Montessori: On Outdoor Exploration

Children are born natural explorers.

I first encountered the Montessori method of education years ago, but it wasn’t until the birth of our first daughter that I began to actively research it. My husband gifted me several books she had written, and I slowly delved into her theories relating to child development. If you do a quick search for Montessori, I’m sure you will come across plenty of discussions about which materials are best, creative ideas for activity trays to be displayed on low shelves that the child can freely access, pictures of calm and serene classroom settings, and discussions about how best to implement practical life activities in your home or to better understand the Montessori approach to literacy and mathematics.

What is often missing from the general discourse, I’ve found, is Maria Montessori’s call to action to immerse children in nature. In her book The Absorbent Mind, she declares that outdoor exploration should be incorporated into early childhood education not only because of the health benefits it provides the human body but also because it allows for children to discover new fields of interest, while simultaneously learning about the world and their connection to it.

From birth, we have prepared a safe and attractive environment inside our home for our daughter to freely explore, but nothing compares to nature itself. No toy will ever come close to providing the sensorial experience a child encounters outdoors.

We currently live in a city with a wonderful parks system, and although it pales in comparison to the woods in which my husband and I grew up traversing as kids, it’s essential we allow our daughter to become intimately acquainted with nature on her own terms, where she is free to explore at her own pace, to discover the unfettered wonders of nature, and to experience the world with a greater awareness.

There’s no question that time spent outdoors in free, unstructured play results in happier, healthier children. They are calmer, more focused, and better able to regulate their emotions. Numerous studies have shown nature evokes creativity, imagination, and curiosity and refines cognitive thinking skills and problem-solving abilities. It can also help foster a nurturing attitude in children as they become aware of their role as caretaker of the earth and all its creatures, great and small. Additionally, unstructured outdoor play enhances motor coordination and promotes healthy risk-taking, which is integral for a child’s self-esteem.

Our daughter is delighted to have discovered this balance beam made of rocks and challenges herself to walk across it.

One of our goals this year as a family is to spend more time outdoors and begin hiking at least once a week. My husband laughs and says we cannot really call it hiking yet since we barely accomplish a mile on some days. But the distance traveled is an adult’s perspective, not a child’s.

Exploration is the journey itself; there is no “destination” for the child. I often wonder at what point in our lives do we lose the child’s natural ability to be fully present in the moment and take pleasure in such simple joys? Watching our daughter play, though, provides hope that, despite having grown up, we will be able to recapture at least a small part of this essence of childhood.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t come naturally to us anymore; we must live intentionally now and compel ourselves to silence the noisy humdrum percolating through our heads and force our eyes to truly see what is before us, to allow ourselves to feel – truly feel – with all senses engaged, and to reflect on these simple moments that can carry such momentous power: the power to heal, to soothe, to invigorate, and to inspire both gratitude and grace.

Here she exerts maximum effort to move a large stone.

Allowing our daughter the opportunity to lead forces us to slow down, to observe more carefully, to linger more often. In following our child, we are slowly reconnecting with nature as well. Our daughter’s questions prompt us to learn more about the flora and fauna in our area, and who knows where these investigations may take us. Children are naturally curious, and it is our job as parents to support and encourage their innate lust for learning.

She counts several rocks she has discovered along the way.

On our hiking expeditions, Lilly frequently pauses to examine something – moss on a nearby rock or some type of fungus growing on a fallen tree. She loves searching for stones, gathering as many as she can muster and holding them in her arms. She observes whether they are big and heavy or small and light. She counts each one as she adds it to her collection. Occasionally she will come across a stick that has an interesting shape or some other attribute that attracts her attention, and she adopts it for the remainder of our journey.

On our most recent excursion, Lilly noticed several fallen logs lying by the side of the trail. Without hesitation, she climbed up onto one of them. As she raised her body to an erect position, her balance gave way and she began to teeter. Watching her, I could see her confidence begin to waver, the self-doubt in her own abilities rudely forced its way into her mind.

A moment later, she managed to regain her balance and as she extended her arms away from her body, she took the smallest step forward — and then another as her arms moved in conjunction with her legs. Her back straighter now, she took another step forward. No longer was it small and hesitating. She stepped forward confidently, perfectly balanced; a wide smile erupted across her face and she shouted, “I did it!”

A moment of pure joy! What a sense of accomplishment she feels!

Yes, baby girl, you did it! You’re learning to trust in yourself and to stand up to fear, to attempt new things and to overcome failure.

Some may view our hikes as only a simple walk in the woods, a momentary excursion from the real world.

But I know better. Beneath these towering trees, our daughter is refining her character; she is learning concentration, perseverance, and patience among countless other things.

As I travel behind her through these woods, she — self-assured and determined — knowing exactly which way she wants to go, I expect there will be many more trails she will blaze ahead.

All we have to do is follow our child.

Just like an Italian physician-turned-educator by the name of Maria Montessori discovered so many years ago.