic anecdotal assessment tool. A single nature journal for each child can be used across all the subjects and I recommend be taken on most field trips. The journaling practice prompts children at each level make increasingly in depth discoveries.
How to Use a Nature Journal
Here are a few examples of ways to incorporate nature journals across classroom learning in all weather and seasons. Each of these ideas can be modified appropriately. 3 and 4 year olds will need 1 on 1 assistance learning how to workin a journal with an adult, and will document using short prompts and mostly pictures. It is worth the effort to get young children used to the idea that a nature journal is a normal part of life and weave the practice of nature journaling into the fabric of your school.
Exploring leaf margins
Children of all ages really enjoy having a place to draw what they see outside and providing them with a consistent place to record their feelings about their natural world is a huge start toward building a life long love of nature and validating the importance of our nature in daily life.
- Grow a pot with a flower and have the children practice writing words or sentences about it in their journals using whatever grammar or language mechanics you are working with at the time. Also provide a botany research work on that flower.
- Have children look out the window each day for a week and document weather observations and predictions in their journals. Elementary students can then, create a chart using fractions to relay how often their predictions were correct based off their observations. Tie this into your functional geography cloud lessons.
- Write seasonal stories or poetry and illustrate them based on observations made out the window, or within your outdoor environment, if you have one, using journal prompts. Young children can dictate stories about their prompted drawings.
- Winter is a wonderful time to start a nature journal because it encourages us to connect with the outside when we may otherwise not. Study seasonal nature holidays and festivals from around the world and have the children celebrate them. Winter solstice is just around the corner and is a very concrete way to study day and night, seasonal changes, time and how humans have responded to seasonal shifts. Have the children journal about how their lives are different in winter and summer based on observations made when days are naturally shorter and longer.
- Use the multiyear class grouping to track seasonal observations of a specific element, such as a tree, year to year in their journals. Get to know the local environment more consciously, by tracking: dates when leaves fall, birds migrate, flowers appear, rain is more plentiful, or where the sun and shadows fall. Then, students in their final year of a cycle create a school yard field guide or flyer to assimilate the pattern tracking. Only a window with a consistent view is needed for this!
We went out to examine the Red Bud trees outside our school and looked at how they changed during the seasons. In this video, we’re playing a Simon Says game of touching different parts of the tree.
- In the Elementary class, when teaching about the first life on the timeline, have a smoothie party and include blue green algae bought at the natural food store in the smoothie, you will be surprised how many children love it! Look at the blue green algae under a microscope and have them draw pictures of the cells in their journals.
- When you work on South American continent maps, grow sweet potatoes in jars in the window. Track their growth in the journals and then make a sweet potato recipe to share at snack
or grow carrot tops any time of year!
The important thing is that you keep tying nature inspired lessons and experiences back to what you love most about nature. If you love whales, adopt and study everything through the lens of the whale. If you want to learn to grow lettuce, get a window box, grow lettuce and make salads. If you love trees, study the leaves and lore of the tree species in the neighborhood. If you love insects, bring as many into class as you can and see the world through a bugs eye view.
When you focus on what you love about the wild wonderful diversity in nature, ways to tie that wonder into each aspect of the work already on the shelf will readily present themselves. Start simply and embrace nature journalling as the practice that weaves nature into the children’s lives.
Nature Journal Prompts (free printable)
To set you up for success on your journaling journey, I am offering the readers of the Trillium Montessori blog a free download of my new Nature Journal Prompt Cards!
To learn more about nature journaling with children, check out the posts from the Wings, Worms, and Wonder blog
Fall Nature Journaling – inspiration for all season journaling
Nature’s Color Wheel – free lesson plan
Writing with your Senses – free lesson plan
About Kelly Johnson
Kelly Johnson is an artist, author, Montessori teacher, and children’s garden educator in Neptune Beach, Florida. Through her books, workshops, consultations, blog, and handmade garden accessories Kelly inspires children and adults to connect with their natural world through gardening and the arts.
Where to find Kelly:
Email her: firstname.lastname@example.org
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