Maria Montessori was a great Italian educator in the late 1800s and early 1900s and she revolutionised people's attitude to child education all over the world. She saw children not as powerless weak beings who were dependent on adults and needed their help. Quite the opposite, she was convinced that they were animated by an inner strength that drove them towards independence and a desire to be helped only when necessary.
How many times have we heard children exclaim with a look of deep concentration on their faces: “I can do it by myself!”? And how often have we interfered despite these words, believing that our knowledge was greater than theirs?
All too frequently, children are subjected to adult supremacy and this is why Dr Montessori constantly insisted that a grown-up needed to work on themselves if they hoped to educate a child properly.
This is an extremely important concept when it comes to outdoor play and experiencing nature because if adults want to be sure that children's relationship with nature and play is harmonious and fruitful, they must listen hard, observe well and wholeheartedly accept their abilities and skills.
Maria Montessori wrote a lot about Nature and on how important it was for a child to spend plenty of time outdoors. And her words resonate still today, striking home on a deep level because they help us understand how to establish the right balance between artificial and natural in our children's lives.
We are so used to city living that when we find ourselves in the midst of nature it almost frightens us and we struggle with rain, wind, cold and insects. But of these things are crucial for the equilibrium of our planet and it is just our mind playing tricks on us with phobias and aversions. We must never forget that children are affected by our outlook on life and our attitude, not by our words. So, the pleasure of being at one with nature and enjoying outdoor pursuits grows with “practice”. There is no point talking about the beauty of nature and the joy of playing outside because the words would be empty without the actual experience. We need to instil this concept in children through direct encounters with nature. It really is essential to spend as much time as possible surrounded by nature, whether that means lying beneath a star-studded sky or walking in the rain.
Parents must pay attention to their little city dwellers and make sure that they do not develop a kind of indifference to plants and animals. Outdoor life and open-air play must not be relegated to sporting pursuits which do not necessarily mean that kids are becoming aware of nature.
What sort of activities to suggest
There are lots of different outdoor activities that we can enjoy with our children in order to raise their levels of awareness; the best way is to spend time in the midst of natural beauty - forestland, a pine grove, the seashore or the countryside. But unfortunately we all have such hectic lives that this is seldom possible and we end up having to cram this kind of activity into the weekend. Not for this reason should we be discouraged, though. It should make us all the more determined to spend those brief moments available to us in a park near home or just our back garden.
One outside game that is incredibly popular with kids is playing with water. Children also use water to experience the world around them. Yet water is not something that children would be allowed to handle freely at home; we tend to discourage it because they are likely to “make a mess”. So, what better opportunity is there for children to play with water than outdoors?
One of children's favourite activities is pouring liquid out. It is probably a good idea to demarcate the child's area of activity with a tray perhaps upon which useful tools can be placed. Kids can be allowed to move water from one full basin into another empty one; to help them accomplish this you could provide stuff like a spoon, beakers, bowls and ladles so they can gradually transfer the water from one basin to the other (activity for 15-20 months approximately).
Another good idea would be to get kids to move water from a jug to beaker and then back again (ages 18-20 months approximately), supplying them with a small sponge so that children can mop up by themselves any water than falls onto the floor by mistake, squeezing out the excess water from the sponge into the jug.
As for older children, there is a wonderful game called “sink or float”. Have you heard of it?
All you need is a large receptacle filled with some water, a few objects or materials and a sheet of paper upon which to write their predictions. This is not only an entertaining game that will arouse their curiosity, it will also show us how what amazing connections and suppositions children can make.
Moving around and observing to stimulate body and mind
Another outdoor pursuit the importance of which should never be underestimated is physical exercise. Never take for granted how good it is for them to climb up trees, sit on a leafy bough or walk along a strong branch, or just simply run free. Physical exercise is something that they can be left free to do alone or it can be part of a fun game. All you need is a little imagination!
Exploring and observing their surrounds has always fascinated children. They like to watch insects, discover their names and learn interesting facts, classify leaves and find out which plants they belong to, listen to the sounds of nature and learn to recognise them and to observe the changes in colour, the weather, plant life and animal life.
All too often we spoil children's fun in the midst of nature because we influence them with our fears and fixations, saying things like: “don't touch”, “don’t get dirty”, “do your coat up or you’ll catch cold”, “it's raining, you can’t go out” or “don’t go there, you’ll hurt yourself”. All of these phrases tell the child that danger is imminent and after having heard them again and again, they will believe them and their desire to experience the world through their senses will be stunted. We must allow children to explore the world with us by their sides because their sense of wonder must be nurtured and never let die.