From the city farm to the solar system, it’s vital to nurture young children’s inquisitive minds, explains Barbara Isaacs…
This area of learning has always been my favourite in the Montessori early years curriculum because of its integrated approach to learning, its flexibility and its capacity to respond to children’s interest.
Teachers often use the ‘nature’ or ‘interest table’ as a focal point of any new activities in this area and monitor the children’s engagement with what is on offer, removing and adding activities based on their observations.
Observations of caterpillars and their transformation into cocoons, and after much waiting, butterflies is reflected in models of the metamorphosis and pictorial representation placed alongside the caterpillars.
This offers opportunities for matching the models to the pictures. Some children also enjoy photographing the changes seen in the ‘butterfly net’ or drawing them. Sometimes they may be lucky enough to find cocoons in the soil whilst digging in the garden!
I also value the teaching tools, which are so well integrated into the activities, such as the emphasis on first-hand experiences that offer children sensory exploration supported by complementary learning materials.
For example, the planting of bulbs is often followed by exploration of parts of the flower, using either commercially made puzzles or teacher-made materials.
A visit to a city farm is linked to classroom exploration of animal families, where they live on the farm and what they like to eat. Children sort models of animals into family groups then match them to pictures of the buildings in which they sleep.
Similarly, fruit in a fruit basket can be matched with photos of the fruit and images of the fruits cut in half, demonstrating a variety of seeds and pips, leading to opportunities for discussion about how they grow and where they come from.
Included in the Montessori teacher’s toolkit is the opportunity to colour-code activities, which supports the child’s indirect learning as well as their spontaneous engagement with the activities.
For example, all children in the nursery are introduced to the Earth as represented by a globe and on a flat puzzle map, where each one of the continents has been designated a specific colour.
This colour is then used every time the teacher designs and prepares any activities about this continent: a picture which relates to Africa (green on the globe and puzzle map) is mounted on green card and placed in a green folder.
This simple device helps the child to associate these pictures with the continent.
Equally, a collection of objects from Africa is placed into a green box or into a box with a map of the world on the lid where Africa is highlighted in green.
This technique supports the child’s capacity to organise and classify information, as well as enhancing knowledge of the Earth and supporting the idea that the child is a ‘citizen of the world’.
This is an important aspect of the Montessori ethos, which encourages a global and holistic approach to learning about our planet and advocates respect for all life and our environment.
This respect is nurtured through recycling, learning about the importance of the sun and about the whole solar system.
The collections of objects from various continents highlight the similarities and differences in living and cultures typical of these places.
Such a focus on understanding and respect also highlights the importance of differences and our acceptance of them.
It brings forth the importance of human values and respect for all life, as each creature and plant contributes to our wellbeing – from the tiny bacteria and algae in the oceans, and the forests, to the role played by human beings.
Our responsibility for the planet is modelled by the way everyone in the nursery cares for the classroom and the immediate environment. The introduction to the story of evolution using a timeline demonstrates to the child the very long time it has taken for humans to evolve.
All the activities in this area of learning are designed to contribute towards knowledge and understanding of the life on our planet and to promote harmonious, peaceful coexistence.
Montessori saw the child as the herald of peace as well as an agent of change.
This change will only be possible if educators and parents promote human values which so aptly reflect the fundamentals of the British values: democracy, rule of law, individual liberty and respect and tolerance.
Barbara Isaacs is a global Montessori ambassador at Montessori St Nicholas.
Early years activities - The forecast is fun!